A heritage performance

Mohammad Ali Baig is set to bring two plays to the city this weekend — Quli: Dilon Ka Shahzaada and Spaces

Theatre personality Mohammad Ali Baig remembers the smell of newly printed tickets as if it were yesterday. “I was addicted to that fragrance,” says Baig, the son of theatre doyen Qadir Ali Baig. He recalls slipping into green rooms as a child to, “watch beautiful aunties get dressed up,” and dinner (and breakfast) conversations centred around theatre. But it was too intense for him, says the country’s youngest Padma awardee in theatre, who preferred manning the box office. He used to feel terrible when tickets disappeared though, he admits, with a laugh. “I would forget that it was my objective,” says the actor, who is in the city to perform two of his plays over the weekend.

There is Quli: Dilon ka Shahzaada, which will be staged at the InterContinental Chennai Mahabalipuram resort on July 29, based on the story of poet-king Quli Qutub Shah and his beloved, danseuse Bhagmati. The heritage-tinted spectacle embellished with shadow dance, qawwali, magnificent costumes and dramatic sets is markedly different from Sunday’s play, Spaces, which will be staged at the Crowne Plaza, Adyar on July 30. Based on a short story penned by his wife, Noor, Spaces that premiered in 2015 in London explores identity, belonging, lineage and memory.

A different tryst

His father had wanted to launch him with the play Tughlaq, he says, nostalgia colouring his voice. Although he was barely out of school, he would be playing Ratan Singh, “a very difficult character, but Baba had wanted me to do that role,” he says. But when his father passed away mid-production, he decided that theatre was not his cup of tea. “I hero worshipped him and didn’t want to be launched by anyone else,” he says.

So he graduated and joined print advertising for a couple of years. “Someone introduced me to an ad agency that was working on the Rajiv Gandhi campaign. They picked up what I used to design in college and liked it,” says Baig, who then moved to ad films where he, “made 400 films in seven countries for almost every product category.”

It was a good life, jet setting around the world, “you are on beaches one day, snow-capped mountains on the other” and rubbing shoulders with the who’s-who of the advertising including Shyam Benegal and Shekhar Kapur, he says. But after a point, it wasn’t enough. “However glamorous it may seem, at the end of the day, you are still selling a product or service,” he says wryly.

Besides legacy, like a burr, was hard to shake off. In 2005, to mark his father’s 20th death anniversary, the Ministry of I&PR wanted to set up a theatre foundation in the name of the late Qadir Ali Baig. “They wanted my mother and me to spearhead it,” he says, adding that he launched himself headfirst into it.

Back to theatre

It started with Taramati-The Legend of an Artiste, a spectacular production which saw him bringing horses and camels onstage, atop a 250-year-old hillock monument. “I couldn’t keep doing productions like that,” he says, admitting that while his productions continue to be dramatic, complex and heavily detailed, they are more now more adaptable.

His productions have travelled all over the country and world, performing on large stages steeped in heritage, redefining and enriching a theatre scene that he believes should be “absolutely professional”. And although much has changed since his father’s time, one thing remains the same. Like his father, “I always choose stories that are universal, that transcend all boundaries: religious, cultural, geographical,” he says.

And yes, while he still likes the smell of tickets, he is no longer so loath to part with them. “I now want more tickets to disappear from the box office,” he grins. “Thankfully that continues to happen.”

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Printable version | Apr 1, 2020 3:17:18 PM |

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