Fungus ho gaya hai, audience ke dimaag mein! For the last 15 years, their minds have been mutilated by the saas-bahu serials," says Alok Nath.
He would know, having played some of the most memorable roles on Indian television in the mid-’80s, including the iconic Master Haveliram from the hugely successful show, Buniyaad.
We are discussing the quality of television shows and theatre at Nath’s tasteful residence in Andheri, Mumbai. Every now and then, Daku and Goti, his two adorable dogs, make their presence felt.
"One of the jokes said that even Alok Nath’s dogs are so sanskaari, they bark ‘bhauji bhauji!’" chuckles Nath.
Self-deprecation, humility and the ability to internalise a role have always been Nath’s strengths. Born in Delhi, Nath went to Modern School. Students were encouraged to take part in extracurricular activities and Nath chose theatre.
“My first play must have been when I was in the first standard,” he says. “I was an integral part of school plays. And when I was in the ninth standard, Om Shivpuri directed me in a play called The Miser. It was a huge hit.”
Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, Shivpuri – noticing Nath’s penchant for acting – put him in touch with the right people in Doordarshan. In 1972, Nath got a role in the TV play Sarai Ke Baahar. By the time he finished his arts degree from Hindu College, Delhi, he was thinking about a career in acting.
It wasn’t an easy decision, given that his father, grandpa and a paternal uncle were all established doctors. “They were dejected when I didn’t have good enough grades in school to take up science,” he says. But his Principal was his biggest support:
“The Principal, the late Mr MN Kapoor, sat my parents down and explained that I should just be allowed to do what I do best, and that academics shouldn’t be forced on me needlessly,” says Nath.
So off he went to the National School of Drama, Delhi. “NSD was a riot!” says Nath. “But I also acquired the ability to have a strong sense of discipline towards life and my profession,” says Nath.
You can’t live on passion alone however, so Nath had to turn to television. “Even after coming to Mumbai in 1981, I did theatre for some time.
But for a play that took three months to prepare, we barely managed five performances to almost-empty halls. That’s the tragedy,” says Nath. “Plus beyond a point, passion for something also has to yield financial results!”
Ironically though, once someone gets exposure on television or films, they don’t want to go back to theatre.
“It’s like tasting blood,” says Nath. “I could’ve made more of an effort to go back to theatre but I fell into the trap of recognition, fame and money.”
The big money lure can be traced to the time Nath played Tyeb Mohammed in the Richard Attenborough classic, Gandhi (1982). When he graduated from NSD, around 1979, theatre personality Dolly Thakore came by to find actors for various roles in the film.
Nath bagged the short role. “For two days’ work, I got Rs20,000,” he says. The offer was so incredible, that after accepting it, he walked out of the Ashok Hotel with the bundle of cash tucked beneath his armpit and rushed straight home.
Birth of babuji
In Mumbai, Nath got work in some of the most memorable television serials of the time including Talaash (1992) and Kaala Jal (1983). However, it was only when Buniyaad happened around 1986 that he shot up the popularity charts.
He remembers when he first met Ramesh Sippy, who co-directed it: “He was this five-foot-something person almost hidden behind a desk,” laughs Nath.
“He looked at me as if he was selecting a horse or something and asked if I could commit a whole year for the serial.” That meeting, which Nath says lasted barely two minutes, changed the course of his career.
“Rameshji was never happy with takes, and we were tense because the film kept rolling,” laughs Nath. “The first 26 episodes were all on film and sometimes we gave 15 takes. We shat bricks because we kept thinking how much film we were wasting!”
But Sippy also understood his artistes. Dimple Kapadia once visited the set, and Sippy asked her, in all his actors’ hearing, about the maximum number of takes she’d given in the film Saagar (1985). “Oh, 12-15,” said Kapadia. “But once it was 56!” And Buniyaad’s actors calmed down.
Buniyaad also did something else: It gave birth to Babuji.
“When the show started, I was 27 years old in real life and not very different on screen,” says Nath. “But the audience was engrossed in the show’s characters. So the final scene, where Haveliram has turned 80, and is with his grandkids, stayed with them.
That was their lasting impression of me." Even producers began offering Nath roles that required him to play a much older man.
For a while, he rejected such roles, but eventually, to survive, he accepted them. "I was living a certain life in Mumbai and I had also met my wife-to-be. Ladki ko impress bhi toh karna hota hai!" laughs Nath.
"That’s when I got into the groove of playing older characters," he says. "My role in Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989) enhanced the perception."
Then in December last year, Nath’s ‘sanskaari babuji’ image suddenly spawned countless jokes and memes on social media.
"My children told me, "hum toh maje le rahe hain, aap bhi maje lo!’"
So Nath played along, even doing a sketch for the online comedy show All India Bakchod, in which he gives quirky aashirvaads to Arvind Kejriwal. "Since I myself make fun of Kejriwal, I thought there was no harm playing a fun part in the video myself." That video went viral quickly and Nath gained a lot of appreciation for it.
Now, Nath is working on two TV shows – Tu Mere Agal Bagal Hai and another one by Rajshri called Mere Rang Mein Rangne Wali. But good stories for television are hard to come by, he says.
“In the heydays of Doordarshan, the creative team had to complete the whole show in 13 episodes. So they put in all their effort to ensure an extension of a further 13 episodes,” he explains. “Aajkal dekho, 15 saal se CID chal raha hai!”
At the other end of the scale, he says, there is a needless attempt to intellectualise television.
“(Amitabh) Bachchan saab’s Yudh is an example,” he says. “Suddenly everyone made this hue and cry about seeing Mr Bachchan without apparent make-up on the show. Such sombre lighting and everything... un becharon ki TRP bhi nahin aai!
Mr Bachchan is a legend but don’t make him do these silly things.” When I tell him I haven’t seen the show, Nath is quick to respond: “You’re lucky you haven’t seen it! TV is essentially a middle-class medium and you can’t suddenly elevate the content. First educate the masses, and only then show quality stuff.”
The conversation draws to a close, but I have a final question: what does sanskaar really mean to the brand ambassador, unwittingly or otherwise, of good moral values?
“Don’t get taken in by the superficiality of sanskaar,” says Nath. “You can smoke, drink and have your share of fun. What matters is to do good deeds.
As someone once said, ‘Masjid bahut door hai yaaron, aaj chalon kisi rote hue bachche ko hasa de.’”
The first major play Alok Nath acted in was The Miser, when he was in class 9. The Principal of Modern School was so impressed that he wanted an encore the next day. Nath became associated with Ruchika, the drama group co-created by Feisal Alkazi, son of eminent theatre personality Ebrahim Alkazi, when he was in school itself.
The play which Nath says he feels most proud of having done is Tughlaq, written by Girish Karnad. Ruchika produced it in the early 1970s under the directorship of Arun Kuckreja, and it was staged on the steps of the Triveni Kala Sangam.
Some other plays Nath feels glad to have done include Mohan Rakesh’s Aadhe Adhoore, directed by Feisal Alkazi, Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder and Saved, an Edward Bond play then directed by Amal Allana.
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From HT Brunch, October 26
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