The lead role in Mouse could be an actor’s nightmare. He has to stand around on stage wearing the mask of a mouse and not utter a single word. When he was offered the role, Bikram Ghosh liked it immediately. Ghosh, better known in the theatre circuit as Momo, is today counted among the finest actors of Delhi’s English-language theatre, but for those who have watched Mouse, he is a rodent with resolve. “It is strange that I keep hearing about Mouse although we did only five shows, and that was in 2008. Every now and then, we meet somebody who says they really loved Mouse and we feel a connection with the person because Mouse is at the heart of what we want to do in theatre,” says Ghosh, 30. The play will be staged at India Habitat Centre today and tomorrow, for the first time since its debut year.
“Weird how it turned out, it wasn’t planned that way. Sometimes when you’re lucky, accidents are miraculous,” says playwright-director Neel Chaudhuri. With Ghosh and co-actor Kriti Pant, Chaudhuri forms the core of Tadpole Repertory, a group that is identified with cerebral and stylised plays, such as last year’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale as a promenade piece. The trio was mere beginners at the time and Mouse would become the first of a trilogy about actors and acting. “I look at it as a source play,” adds Chaudhuri, “The hope of Mouse is the feeling that if we do this play, everything will be alright. We may never do a play again, we may never work again but we can do this. Let’s rehearse it, let’s present it.”
Mouse is a play within a play in which a director (Pant) and her actor, called Mouse (Ghosh), are going through a final rehearsal. She is full of instructions while he, inside his mask, is silent. She is high-strung, he is awkward. She has ideas, he has a paunch. She is derided by the theatre circuit for her Edga Allen Poe-esque play, he for having the acting talent of a snowman. “Mouse throws a torchlight on the insecurities of the artist – the smallest, weakest artist. It is a play that observes our little ambitions in their most monstrous proportions,” says Chaudhuri and Ghosh adds, “The takeaway from Mouse is that you may be terrible at what you do but if you want to do it, that should set you free.”
Before he joined theatre, Ghosh used to have eight piercings and jewellery around his arms, neck and ankles. Now, he says that he expresses himself on stage. In Mouse, for instance, Ghosh, with his expressive face hidden behind the mask, acts with the rest of body—slouching, sagging and surrendering —and gives to the audience a story that is their own. “Silence is the wonderful thing about Mouse. When he drops his shoulders, people see something, they see it in their heads. ‘The word is there, they have to read it’, in (American playwright) David Mamet’s language,” says Ghosh.
Off stage, he choreographs his conversations with gestures, clapping his hands, jabbing the air and swiftly changing positions, postures and seats. It’s like watching a tree in a storm. In character, Ghosh looks ready to implode. He played the tortured King Leontes, suspicious that his wife was cheating on him, in The Winter’s Tale, the obsessive Homi H in Ich Bin Fassbinder, who believes that all would be well with his life and work if he could become like German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and an assortment of weighty characters in Taramandal, among others. Unlike Pant, his frequent co-star, who radiates a quiet force, Ghosh charges the air around him with a dark energy.
“This is so bizarre, my first love is comedy,” he says with a laugh. “Comedy is technically the most difficult things. You have to keep timing, tone of voice, how much to give and how much to hold back in mind,” adds the actor. He points out that he has a sketch comedy show called NDLS. As he goes through the NDLS skits, it is evident that the plays Ghosh has created are more grim than ROFLworthy. One of these is called Nana Nani Walk in the Park, about two youngsters who take their grandparents to the park on leashes. “It is about neglect. The old people loved this bit and they guffawed, the young people did not. We know the society we come from and our biases but if we are arguing about something, it shows that we are getting somewhere. Not everything is funny, some of it is dramatic,” he explains. Ghosh is refreshingly unconcerned about being politically incorrect—NDLS pokes fun at pregnant women, handicapped people, the elderly and the asthmatic. Nothing is too holy or high ground. “We just don’t want anybody to expect anything lofty,” he says. “In fact, in Kolkata I would do more of comedy and I though the serious, dramatic stuff was not for me”.
