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Act of Faith

Theatre is not about money, say Ratna Pathak Shah and Shernaz Patel. It's about the belief that ideas can change the world. Kushalrani Gulab talks to two veterans...

art and culture Updated: Jul 06, 2009 09:50 IST
Kushalrani Gulab

Before you ask your questions, we have a question, says theatre personality Ratna Pathak Shah. Shernaz and I can talk forever, so how many pages is this?

Two pages, we reply. So feel free to talk. But two pages, we found, is also not enough. So less than half of the interaction between Shernaz Patel and Ratna Pathak Shah, two leading ladies of the stage, was replicated in this week's Brunch.

You will find the whole transcript of the stimulating conversation we had at Mumbai's beloved Prithvi Theatre one rainy day at the end of June, here.

Brunch: We've heard that theatre doesn't pay. You have to organise money as well as shows. So what's the passion? Why do people still get into it when there are other options?
Shernaz: You answered your own question. It's a passion. You just have to do it. If you don't do it, you cannot survive. I mean you cannot survive as a human being.
Ratna: Some people use it straight away as a stepping stone. There is a lot of that. For me, there's nothing else that's that much fun. It's as simple as that. The earning of a living doesn't come into it. That kind of liberates you. I don't think we think of ourselves as professionals in the money making way, but as professionals in terms of the quality that we try to produce.
Shernaz: It's a cliche, but the fact is that every performance is unique. It's a different audience every time, so the performance is always different.

Brunch: That's something we have always wondered about. You come here, you do a 6 o'clock show and then a 9 o'clock show. How do you keep the intensity alive?
Ratna: Intensity is not the word. How do you keep the performance alive? That is the attitude we take to work. It's like Shernaz said, there is no way two shows can be the same. No way. Even if you do exactly what you did in your last show, the audience has changed. That's the greatest part of the performance. That you're communicating with live human beings
and not a machine or something.
Shernaz: Actually, were much better off than theatre people in the west. Imagine doing Lady Macbeth night after night. And a matinee. And an evening show. Doing 7-8 shows a week is hard.
Ratna: And it can go on for years. Maybe that's why a lot of theatre there seems to be a little fossilised. I find it very, very dry and very not moving. Intellectually I appreciate it, but otherwise it doesn't really affect me.

Shernaz: I don't agree. When you see it, not necessarily on the West End or on Broadway, but in a theatre of this size [Prithvi Theatre is small and intimate], I've come across theatre that is very good.
Ratna: I have seen theatre in all these places. Maybe not in the places you've been. But I've seen theatre in London for the pastâ. I went there first in '74, and I've seen all the greats "John Mills, Alec Guinness" except for Lawrence Olivier, everyone else was performing. And I was so disappointed by the kind of stuff I saw, except for about three, four productions.

Brunch

: It's too polished?


Ratna

: It's polished enough. The professionalism and presentation is often of very superior quality. But the performance is very dry. I like the rough edges of the kind of stuff we do. Maybe that's what I miss. Anyway, this is a pointless discussion.


Shernaz

: But see, that's the lovely thing about a live performance. You'll find the audience coming out of the show and discussing it and arguing about it. There's no point arguing about it, but they do and they spend hours discussing it.


Ratna

: (Laughing) Yes, that's so true. What I do miss here is the varieties of experimentation. Of the ways theatre can be used. We tend to play very safe, because we're functioning on such poor budgets, we really don't know how to try all kinds of ways of theatrical communication.


Shernaz

: You do find people trying an experiment that runs for three or four shows. But there'll be maximum 100 people willing to take a chance 'maybe like it, maybe dislike it, but take the chance. Invariably, people want the play with the beginning, middle and end. You want to laugh a little, cry a little. And that's a happy evening at the theatre.


Ratna

: I think this is an audience in the process of transition. Earlier, when I started in '74, an audience existed for Marathi plays. Solid audience. A tradition that has existed for several centuries now. Then you swallow it wholeheartedly. Let's not question it. Let's not try to break the mould. That was the kind of theatre that existed among the Marathi speakers, with a little bit "actually quite a lot of experimentation in the '60s with Vijay Tendulkar, Vijaya Mehta and so on. But English and Hindi there was practically nothing. There was no theatre, there was no audience. You had to call up your friends and say, "please come yaar, let's not have a completely empty house. So there were 15 people in the auditorium and seven people on stage and that was a theatrical evening. We were always doing adaptations, we were always doing translations. Once you had run through the three Hindi playwrights, Marathi se copy karo, Gujarati se copy karo, English se copy karo and so on and so forth.


