Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah may be popular names today. And their theatre company, Motley, may be turning 35 this year, yet their story is a quintessential struggler's tale. Ahead of yet another edition of Motley's annual festival, Ratna takes us back to the days of yore, when an entire production would be made with a shoestring budget of Rs 1,500. From rehearsing in buses to being one of the most popular theatre companies of the country, we revisit the journey of over three dramatic decades, with Ratna and her step-daughter, Heeba Shah.
Motley completes 35 years. Do you remember the first production?
Ratna: The year Motley began, I was at National School of Drama (NSD). I entered the performance as an audience member. Our first play was for Om Puri's group, Majma - Waiting For Godot. We started performing the same play as part of Motley's repertoire later. The cost of that production, including costumes and rehearsals, came up to Rs 1,500. We had got our costumes for Rs 230 from Chor Bazaar. I came on board with the second play, Anton Chekhov's The Bear.
How was the theatre scene then?
Ratna: We hardly had resources. For [Irish playwright] George Bernard Shaw's Arms And The Man, as part of our set, we only had a bed. We would rehearse anywhere and everywhere - garages, buses, and if you had an empty room, we would rehearse there as well.
Heeba: I have been involved backstage since the late'80s. My first speaking part was in Julius Caesar. And then, of course, there's Ismat Apa Ke Naam, which is now in its 14th year.
Motley has done just one Shakespearean play - Julius Caesar.
Is it a conscious decision to not stage the playwright's dramas?
Ratna: Honestly, it is difficult to find actors who can speak English well. William Shakespeare is a different kettle of fish altogether. We have not abandoned the idea, but we are more comfortable with GB Shaw (laughs). Having said that, I like the experimental work people are doing with Shakespeare's dramas. Atul Kumar's Piya Behrupiya, and Sunil Shanbag's Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon are amazing productions.
Most of Motley's plays are adaptations. Why don't we see more of original writing?
Ratna: Let me see you write a play. Writing is a highly specialised and skillful task. It's extremely difficult to write plays. But, of course, today whoever tweets or blogs thinks he or she can write. However, we consciously want to stage classics.
You've been involved in theatre for over three decades now. Have there been any agents of change here?
Ratna: Prithvi Theatre and Experimental Theatre (ET) at the NCPA were agents of change when they opened. But today, theatre is not a priority for NCPA anymore. In fact, at ET, you have to pay even for sneezing.
Has Motley changed over the years?
Ratna: We had always intended for Motley to be a small outfit, and focus only on plays. There are two things that set us apart from other companies: We have never had a fallout with anybody. At the time we started, there was a clan-ish attitude. For instance, if you worked with Satyadev Dubey, you couldn't work with any other company. However, we have worked with hundreds of people with hundreds of differences, but we have all stayed friends. Besides, we have kept plays alive for decades. We often come back to our acts, develop them and grow with them.
But you started direction only in 2012 with A Walk In The Woods. Why did it take so long?
Ratna: I don't know really. But I enjoyed the process thoroughly. I think I enjoyed it because I love the play. Unless you feel close to the story, you won't feel excited to work on it. And, of course, I had two really skillful actors in Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) and Rajit Kapur. But, I wonder at times how I would direct with newer, lesser-experienced actors.
Date with Motley
At Veer Savarkar Auditorium, Dadar:
* A Walk In The Woods will be staged on March 17 and 18, 8 pm onward.
* Ismat Apa Ke Naam will be performed on March 19, 8 pm onward.
* Einstein shows will be on from March 20 to 22, 8 pm onward.
At Experimental Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point:
* A Walk In The Woods will be staged from March 24 to 27, 7 pm onward.
* Watch Kambakhat Bilkul Aurat on March 28, 7 pm onward.
* Enjoy Ismat Apa Ke Naam on March 29, 7 pm onward.