“I feel like a zero,” says Ashwath Bhatt cheerfully as he watches a packed hall empty out after a show. The Zero Story, his new play, opened in Delhi a few weeks ago and Bhatt has been taking it across the city — staging it for children who live in slums and those who drive up in BMWs to private venues.
Across the spectrum, the response has been similar. The story of a family of numbers in which the youngest boy, Zero, feels worthless around his siblings, One to Nine, has struck an emotional chord with audiences. Children sing and adults cry. “Now I have realised, after so many years, I like to do underdog stories,” says Bhatt.
He has pioneered theatre clowning in India, a form of physical theatre in which actors are clowns wearing red noses that Bhatt calls “the smallest and most powerful mask in the world”. All roles in The Zero Story, for instance, are played by clowns. Clowning plays out age-old human conflicts but smoothens the edges and wraps these in a clingfilm of hope. Presented realistically, The Zero Story would have been a study of child abuse; with clowning, it becomes a layered look at good, evil, fear and forgiveness.
“When One bhaiyya, the eldest brother and biggest bully in the family, errs, it is easy to forgive him because he is a clown,” says Bhatt, who learned clowning at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, which he visited after graduating from the National School of Drama. “The red nose makes every character fragile in his own way and the entire space becomes vulnerable,” he says.
“Just as in real life,” he might want to add. A Kashmiri Pandit who fled Srinagar in January 1990, during the exodus of minorities, Bhatt recently revisited the Valley and met the men who had burnt down his house, and ate with them. “Why do we love clowns? You see your fragilities in them. Clowns teach you to forgive or forget,” he says.
Bhatt is also making a documentary called Other Half of Paradise in which his own story is juxtaposed with that his friend who stayed back. “Both of us survived, but how? Lots of times, Kashmir conversations are about homeland, India, Pakistan, army, Geelani but where are the human stories? What happened to the woman who was out on the road with only warm clothes and her children? How did they cope with the heat of Jammu and Delhi?” he asks. He is also devising a play, Exile, which will have only monologues. “An actor will perform it with a real person together on stage. My mother, for example, will start a story and the actor will take over,” he says.
His signs off emails with the line “Peace lies in forgiveness” but Bhatt has taken a long time to get to this place of tranquility. “A lot of strange things have happened to me. Take my acting career, for instance,” he says. Bhat is a diabolical separatist in Haider, and a shadowy bodyguard-cum-restaurant owner called Junaid Bhai in Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Coming up is the role of a CEO opposite Ranvir Shorey in Moh Maya Money. There is also the character of a suave and dangerous ISI officer in Kabir Khan’s Phantom. “Am I the only person left who can play a terrorist?” he asks but with wonder, not anger. Like all theatre people, Bhat knows about divine ironies. “Clowns teach you to find humour in dark places,” he says, “What theatre did was make me see things from the other guy’s point of view.”
For him The Zero Story is not about numbers. He is like One bhaiyya. (“I am dominating and driven but I also love the actors.”) and he is like Angel, who tells Zero about his hidden powers (“A lot of boys and girls come to me to learn and I train them hard”) but, most of all, he says he is like Zero, “the boy who is nothing and yet is the strongest of them all.”