The late Jennifer Kapoor was not one to get ruffled easily. But when Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani told her, way back in 1978, that they would stage Waiting For Godot at her yet-to-be opened Prithvi Theatre, she asked the barely-out-of-their-20s FTII graduates, “Are you crazy?” (Beckett’s plays are notoriously tricky to stage and Waiting For Godot is considered every actor’s dream and every actor’s nightmare.) “She probably thought we’d do a Shakespeare play,” recalls Gilani, now 61, with a smile.
The trio was then shooting for Shyam Benegal’s Junoon in Lucknow, and it was on the sets of this film that the idea of Motley was born.
Over coffee one day, an otherwise reticent Naseeruddin Shah (who was Gilani’s junior by a year in the Film and Television Institute of India) asked the latter why he had stopped doing theatre. No money to rent a place, replied Gilani. With Kapoor’s Prithvi Theatre coming up, that problem was solved. “We weren’t getting anywhere with the play when we started rehearsing,” recalls Gilani. “Till one day Naseer suggested that we break it down to what the lines meant to each one of us. Suddenly, the play came alive.”
When Waiting For Godot opened at Prithvi one rainy afternoon, presented under the banner of Om Puri’s Majma, the fledgling Motley got noticed.
Though Motley has since produced Caine Mutiny Court Martial, Dear Liar, Antigone and Julius Caesar to name but a few, Waiting For Godot remains their best-known production a full 30 years later.
Back in the Bombay of the Seventies and the Eighties, few gave Motley and its brand of esoteric, thinking person’s theatre a fighting chance.
Today, veteran theatre personality Alyque Padamsee is generous in his acknowledgement of their contribution. “I toyed with the idea of staging Waiting For Godot but could not see it through,” admits the man with 65 plus years of stage work behind him.
He adds, “To Motley’s credit, they have sustained serious theatre, unlike the Bottoms Up, Bottoms Down or Bottoms Sideways kind of pop theatre.”
Two to tango
Comparisons are often drawn between Shah and Gilani, especially since the former is considered to be short-tempered, while the latter is cool-headed. Shah’s wife, acclaimed actress Ratna Pathak Shah laughs, “Oh yes, they are the Gogo and Didi of Waiting For Godot,” alluding to the play’s contrasting protagonist companions.
“Their relationship is not static. They work with each other intensely for a year and then not meet up for a year,” she says, adding that this shifting quality in the relationship is what has worked for their growth.
As Gilani, who now teaches acting at Mumbai’s Whistling Woods International, media art institute, sees it, “Neither of us tolerates laziness in actors. They are here because they want to act. They have to apply what they learn and evolve constantly.”
Says Pathak Shah, who attributes her growing up, personally and professionally, to Motley, “We grew from play to play, from role to role. And this is true for everyone associated with Motley. It provided an opportunity to learn and grow and have a lot of fun while doing so.”
One day in 1986, for instance, Gilani, who was looking after production, accounts and operations, handed over the baton to Jairaj Patil, once Shah’s makeup artist.
“There is no structure, no firm expectations. Anybody can take up any role. Without consciously setting out to be one, Motley has evolved into a democratic setup where everyone has their say. It is a professional organisation with an amateur group’s spirit,” says Pathak Shah.
Or as actor-director Akash Khurana, who has a 20-year-long association with the troupe, puts it simply, “We do theatre together because we like to be together.”
Motley has also learnt to be adaptable. What didn’t work was debated and discarded.
“We tried to go commercial with An Odd Couple and big with Julius Caesar but realised our strength lay in being small and adaptable. So we trimmed our ambitions accordingly,” remarks Pathak Shah.
This is not to say Motley is perfect. There are two areas where the group can improve, says Padamsee.
“In terms of direction, there is not so much of visual delight, especially because theatre is competing with other media like the cinema, the Internet and the television. And though the core group in Motley is excellent, the secondary or the minor actors tend to let the production down.” But Motley’s concerns are different: to develop new venues for “thoughtful theatre” outside of Prithvi and the NCPA and collaborate with other like-minded theatre companies.
“We are looking to collaborate with other groups — Atul Kumar and Rajat Kapoor’s The Company Theatre, for instance — and pool in our resources. Our concerns are the same and we can benefit from each other’s skill sets,” says Pathak Shah.In contrast to Waiting For Godot’s “Nothin’ to be done” refrain, there is plenty to be done and Motley is waiting for more.