Remembering Ebrahim Alkazi: The man who shaped Indian theatre and its finest actors
When I first interviewed Om Puri in 1991, on the sets of City of Joy, he was an actor to reckon with for his mind-blowing performances. And when I asked him to what or whom he attributed this, he named two people: Richard Boleslawski, whose Acting: The First Six Lessons remained his acting bible; and Ebrahim Alkazi, who taught him those lessons practically… and much more.
When a legend speaks so highly of his mentor, the mentor no doubt is a legend. So, I was already in awe of Ebrahim Alkazi long before I met him. With his passing, it is truly the end of a theatre era in India.
If it hadn’t been for Alkazi saab, Om would have left the National School of Drama (NSD) and wouldn’t have been an actor, and in that case I wouldn’t have got to interview him or meet him. So, I remain indirectly grateful.
NSD was a transforming experience for Om Puri in 1970. But it did not begin with a bang. Coming from a small town near Patiala, he could not follow the lessons in English. Even his Hindi had a heavy Punjabi accent. This left him tongue-tied and he decided to return home after a painful six months, to become an overseer or a clerk. But the person responsible for averting this was Alkazi, who was then the director of NSD.
Instead of asking him directly, he sent a senior student, M K Raina to befriend Om and learn the problem. When Raina reported to Alkazi, the latter called Om and said, “You are hardworking and a good student and if at all you get stuck for words in English, just continue to speak in Hindi, don’t hold back. But you must read the English paper aloud daily, listen to the English news and talk to friends in English.”
That was Om’s first lesson in acting.
And when his once tongue-tied non-English speaking student was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) Queen Elizabeth II, in 2005, for his contribution to British cinema, Alkazi was over the moon. He sent Om a handwritten letter: “I regard you as an actor of great emotional power and extraordinary range. You are an earnest individual, and with the searing intensity of your performances you have raised the dramatic skill in this country.”
For Om, this was the best award.
Teacher by passion
Born to Saudi Arabian-Kuwaiti parents and growing up in Pune, Alkazi’s father was a wealthy merchant with houses in Mumbai and London. After the early days of English theatre with Mumbai’s Theatre Group and Sultan Padamsee in the 1940s, Alkazi was one of the earliest Indians to graduate from RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) in London.
Passionate about theatre as an actor and director, Alkazi was even more passionate about teaching. His roll call of students reads like the who’s who of Indian theatre and films. After taking up the directorship of NSD, he turned it around and Alkazi became synonymous with NSD at its best.
“Alkazi saab was a hardcore disciplinarian, authoritative and very serious about teaching,” recalled Om Puri in his biography, Unlikely Hero: Om Puri. “He never missed a class, was seldom late and ruled his students with an iron hand. Once when Indira Gandhi was a little late for the performance of Razia Sultan at NSD, Alkazi insisted the performance begin, notwithstanding the absence of the Prime Minister of India!
In his book, Om said: “He taught Western and Absurdist theatre and his classes were the most popular. He invited Fritz Bennewitz and other international directors to work with us. He encouraged us to widen our horizons by attending music and dance performances at the Triveni Kala Sangam. He also introduced the concept of ‘library period’ twice a week where we had to sit in the library and read whatever we wanted. There was a ‘listening class’ where you could pick up your favourite music and listen to it with earphones on. These classes were Alkazi saab’s contribution towards making the students ‘well-rounded’ in their knowledge of the fine arts.
But most of all, he taught us the dignity of labour. Many a time he would pick up the broom and start to clean the classrooms and corridors if they were dirty, even though he would be impeccably dressed. I never saw him wear a bush shirt!”
Om was specially touched when, during a rehearsal of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, where he essayed the lead role of Vershanin, Alkazi stopped at a particular moment and asked Om to repeat the scene. He then announced to the class, “This is the moment of truth in acting.”
And that was also the moment of immense gratitude a student could have for his master. It is indeed Ebrahim Alkazi who proved formative in making Om Puri the actor.
The writer is an author and chairperson of the Om Puri Foundation. Portions of this piece were extracted from Unlikely Hero: Om Puri by Nandita Puri, published by Roli Books.
From HT Brunch, August 9, 2020
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