Theatre director Aamir Raza Husain is famous for his mega outdoor productions, such as
The Fifty Day War
(2000), based on the Kargil War and
The Legend of Ram
(2004), based on the epic
But now the 58-year-old is still living large, but working on a small scale - directing closed-door productions, writing and travelling. A big foodie, Husain who recently presented Agatha Christie’s
in the capital, met us over a sumptuous spread of papdi chaat, sushi, aambedi mahi tikka, dal palak, chicken do pyaza and aloo palak ki gujjiya at Tamra, the newly opened all day dining restaurant at Shangri-La’s – Eros hotel, New Delhi to talk about theatre, Delhi and the capital’s soul.
You’re famous for mega shows such as Legend of Ram and Kargil. Yet for the past few years, you’ve only put up closed-door, invitation-only performances. Why?
In 2005, we stopped selling tickets and began selling full shows to people who would buy them. This was primarily because publicity is so expensive. Even if we got concessions on ads for our shows, the amount we had to spend on publicity still made no financial sense against the prices of the tickets we sold.
Secondly, our big shows have come to a grinding halt due to the bad economy. Dance, music and theatre performances are the first victims as they are at the bottom of any sponsoring company’s priority list. Since what goes down tends to come up too, we are hoping for things to change soon. For the time being, we have sponsors like Aircel and ITC Maurya to thank for our closed door performances.
Your most recent play was The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie. What attracts you to a play?
is a very interesting play with an interesting ending. It has been running in London for the last 63 years. As for choice of subject, I pick anything that attracts me. I’m open to everything. My only way of judging a play is to see how it will be appreciated by the audience.
I can’t do something like Julius Caesar – great lines, but who is going to understand them? We are performers. If the audience doesn’t enjoy the performance, what is the point of doing a play?
You have been associated with Delhi culture for a long time. How have Delhi and its culture changed over the years?
I came to Delhi from Lucknow when I was just six years old. This city has always been in flux. The people who have been migrating or living here from the time of Jawaharlal Nehru made this city vibrant and immersed themselves in its soul. But in the last few years, there have been people who have deliberately contributed towards destroying that soul.
Earlier, children were given sanskar, values. Today, none of that exists. It’s a city filled with people who are gnawing at each other’s throats to rise up in society so they can compare their houses to those in the latest saas-bahu serial.
People today are organising festivals to bring alive the old Delhi magic. You did that too on one occasion. How did that happen?
People at one time were interested in culture. They felt for it from the heart. One of my more interesting memories is of a performance I’d organised in Chandni Chowk some years ago, when Vijay Goel, a minister in the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, asked me to do something.
Chandni Chowk is a fabulous street. It has history and a vibrant culture. It has a Gaurishankar Mandir, a Jain mandir, a gurdwara, church and three mosques, including the Fatehpuri mosque. And there are havelis like Chunamal ki haveli and every lane has a name and history, such as Asharfi wali gali, katrani gali and so on. So we recreated the story of 27 galis with performers and qawaals from Benares, and did 27 consecutive performances at one gali after another.
We had closed the galis and were expecting about 50,000 people. The show was to start at 8, and by 7 pm, we realised we already had about 2.5 lakh people. The performances went off well, but all the food finished. We panicked and requested shopkeepers selling food to open their shops again. Finally at 10 pm, everything was over and even the fireworks had stopped.
We were all tired and very hungry as there was no food left. A paanwala came along, and we asked him to provide each one of us with a paan. But when my man tried to pay him, the paanwala refused the money. ‘Because of you,’ he told us, ‘I have earned Rs 1 lakh and now I will return to my native town.’
That was in 1998. These were the shows that were really appreciated. Delhi had a vibrant culture then. Today, the soul of the city is being covered by layer over layer of high business and shallow political interests. At one time, our politicians, whether they were from Bihar or Andhra Pradesh, understood culture and appreciated dance, music and theatre performances.
Today I don’t know how many of the political class actually understand culture. Iss shehar ka ek dhadakta hua dil tha. People like Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and even Rajiv Gandhi could sit down and discuss world theatre and do it intelligently. Perhaps only L K Advani or a few people in the Congress can do that today.
Can’t the old glory be revived?
Everyone wants to start buses, make flyovers, talk about preservation, but real preservation is not even thought of. Go to London, Rome, Amsterdam or even beleaguered Damascus. You will find preservation, not destruction like in Delhi. Move away from Lutyens’ city and you will actually see things being destroyed.
The Archaeological Survey of India is responsible for the state of our monuments today. Monuments need to have magic. You can’t let them be, they will be ruined. They are falling apart. People are scribbling on them; there is not even one chowkidar at most places. Go to old fort and see the vandalism.
Anybody with no idea about what to do is put in charge. All over the world, monuments are brought alive. During the day they are filled with people in costume; in evenings they are lit up, there is dance, music. But in Delhi, we are not preserving anything.
You talk of preservation. So why do you do plays in English only? Doesn’t that limit your audience?
I was initiated into theatre at school at Mayo College. My English teacher, Rajinder Sibal, who unfortunately passed away recently, was directing
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
and ran short of an actor. So he caught hold of me. Many years later, when he had retired and I was doing my Kargil play, I cast him in a lead role and he trained my boys too.
As for doing plays only in English, I never thought of it that way. I am comfortable in any language. I have done one or two plays in Hindi but it became restrictive. In the Kargil play, the officers talked in English and the jawans in Hindi. Since we perform in places like Mumbai, Jaipur and even the North East, English is the only common language.
Do your children also want to do theatre?
I have two children: my daughter is in class 12 and my son is in class 11. My son enjoys theatre, takes care of the lights and props in my shows. He wants to be an actor. My daughter is very shy. She wants to write, she is into history in a big way. They are absolutely free to pursue whatever profession they want.
From HT Brunch, April 12
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