Shernaz

: It's certainly different now. There are many more plays written in Mumbai and about Mumbai. People are telling their own stories.


Ratna

: And that's much better than what we were doing earlier.


Shernaz

: Now these are happening regularly.


Ratna

: In those days, if we did three shows of a play, it was fantastic. Ten shows was a superhit.

Brunch: There's films, there's television. Why do you think young people are interested in theatre these days?
Ratna: [Satyadev] Dubey used to say that eventually, we'd all be deeply grateful for television. Because it would be so disgusting, it would drive people to theatre. I think he was right. It's happened. And besides, I think there's a large enough audience in Mumbai that wants and needs a variety of forms of entertainment. They want to see theatre, they want togo pubbing, they want to catch a film and they want to play video games and they want it all.
Shernaz: I think it has to do with the kind of society that is growing now. I think people need some kind of theatre. There are many more people who want to come into theatre, be associated with it in some way. We all get hundreds of calls. People even want to be backstage, not necessarily on stage. It's something beyond the lives they lead. And the audience also
comes in wanting the same thing wanting stimulation all the time, beyond just going to the mall or a restaurant. Also, we are seeing our own stories now. Its not like I'm doing Mary Jane now, which I did for years.
Ratna: Or trying to wear a long gown.
Shernaz: (Laughing). I have this constant argument about western plays. I think we have a place for that as much as we have for anything. But Indian plays didn't exist then. It was very limited. Now there's just so much, so because you can identify with it, it just keeps growing.

Brunch: Isn't there a case to be made that theatre people acting in TV and films makes theatre more popular? For instance, when we know Naseeruddin Shah is in a play, tickets are sold out instantly.
Ratna: (Gesturing at the playbills on the Prithvi Theatre boards) Look at the number of shows on here. You will find that there are many people here who are not connected to TV or film, who are acting in plays, who are managing to draw audiences. So I don't think it's direct in that sense, it helps a little bit. But if the work that one produces is not good enough¦
Shernaz: How many of these plays have TV types anyway? The quality is pathetic.

Brunch

: There are crossovers in the west. Hollywood actors in theatre.


Shernaz

: There are crossovers everywhere except here. Here, for some reason, Bollywood actors don't step beyond Bollywood.


Ratna

: The thing about theatre is it's work. And not everyone wants to put in the work required. A lot of people say I would love to do a play. Next time you do a play, I'm going to be part of it. And they find that coming for rehearsals every day is terribly boring. Whereas we just can't get enough of it. I wish we could rehearse all the time and not necessarily have to perform and then stop rehearsing that play. It's a different discipline.


Shernaz

: Yes. You have to learn lines and you're not used to it. Internationally, most actors have come out of drama school, so they've done that amount of theatre, they're aware of the discipline, they know what it's like to be in front of a live audience. A theatre actor working in film for the first time would have the same kind of fears that a film actor would have in theatre.


Ratna

: But it's a little better going from this way to that.

Brunch: What was it like, for the two of you, going from stage to camera?
Ratna: There is a difference. For one, the material you are working with. On stage you do Shakespeare or [Edward] Albee

Brunch: That's a bit unfair!
Ratna: (Laughing) Versus a guy who's churning out one little sheet of paper and shoving it under your nose the morning of the day of the shoot. There is a huge difference in material. And everything comes out of this essential difference.
Shernaz: For me, there are nerves. I will certainly be nervous before a show, but it's a certain nervous excitement
Ratna: Anticipation.
Shernaz: I'm still not completely, totally comfortable in front of the camera.

Brunch: You had a long role in Black.
Shernaz: It isn't about the length. I'm still searching for… for the truth in it. How to be part of the system and yet be an individual. It's a very different world.
Ratna: In an ideal world, you could do films that really stretch you as actors, with a group of people who really felt the same way and were moving towards the same kind of ideas. That might possibly replicate what we get in the theatre.
Shernaz: That's what happened with Little Zizou. Sooni Taraporevala - the film's writer and director] wrote it with us. She didn't have a script reading, we actually workshopped the script. With many suggestions add this, add that, try this, throw that out. So the team was like a family.