Belonging to a culturally active family from West Bengal – his grandfather was an amateur actor in Satyajit Ray films and played roles such as the lecherous landlord in Aparajito and the seth in Abhijan among others, his father was an amateur theatre actor, and his mother’s family was from Shantiniketan, a cultural hub founded by Rabindranath Tagore—Ghosh was aware of the arts but never pushed into it. “One of my grandfather’s dadas was Gyan Prakash Ghosh, who set up the Kolkata gharana. The family was very involved in classical music and the patriarchs established themselves as music instrument makers. Both sides were very involved with Bangla culture but they never pushed me into it or said read this or look at that,” says Ghosh. He honed his skills in school plays, summer workshops at Utpal Dutt Foundation, amateur theatre and watching productions such as Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Comedy of Errors and Polly Teale’s Jane Eyre,(which he thought was fantastic) and Theatre Slava’s Cassandra which he went for twice though he did not understand the language, when these toured Kolkata.
“I have never had a formal training in acting and, till a few years ago, I felt that I should know more, I should know how to practice better, should go somewhere and learn how to act. Then, a number of things happened, one being that Neel, Kriti and I would begin by accepting that we don’t know anything. This one of the reasons we gelled. We didn’t have rules that we would obey, we’d do something and then decide what rules are. I received a lot of insight working that way,” he says. “I also felt that a lot of people who come out of drama school have no imagination, rather they are trying to fit their imagination to certain tropes. They make theatre to have an idea verified. It’s like in Mouse, when Maya Puri says that some people come to a play to have a preconception verified.”
Once, he committed himself to working in theatre, Ghosh began to read and his conversations refer to Peter Sellars, Peter Brook, Mamet and Yoshi Oida. “My father gave me a bunch of books and his father had given him some books but he did not read his father’s books and did not agree with his books and I definitely don’t agree with my father’s books. Yet, wise people say things and though, not everything will resonate with you, some things that will. The reason I stopped wanting to go to theatre school is because, at some point, I realised that nobody can teach me how to act,” he says.
He adds that one of the books he has taken to heart is Brook’s The Empty Space, in which he asks, “How does an actor spend his days?” “He may be in meetings, in a cafe, with an agent, playing tennis but is he doing what he should be doing, which is he should not be standing still as an artist which means, he should not be standing still as a human being. When it comes to career and development, they are two different things. When it comes to a career, you acquit yourself well and then somebody will want you to do the same thing whereas what you have to do is find yourself to go beyond your experience and experience something else,” he says.
While most actors swear by Method, Ghosh declares that he doesn’t try to emotionally connect with his characters. “I don’t plot things emotionally. At one time in Mouse when Maya is shouting at me, I have these really slow turns. All I have to think is ‘turn really slowly’, I don’t think ‘turn being angry’,” he explains.
He starts every play and a new part with the assumption that he knows nothing of the character or about anything. “Neel tells us that when we are reading text, we should read it flat, and learn our lines flat. I don’t have personality, the lines don’t have personality. I read it bare and I read it flat and then I start paying attention to punctuations. I look at learning lines as a physical skill. I used to be very intellectual, I used to think about the lines and meanings, I don’t do that any more.” Then, he makes an explosive statement: “There is no such thing as character, the character doesn’t even exist, there are only words on a page and you have to commit these words to memory and the actions to your body and then at the right time and the right place, do it again. This is what David Mamet says.”
And out comes one of his many anecdotes from books read. “Yoshi Oida says that at a kabuki performance, he saw this actor playing an old woman – and all actors are men—coming out to confront the murderer of her son. He was completely blown away just by the way the actor walked for the backstage to the stage because the weight of the grief, the physically of the old woman was absolutely exquisite. He couldn’t believe it wasn’t an old woman. Impressed, he went backstage to congratulate the woman and said, ‘You have to tell me what was going through your mind, how did you create this character?’ And the actor said, ‘Well, she is an old woman so I had to take smaller steps and stop at the third tree’,” he says.
Shades of this can be seen when he performs Mouse. Ghosh says that he doesn’t have anything to say, only have things to do in the play. “When I stand still at the beginning of the play, it is different from when I stand still later, after I have failed at my dance and am being shouted at. Standing still before means that I am getting ready to do something, standing still later means that I have given something up,” he adds. “Whatever I am doing on stage is not about me, it is about whoever has come to watch. David Mamet says is reading is the most powerful form of storytelling because the author has arranged the words on the page but you are doing all the characters in your head, you are villain, the hero, all of them. The form of storytelling is so powerful because it happens inside you.”
