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Smoking the Peace Pipe

The thorny path of India-Pakistan diplomacy takes stage in Ratna Pathak Shah’s directorial debut A Walk in the Woods.

Written by Priyanka Sinha Jha | New Delhi |
August 31, 2012 4:08:30 am

The thorny path of India-Pakistan diplomacy takes stage in Ratna Pathak Shah’s directorial debut A Walk in the Woods.

Ratna Pathak Shah,a well-known name in theatre and cinema circles,took on the director’s mantle with a new play called A Walk in the Woods,which is based on Lee Blessing’s play by the same name. The play spotlights the thorny path of international diplomacy — India and Pakistan’s in this case — and is delightful,for its subtle message of hope and humanity. Ram Chinappa (Rajit Kapoor) and Jamaluddin Luftullah (Naseeruddin Shah),diplomats from the two countries find themselves in Geneva,trying to resolve sticky issues between their countries. Their efforts at parleying outdoors,results in an uneasy friendship,even though the world order they seek to change remains much the same. Addressing the larger issues at stake without getting bogged down by factual nitty-gritty of the chequered history shared by the two countries,the play has been well received in Mumbai and will be travelling to Bangalore,Chennai and Chandigarh. Plans are also afoot to stage the play in Pakistan. Here,the director speaks about narrative techniques and other matters:

How did the idea of directing a play,and this one in particular,come to you?

I had been looking for a play that I could direct and had zeroed in on a couple,while Randeep Hooda and Faisal Rashid were already working on this play. Naseer had asked me to come in and look into it to see how much of the adaptation worked and how much of it didn’t. And it was then that I realised that he (Naseeruddin) won’t be able to act in it and direct it himself. An outside eye is critical. There is no moment in the play when Naseer could have stepped out and so it made sense for me to take over in that capacity. I am glad I did,because sometimes,you just need that trigger to get down to work. Luckily,for me,it was a beautiful package that fell into my lap.

I liked the play very much because it helped me clarify many notions about acting and about my awareness of politics around me. I have learnt everything about life,thanks to the plays I have been doing. Every time I felt the need for my own understanding and growth,a play came along. It’s fantastic that one can keep growing along with one’s work both as an individual and as a theatre person.

Adapting a play which is so complex yet subtle could not have been easy. How did you go about it?

A lot of the adaptation work had already been done by Hooda and Faisal and they mainly went by their understanding of the issue. They did not read too much on the subject. It’s not talking about details or complexities of the problem. So some people may have a problem with that but to me it was a great advantage because it puts forward the issue in a way,which is approachable to a common person. They drew on their understanding and experience but because it’s a diplomatic issue. We wanted to know exactly what could or could not be said by a diplomat so we ran it past our friends in diplomatic circles. We also ran it past Shekhar Gupta (Editor-in-chief,The Indian Express) and he made some extremely pertinent suggestions.

Any interesting nugget of information that you stumbled upon?

Well,yes. When it comes to these back channel meetings,diplomats go completely off the official channels. They attempt to meet at places like Dubai where visas are not required and use their personal travel agents instead of government facilities. One of them recounted that his travel agent was curious to know whether he was having an affair or something because he was going to this place all the time.

How did you handle the complexity of language — to adapt in a way that brings in the local flavour without losing the essence of the original thought?

One of the great advantages Indian and Pakistani diplomats share is language. All the formality and protocol can be cut through because we share a language and culture. Again,something we have tried to incorporate in the play by using Punjabi and Hindi. Also,the opening song,I thought,should be in a raw folk idiom especially because music is something that the two countries share.

And Bollywood too.

Yes,that becomes an immediate point of contact for several people.

Was it deliberate to keep the narrative technique so simple,almost spartan?

When I read the play,I felt the relationship between these two men and the conversation between them was the focus of the play. I am assuming the woods,spoken about,are part of the city (Geneva where the play is set) like London’s Hyde Park or Hampstead Heath,which is a wooded area. I thought one could have a place like that and weave a story around it,but it did not do much for the play. It did not help make what the play was trying to say,more clear or interesting. Instead,it became a distraction. We had a lot of set ideas also. Again we toyed with a lot of things and then we concluded that the simpler we are,the more effective the conversation would be.

So we turned the life around — like the chopper flying,child playing,police siren — into sound effects just to give a sense that there is a world surrounding them. That this wasn’t something totally utopic.

Directing two extremely gifted theatre actors with well-defined acting styles could be intimidating so how did you work around that?

There is a pattern that all actors fall into,and somebody from the outside needs to point that out and say,“See this is becoming a predictable pattern.” Most of all these are two actors I have watched very closely. Naseer even more so but also Rajit —I have seen him grow from a young college boy to what he is today. I thought I would like to be surprised by what they are doing. And if I was surprised,so would the audience as they could not have watched these two actors as closely as I have.

I didn’t need to tell them what to do. That would have been counterproductive. One could see they were approaching it in two different ways,so my work was to just balance them because they play diametrically opposite characters. Sometimes I thought how I would do it,though not too much. So striking that fine balance was my biggest contribution.

Could you elaborate on their different styles of acting?

Well,I think Naseer tends to go for the earnestness of a character. All of us,in whatever we are doing to varying degrees,even a rotten individual does not think of himself or herself as a rotten individual. We justify what we are doing,so Naseer uses that as a guide into a character,his theory being that I have to think like this person so I can’t afford to think of my character as an evil person. He always comes in from a point of earnestness. The approach is right up to a point but sometimes,the character just needs to be played a certain way for it to make sense so I had to keep pointing that out to him.

And Rajit,tends to use his hands a lot when he acts,which is okay if it defines a character but if it becomes your own personal habit,then it is very difficult for the audience to tolerate. It becomes very tiring to watch it play after play. Somehow,it conveys a lack of confidence. It conveys to the audience that this person does not know what he/she is doing.

I have gone through several such mistakes as an actress myself and have had to work damnably long with a lot of prodding from Satyadev Dubey to correct myself. So I felt I could help Rajit with these issues if he so desired. And I found that he did. He was extremely open.

What kind of plays are you partial to? Any favourite playwrights?

I like words. I really like words so I like plays with good words — George Bernard Shaw comes to mind. I like Ismat Chughtai and Manto though Ismat is not a playwright. I like plays that make you think. A brand of comedy seems to be floating around in theatre today,which is very sitcommish humour. At best,you become Friends which is hardly something to aspire to. In all fairness,I think there should be all kinds of plays and we should be able to choose the ones we want to watch.

The writer is the Editor of Screen.

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