Brunch

: Is this why you tend to be loyal to your theatre group?


Ratna

: It becomes a family, which is why I feel we in India are specially blessed. In the West, theatre operates somewhat like film units,people come together for a play. It's very intense while you're together and in theatre, that can be spread over a long period of time. But in India, theatre people stay together in groups and tend to perform the same plays over many years. We don't have a run, so we tend to keep one play alive for many years. We've got [

Waiting For

]

Godot

going for 30 years this year.


Shernaz

:

Love Letters

was '92


Ratna

: They just go on forever.


Shernaz

: It's not like we're doing it every day.


Ratna

: No, I know that. I was going to come to that. That gives you an absolutely amazing opportunity to look back on what you have done and to re-do things that you didn't think worked. To learn more about the pieces you have done. To discover them and play with them and change them. It's just the most fascinating, creative situation possible. And when I talk about this to theatre people in the West, I can see that they envy this. Because there, it is very professional.


Shernaz

: Which is good. It's a pleasure.


Ratna

: But this pleasure, this ability to wallow in a part or in a play or take your own time about it.


Shernaz

: It's not just the theatre group. It's theatre people. Ratna and I may not speak for months, but I could just call and say, 'Hey, I need this, today, just now, for a show,' and it will be there. It's that kind of thing. Everybody's there for each other. Ideas are exchanged openly. I think because it's not about the money.


Ratna

: It's not territorial. That's such a liberating thing. It's fantastic. I think Prithvi has been special because it has helped to foster this kind of spirit. Prithvi is one of the places which become “what is the opposite of a cesspool? breeding grounds of ideas. No amount of money or shows or people bowing and scraping before you can give you the kind of pleasure that this can give you.

Brunch

: Both of you are from theatre families. Did you get into theatre because of that?


Shernaz

: It's something I think about because I'm one of three siblings and I'm the only one in theatre. Yes, it's obvious. A doctor's kid tends to become a doctor. Obviously you're growing up in that environment. I took to it, but not my siblings. I don't know. You tend to wonder. If I had been born into another home, grown up in another family, would I have still been in theatre?


Ratna

: I don't know. If I had been born into another family and then wanted to do theatre, maybe I'd have adapted with much more vigour and passion than I have. This way I sneaked into it.


Shernaz

: At the same time, you know, we grew up in the green room. How many kids have that chance? Or touring through Gujarat with my parents. It's such an exciting world, going to rehearsals, selling programmes, feeling very proud because mum is on stage. It is just a lovely life..


Ratna

: In my case I took it for granted after a point. This is what I'm going to do. So that battle with yourself when you come to a realisation about what you want to do with your life didn't happen. I just flowed into it. It was something that was bound to happen. There was no real audition on my part and no real fight to get in. Now I find I'm questioning my whole attitude to and my need for theatre much more. So far I've breezed through the whole thing. And I haven't really had to make a significant effort myself to get where I am, except the effort to be a better actress than I was. That was one effort I've made full on. I'm sure of that. But I never had to fight for a role.


Shernaz

: Okay, that's in the theatre. But films and TV has not been easy.


Ratna

: It shouldn't be easy. That's why I'm kind of re-evaluating the whole situation.

Abhi tak,

I've ridden on somebody's shoulders. Now if I want to do it myself


Shernaz

: Right now, I'm more and more feeling this urge to do everything around theatre and not just focus on it as an actor. I really want to get into encouraging students to come and watch plays. Increase audience bases, like I do with the Writers' Bloc Festival [a workshop that encourages new writers to write a play that, if selected, will be performed


by professional actors]. Everything around theatre gives me great joy. Not that I would want to stop acting. But it was all about getting that great role and now I feel there's so much else to be done.