As an actor, he says, he already has a lot of stuff to deal with already “so it’s pointless to super-add all the experiences the characters may have had because these characters never existed in the first place”. “The actor has other concern, speak up loudly and clearly while so many hundreds of eyes are staring at him or her. The actor has to do this without manipulating the audience’s feelings because that is emotional blackmail, that is not what we should be doing. The actor has to work without any hope of being understood and maybe he doesn’t understand the lines he is speaking himself but the script says this is the moment you say these lines. Don’t try to help the meaning, don’t hold anything, don’t add anything, don’t hide anything. Do you have the courage to do this? If you can do that, then you can act. That’s what David Mamet says I completely agree with him,” he says.
Emotions, he insists, are no aid. “How can you trust emotional memory? Muscle memory is something you can rely on. All the work we did for The Winter’s Tale under Anirudh Nair’s direction was physical work, he said ‘put all all these gestures into your body’,” he says and then pulls out two black-covered, spiral bound scripts of Mouse. He reads the stage directions: “Mouse gets charged up, almost like a boxer before a big fight. He sweeps the chair off centre stage. We did a certain amount of physical work when we ‘workshopped’ around Mouse and asked ourselves questions like where is the centre of gravity of the body, does Mouse walk with a heavy step and so on,” he says.
A look at the blank first pages of both scripts reveals how Ghosh has changed as an actor. In the older script, he has scribbled notes such as “Trip and fall at the castanets”, “take yourself seriously as an actor” and “evoke all the bad actors you know”. “These are the things I have to keep in mind when I go to play Mouse,” he says. The page in the new script has practically empty except for a scribble that says “Mouse is plump, asthmatic and has trouble with his knees” and “centre of gravity”. “There is one more point I have not mentioned, that is, he is heavy but his body is soft. That’s all I keep in mind when I go to play a character,” he says, “Because, as David Mamet says and I completely believe, is that nobody comes to a play to a theatre to watch an actor indulge in his emotions, they come to fee their own emotions. Mouse is supposed to happen inside you, it is silent for a reason.”
While he gushes about Mouse – “Mouse is my favourite, it means everything to me” — and lights up while discussing his character Naresh in Taramandal — “he is an absolute sly bastard”—Ghosh is surprisingly silent for a while before talking about the more successful The Winter’s Tale or the acute Ich Bin Fassbinder. “In both these, I play extremely tortured characters and I don’t like playing these roles because it affects me. After the last show of Ich Bin Fassbinder, I caused damage to a co-actor’s car because I was driving carelessly. I remember being physically in a bit of a state because Fassbinder ends in a catastrophe,” he says. “The acting of it shook me up; similarly, working on The Winter’s Tale tormented me. Rehearsals, for instance, when we do just the first half when Leontes loses his wife because he is suspects her of infidelity and tries her in court, and not the second part where he is reunited with her are really bad for me because I need the last, redemptive moment when his wife’s statue comes alive. If I don’t have that, I feel a little strange about that,” he says.
Once, the crew rehearsed the second half first because it was priority and Ghosh remembers having “the worst day ever, I spent the whole day feeling worthless and very bad about myself as if I were a bad person. I knew that this was just the effect of what’s happening but I could not control it.” “Acting is a very physical process and I am told that emotions are a byproduct of the process and we are not supposed to pay attention to it. But, it is difficult to keep our minds clear,” he says. “It gets easier with every performance of The Winter’s Tale,” he adds.
His holy grail of acting comes from Yoshi Oida who says, “There is a gesture in Noh theatre called ‘Look at the Moon’ which the actor makes with his fingertips. The first type of actor who will perform that gesture and the audience will be absolutely amazed by the grace of his movement, his timing, his precision and its beauty. The audience will thing ‘what an amazing experience to have witnessed this happened’. The second type of actor will perform the gesture and the audience will look at the moon. I much prefer the second type of actor.”
Below his thumb is a tattoo that resembles a rose or a snail but is the symbol of Capricorn, though Ghosh doesn’t believe in star signs. “It commemorates the time I went chasing after this girl to another city because I had this ‘feeling inside me’. It didn’t work out but I still had a lot of money from a holiday I was going to go on and I spent it on a tattoo. She believed in star signs and I wanted to brand myself to say that yes, I did that, I actually went chasing after somebody. I wanted to remember that, not that I haven’t done that kind of thing again. This is a lesson that acting, at least, my acting has taught me. Emotions are not important, how you feel doesn’t matter, what you do is all,” he says, “I got the tattoo before I thought I would be an actor and now, all my characters have the tattoo”.