Last weekend, veterans Ratna Pathak Shah and Naseeruddin Shah (right) — as Mrs Patrick Campbell and George Bernard Shaw, respectively — staged the play, Dear Liar. The couple, who met at the National School of Drama, Delhi, started their theatre company Motley in 1979. We caught up with the Shahs at their Bandra residence.
The two spoke about their views on cinema, performing together on stage for years, leaving behind a legacy, and more.
You both acted in Jaane Tu...Ya Jaane Na (2008), and have been performing together on stage for decades. Is it difficult to work with your spouse?
Naseeruddin Shah: Being husband and wife probably helps as we can discuss things even when we’re not at work. I don’t think it is just a co-incidence that there are so many other husband-wife teams in theatre, but not so many in cinema.
Ratna Pathak Shah: Theatre is marriage, and cinema is an affair, to put it simply. You can have a fling with cinema, but with theatre, you have to have a solid relationship. Running a theatre company is like running a family. We have been doing theatre for over 35 years.
What makes your creative partnership work so well?
Naseeruddin: Mutual regard and a desire to learn more.
Ratna: We are lucky that we share an interest, and that hasn’t changed.
You’ve collaborated with your children — Heeba, Imaad and Vivaan — on various projects. How is the experience of working with them?
Ratna: It’s certainly an exciting part of our lives; our whole family is involved. We are proud that our kids don’t genuflect in front of us, “Mummy and daddy are the greatest.” It’s tiring to have admiration within your family. If there’s no criticism within your family, where will you get it from?
Naseeruddin: However, a family business in cinema is not necessarily creative. It is generally about prolonging your family fortune. In any business, the head of business grooms his eldest son to take over. Hopefully, our eldest son (Imaad) won’t need to take over, and he can do his own thing.
Does your theatre background give you an edge over other actors?
Ratna: Frankly, if you’re a young actor today, where do you train? Who do you learn from, and where do you learn? Theatre is the only area where you can train yourself. It’s the only training that actors have in India.
Naseeruddin: The best film actors in the world are all from theatre. Maybe that’s not the case in India. Dilip Kumar and Mr (Amitabh) Bachchan have never done theatre, but they are both excellent actors. But anywhere else in the world, the greatest film actors are all those who hail from a theatre background. Learning a craft is up to you, whether you are doing theatre or movies. So, a lot of actors, like Kamal Haasan, have learnt their skills on their own.
Where do you think Hindi cinema stands today?
Naseeruddin: (Laughs) We make the best movies in the world, and we make lots of them. The whole world is watching Bollywood movies. Everybody is finally waking up to the fantastic cinema coming out of Bollywood.
Ratna: There’s some fresh blood now. But God knows for how long it will stay fresh. There are some wonderful films that are being made of late. But I have also seen that a lot of Indian directors have only one good film in their kitty, usually their first.
Naseeruddin: I have got my fingers crossed about people who have made wonderful first movies; like Masaan (2015), Fandry (2013) or Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015). They may just get gobbled up by the star system. For example, what is Nagraj Manjule (director) going to do now with Sairat having made Rs 75 crore? That will be the real test. I hope he doesn’t make the blunder of making a Rs 75-crore movie.
What is your opinion of the other film industries in India?
Naseeruddin: Marathi cinema has certainly reached a new high. It was in peril after the Dada Kondke (late actor and film producer) phase. Now, it is suddenly being revived. I would love to do a regional film, but the trouble is that I don’t speak any of the languages. I have done one Marathi film called Deool (2011), and I practised for a week, but my Marathi nuances sound different [in the film].
Ratna: I speak five languages, but nobody casts me in such movies. I would love to do more work in Gujarati and Marathi cinema.
Ratna: The structure has not changed since (late director) Satyadev Dubey first directed it. We didn’t tinker with that in any way. Our growth as individuals and actors is what reflects in this version of the play. Our understanding of people and of life has improved since we first staged it.
Naseeruddin: Dubey’s design of the production was utterly perfect. There was absolutely no need for us to change it. We don’t have an elaborate set either. It’s not a realistic play. Dubey never believed in realistic settings.
What is in store for your theatre group in the next decade?
Ratna: The real test will present itself if Naseer decides not to direct. Then, will Motley be able to exist and do so much work? That’s a test, the result to which we will find only when we come to it. We are certain that we don’t want to leave behind something for the children. Those are dangerous things to do. Children should be free to make their own way. It forces them to think for themselves. Let’s see where theatre goes as well. It might just become smaller and smaller.
Naseeruddin: We’ve got enough stuff on the anvil to keep us busy for another year or two. I don’t like to look beyond that. But I really think theatre will shrink, like cinema viewing has shrunk. No one goes to a single screen anymore except to watch a Salman Khan movie.
You’ve directed your husband in two plays — A Walk In The Woods and Einstein. Was it difficult to direct him?
Ratna: He was a very difficult actor, I tell you. I cried every night (laughs). I have been in a rehearsal space all my life, but when you are directing, it’s a different experience altogether. Honestly, it was good fun. A Walk In The Woods was a piece that needed to be worked upon. He knew what he wanted to do. He just needed somebody to tell him what’s working and what’s not.