Ratna

: I had a fantastic experience. We went to Aligarh Muslim University to give a show of

Ismat Apa Ke Naam

. We thought that was absolutely the most perfect place to do that play. Ismat Chugtai had studied in Aligarh, had contacts with Aligarh, it's a place where people know the language and culture that's being talked about. We were expecting that this was going to be the audience to perform this play for. When we got there, we found it was an enormous auditorium, which I did not expect. Ismat is not the kind of play for that. It's very intimate. And as we drove to the theatre just before the show to get everything going, we found there were lots of people outside, of course, everyone knew Naseeruddin Shah was going to be performing. It became this huge tamasha, with people wanting admission, students saying, "why not us?" It was a ticketed show, but why not us? We had to belt out the show, people were shouting throughout the piece. It was very unpleasant. Hooliganism. I felt we shouldn't come back and perform for people like this. And then, later, I thought about it. And I realised, on the contrary, less theatre is not the answer. More theatre is the answer. Somehow we've got to take theatre to people much more. So that different ways of looking at the world are acceptable. People have to learn how to think differently. That's what growing up is about. And we don't have it anywhere within our educational system. There was one man Geoffrey Kendall who went all around India like a madman taking plays to schools. But that's it.


Shernaz

: I remember watching

The Crucible

[by Arthur Miller] "such a difficult text“ in the West End. And behind me were 10 rows of seats just filled with school children. School children in uniform. And I'm in the bathroom after that and I'm listening to the girls discussing the text. And I thought,

this

is what we should be doing. What does it take to


have student shows? What does it take to have discussions with students?


Ratna

: Absolutely.


Shernaz

: It's another way of looking at the world.


Ratna

: We should do something. And not just for the Bombay-Delhi circuit. We should go into Latur and Aligarh and Kanpur and places like that. Because we have a huge young population with huge amounts of energy and no channelisation of that energy.


Shernaz

: When we did Writers' Bloc, we had a one-day workshop for student writers' kid writers. Nine to 14 and 15-16-year-olds. And the kind of stuff they wanted to talk about, which they would never be able to say to their parents or to anyone, not even their own friends that came out on paper and came out in the interaction One day with one individual. And you could see the talent there. We performed those plays, they wrote these little 10-minute scripts in a day. And they were all there, proud of their scripts and we got professional actors to perform them. And you want to take it and say: "Come on, now give them more, give them more, give them more. God knows, five writers may emerge who never thought of writing as a career because they have to get into science or maths or whatever.


Ratna

: I went to an SSC school in Dadar and there was nothing. It was almost as if you had this parched soil of your inside life and things were expected to come out of it. There's no feeding of imagination, of dreams, of craziness, within the school system and I'm talking centuries ago.


Shernaz

: We had Pearl [Padamsee, the late leading theatre personality].


Ratna

: You were very lucky. There were very few schools that had that spark.


Shernaz

: Arts in education is so huge and so important and actually, for so many actors who are only doing theatre and who have nothing else to do, it can actually be a career. You can make some amount of money off it, rather than get into TV.


Ratna

: In the West, at least in Europe, wherever you have a museum, whenever you walk into a museum, you run into a bunch of school children walking around it. That feeling of having a soul for lack of a better word is ignored in our country.


Shernaz

: It's so important. So necessary.


Ratna

: It's so necessary to live. I really feel we should be able to put together a programme. Four plays a year for 10 institutions.


Shernaz

: That can't be difficult. How difficult can it be?


Ratna

: It can actually be difficult. There was a group of women who came to us once saying, we really think children should be seeing plays, so would you be willing to perform your plays for school children? We only had two plays, but we said we'd do those and we'd be willing to put together other performances if this took off, let's try with these two. And they said, yes, we'll talk to other people as well. And they went from school to school and out of all the schools they approached, three schools agreed to give time for a show for which children would have to give Rs 5. We said we must ask for a nominal fee so that people feel this is something important.


Shernaz

: And you were going to do the plays at those schools?


Ratna

: At their schools! When I was at NSD [National School of Drama], I did a dissertation on theatre and education. And the kind of stuff I read, I was stunned. Why the hell can't we do this?


Shernaz

: I studied theatre in Glasgow. All my classmates 12, of which two are working actors, the rest are struggling actors looking for work they're all working in arts for education. They go to prisons and do workshops, they go all over and do workshops. That's how they make some amount of money.

Brunch

: Why is theatre seen as intellectually demanding?


Ratna

: As I said, the main difference is the writers and the kind of things you're dealing with.


Shernaz

: And what is wrong with something being intellectually demanding anyway? The people on stage have to reach out to you and make it accessible. As long as it's communicated, that's all you need.


Ratna

: And intellectual demands have to be made on human beings. Otherwise, how do we grow?


