IT was in 1975 that Aamir Raza Husain, the then fresh out of college, performed the play She Stoops to Conquer at Tagore Theatre, in Chandigarh.
“We did two shows and I remember there were no proper bathrooms and it was so hot that we jumped in the fountain in the compound for a quick shower,” said veteran theatre actor, director, writer and Padma Shri recipient Raza, who is in town with his wife Virat Husain to stage his famous play, The Lion in Winter at JW Marriott on Sunday evening.
A 1966 play by James Goldman and Oscar-winning film, The Lion in Winter revolves around a dysfunctional royal family comprising Henry II of England, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, their children and guests during Christmas. Set in 1183, Husain has developed it to suit an audience of 2016. A story of power and politics of intrigue, treachery and pure passion, the play, feels Virat, has an universal appeal. “It is high on human drama and relationships…this could’ve been any story, even Mahabharata and Ramayana,” she said.
Although rejected at first by his theatre company, Husain revisited the play and rewrote the second act as he felt theatre had to be entertaining. So, more than delving into the details of “why” undertake a particular production, Husain saw how an audience would react to it. “The story has to appeal to an audience and not leave them bitter for of all the performing arts, theatre is the clearest. There is instant gratification and comprehension,” says Husain. From an aristocratic Awadhi family, his theatre company, Stagedoor Productions, since 1975 has presented around 150 theatre productions and over 5,000 shows. Still, in spite of all these years, the challenges remain the same. “We struggle to find good English speaking actors, scripts with universal appeal and money to back it,” said Husain, who performs all his plays in English.
“Because when I travelled across the country, I realised how English is more accepted, something successive governments are not able to understand. They are hellbent on Hindi prachar which the South Indians are miffed about,” he shoots.
From selling tickets door-to-door to extravagant stage productions (The Fifty Day War on Kargil war, The Legend of Ram on Ramayana, Sare Jahan Se Acha, etc), Husain has started focusing on “proscenium” productions. “I have, since 2006, not sold a single ticket or advertised my plays for one prefers corporate events. Had market driven media not inflated the cost of advertising, had TRPs not taken over the market, theatre would’ve been an independent industry by now. We have been able to revive it only due to committed corporates,” Hussain said.
When it comes to cultural agenda, Husain says theatre is at the bottom rung. “Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had made books and theatre tax free, now, the government is taxing performing arts at 14 per cent. Agreed, theatre has been introduced in schools by CBSE, but where are trained drama teachers? The poor English teacher has to double as one and in case the child develops interest, the course doesn’t extend to college,” the political streak in Husain takes over. Once part of the BJP, (he was Delhi BJP vice president), Husain quit in July 2013, after he criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He strongly feels “a prime minister is answerable for everything.” While politics to him is a drug, theatre, he says, is his passion and profession. “I have too many problems with family politics, fiefdom and I can’t do the Surya Namaskar,” he wraps up.