It’s been more than a week since theatre stalwart Nadira Zaheer Babbar and popular stage director and actor Makarand Deshpande started rehearsing for a play together, but they simply cannot stop gushing about each other. This is the first time the two are collaborating on a project — a drama written by Babbar called Meri Maa Ke Haath, a tribute to her late mother Razia Sajjad Zaheer. Babbar will play her mother as well as herself in the solo performance, which talks about her mother’s childhood, her achievements and struggles, and her journey as a woman. Deshpande, on the other hand, is directing the show. “But, he might just come on the stage. He’s a director who is always dying to come on the stage,” says Babbar, making everyone laugh in the Juhu-based rehearsal space we are seated in.
Deshpande, listening intently to Babbar throughout the hurried interview, can’t help but whoop excitedly as she praises him. His Marathi play, Shakespearecha Mhatara, will also premiere a few days after Babbar’s at an upcoming theatre festival in the city. But he has no qualms dividing his time between the two productions, as he says this is his chance to work with “one of the finest actors” in Indian theatre.
What inspired you to write a play about your mother?
Babbar: The most fascinating personality, who has affected my whole life, has been my mother. She was a writer, a brilliant cook, an excellent teacher, a good wife, and above all, the best mother. Bahut barson se meri khwahish thi (I’ve wished for years)… I wanted to write something about her. A lot of people already know her because of the stories she has written, but Urdu aajkal padhi nahin jaati (Not a lot of people read Urdu — the language Babbar’s mother wrote stories in). People don’t even read these days. How many kids read [the works of] Premchand or Jaishankar Prasad? Or Ghalib? Yes, kids read American novels. It’s so unfortunate [that they read American literature and not the works of Indian authors]. My mother was a beautiful woman. I am very troubled these days. Firstly, because Makarand saab is directing me. Secondly, I’m doing a play on my mother.
This is the first time the two of you are working on a play together. How did the collaboration come about?
Deshpande: I approached her many times in the past, but she refused to work with me.
Babbar: That’s not true…
Deshpande: That’s not true?
Babbar: You approached me to act. But I didn’t want to do it (cast Deshpande in a play).
Deshpande: And you called me once (to direct the new play)…
Babbar: And you came… That is because he is big-hearted.
Despande: It’s not my big-heartedness; it’s the love that I have for you. I have liked [the work of] very few people on the stage, and very few people have left an impression on me. Nadiraji, for me, is one of the finest actors. The others are Mr [Naseeruddin] Shah, Paresh (Rawal) and Swatilekha (Sengupta) from Kolkata. I’ve wanted to work with her [Swatilekha], but that didn’t happen. Recently, I went for the Ekjute [35th anniversary] festival, and I missed her act during the festival, which was regrettable. And then, she [Nadiraji] called me. The best thing about Nadiraji as an actor is that her skills are not seen. There is no demonstration of her talent. She’s just sublime. So when she’s on [the stage], you can’t touch her. It’s like watching Sachin Tendulkar play in his heydays.
Deshpande: This is just the fifth day [since we started working on the play], but I have really enjoyed this collaboration so far.
What made you choose Deshpande as the play’s director?
Babbar: (Pause) His hair? I’ve always been fascinated by his personality. He doesn’t stand straight, he keeps roaming about, and you won’t find him sitting at one place at Prithvi Theatre. Whenever I have met him — and a lot of people meet me — I saw true love in his eyes [for theatre and for life]. Once, he had asked me [to cast him in a play], and I regret [not having taken him] because of certain circumstances. Just a month ago, I hadn’t imagined I would even ask Makarand [to direct the play]. One night, I was worried, thinking, “How will I do this play?” Suddenly, I saw his face, just like how the face of someone who you’ve fallen for keeps coming to your mind randomly…
Deshpande: This is what romance is all about!
Babbar: So, I thought, let’s get the play directed by Makarand. I just called him. I didn’t think he would say yes, because even I had said no to him earlier.
Deshpande: I asked her, “How many characters?” And she said she was doing it alone. And I said, “I will direct it.”