At NCPA’s Experimental Theatre, actor Ratna Pathak Shah is busy adjusting the angle of the wooden bench on the almost bare stage. The set looks clean — a black and white canvas with sketches of trees as backdrop, an elevated ramp and two chopped tree trunks — but the air is abuzz with a frenzy that marks most rehearsals.
Days ahead of the premiere of A Walk In The Woods (AWITW), which marks Pathak’s directorial debut, she seems completely in control. While husband-actor Naseeruddin Shah sits complacently, awaiting his cue, Pathak runs around, giving orders to the light and music control room.
As a montage of politicians’ mugshots take over the projection, Naseer chips in, “The visuals must hold for a bit longer so they register.”
Ratna reacts instantly, “No, maybe some, but not all of them.” The roles, for the first couple of Indian theatre, have clearly been reversed. After having acted for over three decades with her husband’s theatre group Motley, this is the first time Pathak will be directing Naseer in a play. Ask her why she took so long to move to the other side and she says, “I guess I enjoy acting a bit too much. And frankly, directing is not all that fun. But I enjoy the process of seeing lines on a page come alive.”
An adaptation of American playwright Lee Blessing’s Pulitzer-nominated play of the same name, AWITW, is set in Switzerland, and replaces the Russian and American negotiators from the original with a Pakistani diplomat and his Indian counterpart. Pathak explains, “As a director, I wanted to focus on the relationship between the two characters.”
And that’s exactly what her actors do. Ten minutes into rehearsals, a dapper Rajit Kapur walks in sporting a beige suit, already in character. Within seconds, Naseer throws on a coat and goes backstage. At no point during the 120-minute play, do they face the audience directly. Instead, they seem engrossed in conversation, though the audience remains engaged by their verbal sparring.
The story of the two belligerent nations is bound to catch attention, and more often than not, result in controversy. Ask Pathak if she’s wary, and she retorts, “We had a team of researchers and diplomats to help us. I understand that it’s a sensitive subject in the subcontinent, so I had to be sure about what we are communicating. I wanted to be able to stand by what we have said even if it offends some people.” For now, after more than three months of rehearsals, Pathak is eager to showcase her play. “Hopefully, we will take it to Pakistan soon,” she adds.