It was while hanging out at a small coffee house in Lucknow, during the shoot of Shyam Benegal’s Junoon (1978), that actors Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani came up with the idea of producing plays. On July 29, 1979, they opened Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre. In the 40 years and 42 productions since, many artistes, including Tom Alter, Kenny Desai and Akash Khurana, have been associated with the group that came to be known as Motley. After producing Western plays such as the acclaimed Zoo Story (1980), Arms and The Man (1984), Androcles and the Lion (1997), the last two decades has seen plays by them in Hindustani, including Ismat Apa Ke Naam (2000) and Gadhha Aur Gaddha (2014). Actor-director couple Ratna Pathak Shah, 62, and Naseeruddin Shah, 68, the formidable force behind Motley, talk about the journey so far:
Does Motley turning 40 feel like a landmark?
Naseeruddin Shah: It’s gone by so fast — a greatly enjoyable four decades. I don’t deny that applause and houseful shows feel good. But the joy for us is in the preparation, putting together a play and keeping it alive.
What is it about doing theatre that makes it a joyous experience?
NS: We have been lucky to keep our plays alive for 10-20 years. To be able to explore a play for long gives me great joy. That apart, I enjoy rehearsals. I try to make them fun for the actors as well. Of course, they get shouted at, but that’s part of the game. Also, I have to say that I shout much less than I used to 10 years ago. That was very immature of me.
Ratna Pathak Shah: It (shouting) usually stems from not knowing what you want. The more you know what you want and how to get it, the more comfortable you become.
NS: There was also a hangover of Ebrahim Alkazi and Satyadev Dubey. Both of them loved to get hysterical with actors. This is memetics, not genetics (laughs). You can’t handle every actor in the same way. That’s probably what Alfred Hitchcock meant when he said ‘actors are cattle’. You have to know how to handle cattle. Otherwise, the cattle will trample you. I have learnt that now.
What efforts have gone into keeping these plays alive?
NS: Dealing with the team, especially when we have more than 10-12 people, has required effort. You can’t ask them to stop doing a movie or television series. So, the cast keeps changing. It’s not fun to prepare a new actor from scratch when the rest of the team is ready. Otherwise, rehearsals are a joy.
RPS: To me, actors getting the focus of the script and conveying its idea across is the key.
NS: I believed in spectacles that Alkazi used to do, was dazzled by the Broadway productions I watched, but I realised that we don’t have the resources and infrastructure to do that kind of theatre. Also, perhaps, I don’t have the ability to stage something like that. So, it’s futile to dream of doing that kind of production.
Did your increasing emphasis on exploring the text coincide with your working on Ismat Apa Ke Naam, one of your most successful productions?
NS: I love listening to well-spoken words in any language. I love the peculiar rhythm of Japanese, of spoken French or German even though I can’t understand it. If there’s a gift I have, it’s the ability to hear sharply and distinguish between good and bad sounds. Unfortunately, this doesn’t extend to music (laughs). Alkazi did not give as much emphasis to ucchaaran (pronunciation) as Dubey did.
RPS: I used to be in and out of National School of Drama’s campus from the time I was a kid as my aunt (Shanta Gandhi) used to teach there (Pathak Shah graduated from NSD in 1981). So, I had seen almost all their productions. The beautiful costumes, the spectacular sets, the fantastic lighting and yet, I couldn’t understand what the play was trying to say.
NS: I have never seen NSD actors enjoying themselves. They acted as if they were doing an unpleasant 9-to-5 job.
Is Julius Caesar’s (1992) short run and financial loss Motley’s biggest disappointment?
NS: It was a blunder. A bigger blunder was The Odd Couple (1988). Most of its shows had a poor turnout and we didn’t know how to promote it.
RPS: None of them can be a blunder, you learn a lot out of them. The production of Julius Caesar was ambitious. Eventually, we managed a decent production. What was wrong was the lack of performances.
NS: It comes down to speech. We don’t have actors who can handle a Shakespearean text.
Why is speech so important to you?
RPS: I’m a prime example of a person who spoke poorly, learnt the value of good speech, and, today, derives great joy from it. By good speech, I mean expressive and appropriate speech, not just good pronunciation.
NS: It’s the meat, as Dubey used to say, Iska arth nikalo (derive its meaning). That got me thinking that I was not doing the Alkazi kind of theatre. Julius Caesar was a blunder that taught us a lot. Dubey’s saying was valid and I applied it to our condition. Over the years, I’m convinced it is the spoken word which is the most magical thing on stage. If you pronounce the words with clarity and beauty, it will stimulate the audience’s imagination.
Did Motley demand balancing acts since you were also doing movies and TV shows?
RPS: I was never so busy; even during Naseer’s busiest phase, it has always worked out.
NS: It was not a tightrope work. A lot of times, we would rehearse where I was shooting in Mumbai. There were no vanity vans in those days but large make-up rooms. The whole team would come over and we would rehearse in the make-up room in Filmistan, Mehboob Studio and Esel Studio.
And, your film commitments at present?
RPS: I have none. I’m in this awkward situation where they won’t offer me anything old and they are not writing anything new. It has always been like this for me.
NS: Nor do I. I have done a courtroom drama in Bengali, Debotar Grash (Eaten by God), in which Soumitra Chatterjee and I play opposing lawyers. In Anand Tiwari’s web-series Bandish Bandits, I play a classical singer.
How do the two of you collaborate?
NS: Ratna has directed two plays (A Walk in the Woods and Einstein). For some reason, she has now lost the urge to direct. We have always co-directed, whatever plays I have directed, her participation is immense — uncredited, of course. She takes responsibility for everything. I can’t do what she does.
RPS: Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean; And so betwixt them both, they licked the platter clean. We are like that. Motley is an interesting experiment where we managed to complement each other’s strengths. Naseer’s strength is in working with the actors. I don’t want to direct, partly because I don’t know how to handle actors.
What kind of code of conduct do you expect from your audience?
NS: I would like to take away their mobile phones before they enter the theatre. But you can’t do that. If a phone rings, either you ignore it or make the guy feel like an idiot by saying something witty. If you lose your cool, then you spoil it for others. These are the things a stage actor has to live with.
RPS: It is a little vain to think that everyone is interested in what I’m doing on stage. Earlier, there used to be babies crying or people going in and out during shows. Only in films is everything neatly packaged, cut and pasted.
Neither of you is on social media, yet Naseer’s comments make ripples there.
RPS: I’m not on any social media other than WhatsApp. I realise that if we say something at a public forum I set myself up for opinions. Naseer does say things in the hope that it will make others think. Often it is misrepresented. For example, he never said he was frightened about the mood against the Muslims today. But people went on and on about it.
NS: The lie repeated often becomes the truth.