What drew you to theatre and to act in your first play, Ek Mulaqaat (2015)?
Its script, and the chance to play poet-novelist Amrita Pritam. The script is more of a conversation between Sahir Ludhianvi and Amritaji — two persons who admired each other but chose never to have an affair. The play is, at once, intense, funny, naughty and charming.
Last weekend was the 75th show of the play. How has the experience been?
The play has changed so much from the time we started in 2015. Every time we perform, something or the other changes. After my co-actor Shekhar Suman and director Saif Hyder Hasan heard me hum Pritam’s Aaj aakhan warish Shah nu once, they insisted that I sing during the show. So, I do that now. I have also recorded two songs which play in the background.
Take us through your friendship with Amrita Pritam.
It was actually Basu Bhattacharya, who introduced me to her. Once, while attending the international film festival in Delhi, he took me to meet her at her Hauz Khas home. At the time, he was planning to cast me in a film based on Amritaji’s novella Naagmani. After that, every time I was in Delhi, I used to visit her. In fact, she was responsible for getting my first book of poems, Lamha Lamha, published in 1981.
How did that happen?
During one of our meetings, Amritaji asked me to read something to her. I read some of my writings in Hindustani. Next time when I visited her, her publisher was there. She introduced me to him saying, ‘Her writing is beautiful and her imagery is impressive’. I had written around 40 poems by then. The publisher asked me for about 70 to finally bring them out as a book.
It’s interesting that you chose Hindustani for your first book of poems.
I was writing in English since my school days in Amritsar. But after my family moved to New York, where I was pursuing a BFA from Hunter College, I wondered why I was not writing in my zabaan. I started reading Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Mirza Ghalib. I was fascinated with Urdu ever since I was a child. So, while I was still living in New York, I started penning down my thoughts in Hindustani.
When you joined the film industry in the late ’70s, did writing take a backseat?
After Lamha Lamha was released, writing took a backseat. However, in the early ’90s, I was painting rigorously, almost compulsively. Alongside, I took up writing again — it was a disturbing phase in my personal life, so there was a need to express myself. After that, I carried on painting and writing even as I acted in two or three movies a year. My second book of poems, Black Wind and Other Poems (2004) and The Mad Tibetan (2011), an anthology of short stories, came after this phase.
In the ’80s, you maintained a balance between parallel and popular movies as an actor.
I was lucky to be able to choose and create that balance. I loved the cinema of Basu Chatterjee, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Basu Bhattacharya. Their movies were close to life, yet heart-warming. I was offered a lot of commercial movies also where your personality was not defined. You can talk about Sandhya, my character in Katha (1983). Or, Neha of Chashme Buddoor (1981) and Sadhvi in Panchvati (1986). Even when I played a doormat like Kamla in 1984, the movie talked about the times we lived in, when you could go to Madhya Pradesh and buy a woman for Rs 270. I wanted to belong to the films which were trying to say something.
Would you say the ’80s was your best career phase?
We were the stars of the ’80s. Chashme Buddoor defined the ’80s along with other movies such as Main Zinda Hoon (1988) and Ankahee (1985). I did the best I could with what I was offered.
You studied in America, but straddled rural, semi-urban and urban characters with equal ease.
I had finished my schooling in India before I moved there. One carries impressions of one’s childhood — there was always something or the other in my memory which I could fall back on. However, there were a few scenes and characters for which I had to prepare.
While playing the lead role in the 1985 film Kamla, was it your memory you banked on?
There is no exact memory. I could not think of someone like her to essay the role. Director Jagmohan Mundhra told me that he was casting me as Kamla because he wanted to make use of my eyes, which would express without me delivering any lines. I thought of my adolescent years, during which I was very introverted and non-communicative. I used to feel a lot but not vocalise it. So, I revisited that phase of my life. That apart, I had to work out her stance and speech as she speaks a certain dialect in the film.
Making you the deeply patriarchal Ammaji in NH10 was a brilliant anti-casting move.
It was such a challenge since she is the main villain. I could have gone for loud acting but I was keen to keep it low-key, venomous and internalise it more. I got my first Screen Award with that, can you imagine? (laughs)
You dabble so much in theatre and writing, how much time do you have for acting in movies?
I will never disconnect myself from acting. My whole identity is that of an actor. But sometimes, I feel as a writer I’m not taken seriously. People tend to say, “Haan, woh likhti bhi hai (she also writes)”. That’s not how I see myself.