Shernaz

: Intellectually demanding doesn't mean dry or boring. People equate it with that.


Brunch

: A lot of people seem to have a mental block against anything that challenges them intellectually.


Ratna

: I think that's a very valid point you're making. I think somehow in India we have always touted this: we are an emotional people. We think with our hearts, not our heads. Cricket also, we are emotional. It doesn't matter if we play the game well or not, but we are emotional. That is an excuse for shoddy performance. At every step of the way, whether it's politics, sport, the arts, intellectual rigour for some reason seems to be looked down upon. Because it is that rigorous. It is difficult. It forces you to go beyond what is easy and what is immediately within your capabilities. I'm hoping that this present generation will destroy that kind of thinking and I can see that happening.


Shernaz

: Yes, I can see it.


Ratna

: I can see they're making a difference. They're not afraid of thinking. And they're not afraid of thinking differently from mummy and daddy.

Hum log

mummy aur daddy

aur guruji aur gurmayee aur bhagwan aur

everyone else, everyone's sitting on your bloody shoulders and bogging you down. You spend the whole of your life shoving these guys off your shoulders.


Shernaz

: They have much more exposure. The world is all coming together, there's so much to absorb. More than we had.


Ratna

: At one point, they're going to come up against this barrier what is

really

good? All these things take time to resolve. Several enerations have to go by before you can actually change. What my parents started off post Independence is fruiting in my kids'generation now.

Brunch (to Shernaz)

: Is that why you started Writers' Bloc? To do something about this?


Shernaz

: Absolutely. It was just that. It just became bigger than we had ever expected it to be. It was a workshop held in different countries around the world. They came to India and needed a local partner to set it up, so we set it up for them. People were meant to write scripts at the end of the workshop. And I said no, a script is not finished till it's performed. Until an audience watches it and an actor says those lines. It's not something to be read, it's meant to be performed. That's when we said, let's just do it.


Ratna

: And this is where an Arts Council comes in with money, as in the West.


Shernaz

: We did the second festival in 2007 and we went with a begging bowl everywhere looking for money. Because the one sponsor that believed in the arts wasn't there.


Ratna

: That's because recession

ho gaya

.


Shernaz

: And it's long. You can't give them an immediate response because it's one and a half years before those plays will be performed. A corporate sponsor would say, Play

kab hai

? One and a half years and I can't tell you the quality. I will not censor the content. There may not be anyone you know in these plays. So you need someone who believes in the arts, like the Arts Council does in the UK.


Ratna

: Like she said, the script is not done till it's performed. I'm going one step further. It's not done till it's performed several times over. Until the writer gets the chance to see if it's working or not with the audience. The only place we see that kind of contribution is the state competitions that are organised in Marathi and Gujarati. That's where there is a bit of money and that's why you see more playwrights in these languages. Try and send out an idea to any government organisation. It's hard work. And government particularly. Government is abdicating its responsibilities wholesale. It's a very dangerous thing. I went to Pakistan a couple of years ago. They had just started their first National School of Drama version. Or rather, the first batch was passing out. If Nehru hadn't pushed and got NSD and IIT and IIM and FTII and Sangeet Natak Academy, however stagnant these can get, these things would not have existed. So government can help "but they don't want to. Education, health care, everywhere it matters, they want to wash their hands off the workload. And we're very happy as a public to let them do it. Privatisation

karne do, achchi baat hai

.


Shernaz

: We don't have privatisation, unfortunately, in theatre.


Ratna

:

Phenko isko bahar

.

Brunch (to Ratna): But if a corporate sponsor came to you and said we'll fund you for a year, but we would like to see what you put up, would you like that?
Ratna: No. Definitely not. That kind of funding is not of much value. Which is why a government body funding you, a government body that believes in the arts as an important part of the life of a society they can make the difference in terms of infrastructure. Why can't the Prithvi Theatre exist in every ward of Bombay? It's not impossible to build up a thing like this in 10 wards.
Shernaz: Funding of the sort that puts restrictions is not sort of funding. Which is why Hutch was a great sponsor. They just didn't care, they said just do it. Go for it. That's it. They were the kind of sponsor that said don't make our logo bigger than your logo because we don't want to stand out. And they'd come and sit on the steps of the theatre and watch the play. They just believed in it and that's what you need. A person who says it's important and that's why I'm supporting it.