She sits calmly in the living room amidst the noise of the renovation work going on in a part of her large bungalow, aptly named Nepathya (backstage). But Nadira Zaheer Babbar can hardly be relaxed. Earlier in the afternoon, she had a meeting with a publisher for another volume of her plays. Her group Ekjute’s new play Khajoor Mein Atakaa (directed by longtime associate Hanif Patni) is due to open in a few days, while she is already working on two plays she is writing. Besides keeping track of the household and her actor-children, Aarya and Juuhi, she loves to spend time with her grandson.
Nadira Babbar started writing plays because at some point in Ekjute’s journey, she found herself looking for new material. She wrote a one-man show, Dayashankar Ki Dairy , and cast Ashish Vidyarthi, followed it up with another solo, Sakubai , starring Gujarati stage doyenne, Sarita Joshi (which are still being performed a decade later), and then her pen never stopped. She has written over 15 plays so far, and directed a lot more, from the time Ekjute was established in 1981 in Delhi. She moved with husband Raj Babbar to Mumbai in 1988, and since then the group has been active staging plays in Mumbai and travelling extensively.
One of them, on Indian mythology is still a work in progress, but she is willing to talk about the other — a play on the life of actor-filmmaker Satish Kaushik. “When we came to Mumbai, other fellow National School of Drama graduates followed soon after. Among them were Satish Kaushik, Raja Bundela, Rajesh Puri and Alok Nath, but Satish has maintained a closeness with us. His life has had interesting ups and downs, right from his growing up in Karol Bagh, to overcoming the drawback of his looks with his talent, and making a success of his career. I am not interested in his personal life, what is important is the positivity, the goodness of a human being.”
She has written a play, Meri Maa Ke Haath , about the life and times of her parents, the eminent writers Razia and Sajjad Zaheer, in which she starred, and it was, one of the few plays directed by someone from outside the group — Makrand Deshpande. “I couldn’t direct myself, and it is difficult for me to surrender to another director, so I called him. He said, ‘Direct for Ekjute? Why?’ I said I want to act in this play, that’s why. And he said zaroor karunga (I will definitely do it). I have always admired his work, but the group was a bit wary, because he has such a different personality. He turned out to be so straightforward, warm. loving and down-to-earth. Another director I would like to work with is Feroz Abbas Khan, but he is on another level. Whenever somebody else is directing a play for our group, I try to stay away as much as possible.”
Has she not considered a play about her own life with Raj Babbar? “Who would I cast as Raj?” she wonders, and then adds, “What we went through in our marriage is no longer important. I never dwell on it. What matters more is that I read, write, think, direct plays and meet inspiring people.”
Nadira has also written several plays on social issues, and rues the fact that today, audiences want to see only comedies, “Theatre has to contribute in some way or the other to happenings in society, otherwise, what’s the point of doing plays?”
The plays she performed in, like Sandhya Chhaya and Begum Jaan were acclaimed, but she says that if she regrets something it is her acting getting neglected. “It is my biggest strength, but I was so busy managing the group, I could not worry about which role to give myself. Comedy is my forte, and I never got a chance to do one. I feel bad I did not act in Sakubai. It was just the second play that I had written, and I did not have the confidence to direct as well as act. Now I wish to write a play in which I can act too.”
Of the plays she has written, she is fond of Yeh Ja Bombay Meri Jaan about film aspirants (or strugglers as they are known) , however, Sakubai, about the caustic observations of a Mumbai bai (domestic worker) about her employers, remains one of her most popular plays. It has been performed by other actresses, mostly, as she says, without her permission…people do my plays without informing me, so they don’t have to pay! “Only one of them in Delhi (Monika Misra) actually had the courtesy of inviting me,” she says
Ekjute tours a lot with their plays. “ The audience in small towns is growing, the auditoriums are also getting better — the rest rooms are still horrible though — the organisers should improve the facilities. They treat theatre people callously. We don’t demand five star accommodation or banquets, but at least give decent rooms and edible food, show that much respect. We have to fight all the time. Recently, they had booked us on a 2.30 a.m. train, in the height of winter, and did not even provide transport, The group had to get into three autos with the luggage. This sort of treatment does not augur well for theatre and causes anger and resentment in the group.”
She rejects most film and television offers that come her way. “My group wants to do a horror play and I even wrote one. But I am a bit doubtful of how it will look — horror works well in cinema with all those special effects. But sometimes we also feel like having some fun; we can’t be doing serious, intellectual stuff all the time.”