Ratna Pathak Shah: Most actors start off fairly awkward on stage
Actor Ratna Pathak Shah says most actors have awkward beginnings, and so did she.She also feels that Hindi films always get depiction and treatment of gender wrong.bollywood Updated: Mar 13, 2018 17:34 IST
“Most actors start off fairly awkward on stage. It takes most actors a long time to figure out how to know what to do,” says Ratna Pathak Shah. But the observation seems to hardly apply to the 60-year-old, with quite a few flawless performances in a career spanning four decades, to her name. Shah was in the Capital to perform Ismat Apa Ke Naam, a play on the life of the revolutionary feminist writer Ismat Chughtai, as part of the Delhi Theatre Festival. The play brings to the stage, stories set in middle-class Muslim homes — a milieu that both writer Ismat Chughtai, and the play’s director, Naseeruddin Shah, are closely connected to.
“Each actor has his or her own process, but I think the discoveries are fairly similar — How do you make a scene work, how do you make conversation sound like a conversation, and not [a] dialogue, how do you make relationship interesting and therefore understandable to the audience. And if they are helped along [the way] by teachers or good directors, so much the better. I was among the lucky ones, I was helped,” shares Shah, known for her appearances in Mirch Masala (1987) and Mandi, and more recently, Lipstick Under My Burkha and Kapoor and Sons (2016).
Our conversation veers towards theatre and the Capital’s relationship with it. “Delhi hasn’t been very inviting for the last few years, for some reason (laughs). But I think it still has an audience that is interested in theatre. Hopefully, this is only the beginning of a happy relationship again with Delhi, and Gurgaon now,” says Shah, who last visited Gurgaon with the series Bhishmotsav, a series of Hindi plays adapted from playwright and short-story writer Bhisham Sahni’s stories.
Back to the dramatisation of Ismat Chughtai’s stories that she is in Delhi for, the actor says it wasn’t just because the play dealt with the way women are perceived and treated in our society, but because the play helped her discover “her abilities as an actor”, that she took it up. “She’s (Chughtai) is interested in human beings, the man-woman relationship, and is not looking at it with rose-coloured spectacles. She’s not a Bollywood film storyteller, who is telling the same story over and over again, just changing costumes. There were many wonderful discoveries and excitements, while doing this play,” she explains.
“I read the script a lot. And usually the script sort of reveals itself as you read. It’s a bit like a detective piecing together a story. Similarly you piece together a character, use your own personal experiences, what you’ve seen other actors do”
Over the years, Shah has been one actor who has remained admirably aware of the medium she has worked in. From the hugely popular sitcom Sarabhai vs Sarabhai, romcoms such as Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Naa (2008) and Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu (2012), the 2016 drama about a dysfunctional family, Kapoor and Sons, and the black comedy Lipstick Under My Burkha the same year, to a recent romantic offering on Netflix, where she plays a paranoid Catholic mother, and Ismat Apa Ke Naam, Shah has juggled platforms, genres and roles with consummate ease, over the last decade.
“I read the script a lot. And usually the script sort of reveals itself as you read. It’s a bit like a detective piecing together a story. Similarly you piece together a character, use your own personal experiences, what you’ve seen other actors do. All kinds of influences operate on you as you try and find your own voice,” she says about the process she embarks on for an acting assignment. “The job of the actor is to communicate what the playwright wants—putting on weight, cutting hair, growing mooch [beard], whatever [it may take],” she adds.
On a recent visit to Lady Shri Ram College for Women for a talk, Shah had remarked how Hindi films have struggled with the idea of gender. “We have a long way to go. Our society has a long way to go. We are not able to see the problem. So many people say ‘Arey yeh ab nahin hota’, yeh sab kya purani baatein karte rehte ho, ‘Arey these women are becoming bra-burning feminists’, or ‘Ok, so you hate men, haan?’ This kind of puerile conversation is still going on. It was happening when I was in college. I’m astounded and so depressed,” the actor says.
“But at the same time, so many things are changing, [with] so many women around us in every field. What happened with Frances McDormand? (The actor, in a rousing display of comradeship with her fellow female actors, asked every female actor who had been nominated, to stand up, as part of her acceptance speech for her Best Actress Oscar) She made a point. It’s true we are around.”
“[The change] It’ll take time, but I never lose hope,” Shah signs off, forever the optimist that we know her to be.
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