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“Don’t give the audience a spectacle, simulate their imagination and create the spectacles in their minds,” says Naseeruddin Shah

The thespian’s recent play, The Father, is a brutally honest study of dementia, and is penned by one of France’s best known contemporary playwrights, Florian Zeller

brunch Updated: Sep 29, 2018 00:07 IST
Ananya Ghosh
Ananya Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Naseeruddin Shah,the father,play
The Father portrays the everyday life and struggles of a dementia patient , Andre, played by Naseeruddin Shah(Photo courtesy: Motley)

What shall I do with this absurdity —

O heart, O troubled heart — this caricature,

Decrepit age that has been tied to me

As to a dog’s tail?

-WB Yeats

Written in 2012 by French playwright Florian Zeller and translated into English by Christopher Hampton, Le Père or The Father catches an authoritative patriarch, Andre (played by Shah, at the twilight of his life where he is suffering from amnesia and dementia and has become totally dependent on his daughter Ann (played by Ratna Pathak Shah/Heeba Shah). Andre is grappling with the fragmented realities of his world where the past and the present keep crossing paths, often getting inextricably intertwined. The play, that had won the 2014 Molière award for France’s best play, shows how a mental illness can impact its victim as well as his caregiver. There are strong echoes of Shakespeare’s King Lear in the exploration of the father-daughter relationship, as well as in the depiction of the protagonist, who is trembling on the verge of madness and often tripping over.

The play is not an easy watch and the non-linear narrative only accentuates the discomfort. There is no sugar-coating in the exploration of a steady deterioration of a fractured mind. Shah keeps it stark. Even the stage is kept bare, with the rooms and doors demarcated not by cardboard sets but simply by white duct tape giving it a look of an architectural blueprint. The furniture is minimal. Shah, supported by a stellar ensemble cast and a brilliant sound design, gives a robust performance as the fragile yet charming Andre, never dehumanising him but making him painfully relatable. It is a master class in acting and sees Shah in his experimental best as a director.

To get into the skin of the character and to understand Andre’s mental state, Shah had reached out to Dr Harish Shetty, one of Mumbai’s leading psychiatrists ( Photo courtesy: Motley )

How do you choose a play?

As far as my theatre is concerned, I don’t do only plays that are significant to society or talk about some immediate concerns. I don’t have a political agenda that I want to drive through my plays. If I feel strongly about something, I will definitely put those in my plays. But I am more concerned with creating a stimulating evening for the audience. Of course, it goes without saying that I would not choose regressive content. I will do a play if the content speaks to me. But I will not do it as a banner-waving exercise. The idea is to give the audience a good experience and some food for thought, and most importantly something that will be fun to stage.

This is a very new play. How did you come across it?

I can take no credit there! Paresh Rawal had seen this play and sourced a copy of it for me to read. The moment I finished reading the script I knew I had to do it. In fact, the freshness of the play also played a role in my decision to stage it.

You are 68 now. Is the story too close to home?

[Laughs] In fact, I am probably the youngest actor playing Andre! There is an 82-year-old actor who plays Andre at one of the shows in Paris. To be honest, initially the idea was to just direct the play. But I couldn’t find any actor of my age or older who can do justice to the role and whom I could interest with this play. So, you can say I was the most easily-available actor I knew who could play Andre. It is a challenging part. But I also thought that it would make for a very engaging evening.

The play’s duct-taped minimalist stage is inspired by the stage setting of Lars von Trier’s film 2003 Dogville, which saw chalk lines on a naked stage marking the various locations of the town ( Photo courtesy: Motley )

You have experimented with the form a lot with this play. How did you zero in on the treatment?

It is a play about imagination. Cups and saucers and everything else is imaginary here. The takes out the headache of the logistics, yet you create the same impact on stage.

I don’t always know how I will do it, but I definitely know how I will not do it. So for this play, realism was out. There are many things that happen when a man is in this kind of physical and mental state which you can’t possibly show on stage…like they lose control over their bowels etc. If you try to show it on stage it becomes sickening but you lose the point. It is like having fake blood on stage. It never works. Either it looks too contrived or if it looks too real it scares the audience. Also, you can’t be on your fours cleaning the blood from the floor after a tragic battle! It is just not practical to do such things on stage.

In fact, it is something we had tried 30 years ago, when we had done Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. We didn’t have real swords or blood for the elaborate fight scenes. It was all imaginary. It was a huge flop. The audience was not ready. They thought the actors had forgotten to get their swords! But it gave me my direction in theatre. Don’t give the audience a spectacle, simulate their imagination. Create the spectacles in their minds. Nothing can match the listener’s imagination. How magical was it when you would hear your mom tell you a story on a winter afternoon?

And what about the set? It kind of reminded me of a Lars Von Trier film…

Yes! Dogville! We rehearsed most of it in my house. We used our bedroom, and the drawing room and other rooms but when we decided to put it on stage we were stuck. We didn’t want to do a proscenium play. So it was difficult to set so many rooms up as the set. Then Arghya (Lahiri) who was in charge of the lights and the sets came up with the idea to do away with the set altogether.

So, yes you can call it a tribute to Dogville or just an idea stolen from the film [laughs] I am sure Lars Von Trier won’t mind either!

Shah got the idea of staging The Father after Paresh Rawal saw a performance of the same in the US and insisted that Shah should bring it to the Indian audience ( Photo courtesy: Motley )

What kind of process did you follow during the rehearsals?

We rehearsed for six months. We read and reread…to me the words are the most important thing in theatre. So we read the play as many times as we can. I don’t tell my actors how to act. I just tell them to act or react to a situation just as they would do in real life. I don’t plan out how they will move in a particular scene. I just let it evolve. We kept changing where we are located during a particular scene. I just help the actors find the right thing they would do in a particular situation. What will look good onstage is secondary. My instructions to my actors are simple. When you come home, what is the first thing that you would do? Do that. If you came in with a can of beer, what will you do? Do that. Gradually we found the whole play had been set, just by sitting here doing the most normal things one would do in a particular situation! And this is how it has always worked.

Motley’s The Father, co-directed by Ratna Pathak and Naseeruddin Shah, is ending its month-long run at the NCPA experimental this Sunday

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From HT Brunch, September 30, 2018

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First Published: Sep 28, 2018 23:14 IST