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Going back to Godot: What is Naseeruddin Shah up to?


“We shouldn’t wait around for the ideal opportunity, cast, venue or producer. If you have the itch to do theatre then just do it. That’s theatre! All you need is one actor, one text and one audience… . There is no point waiting either for Godot or a Golden Age… If you want to do theatre, just do theatre!” wrote Naseeruddin Shah while penning a year-end essay on his hopes for theatre in 2020.

“Ben (Benjamin Gilani), Akash (Khurana) and I have been rehearsing the play on Zoom! It is very weird… . But it is better than not doing it.”

And he is a man who is showing precisely how to do it. In the last two months the world we knew it has gone through a tectonic shift and we are staring at a new world with uncertainty and apprehensions. Among the worst hit but not being talked about as much is the performing arts segment where unlike movies, live audience is a prerequisite. And this is especially true for theatre. With uncertainty looming over the reopening of auditoriums and theatre spaces and the new audience dynamics, many are opting for recording plays. But for Shah, that is not theatre. He is optimistic that the future of theatre is in theatre and not in Netflix. And instead of worrying or waiting for better times or for Godot, he is reaching out for both.

Homely act

While in quarantine, Shah is helping with household chores (and even trying his hand at chopping vegetables…a first for him he admits!), he is ticking his pending reading list, and watching a lot of old Dara Singh movies — a childhood love of the actor. He is also recording poems and stories along with his wife and fellow thespian Ratna (Pathak Shah) and actor son Vivaan. And he has even started working on his next play! He is reviving what started it all for their theatre group (Motley)… Waiting for Godot!

“Bigger productions will face more of a quandary. For us, who do experimental theatre, we can still put up show in smaller theatre spaces, which will be able to get active sooner”

The year was 1978 and Shyam Benegal was shooting Junoon in Lucknow. One day, two of his actors decided to sample the coffee at Indian Coffee House after the day’s schedule. While chatting over a cuppa they casually decided to do a play together someday. The two actors were Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani, and the later even came up with a play that they could probably put together. A few months later they had formed a theatre groups and started rehearsing. Next year, Motley presented their first play, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It’s been 40 years and 42 productions since.

Motley’s Waiting of Godot was first staged in 1979

Motley’s Waiting of Godot was first staged in 1979

At it is apt that for a new beginning post the pandemic scare, he has chosen to go back to the same play, and with the same cast! “It is for all of us at Motley our most beloved play, it was our first play. It is astounding that Mr Beckett wrote the play in his early 30s. He understood a lot a life and aging. The play talks, in very abstract terms, about almost all the issues in life, especially various kinds of relationship,” said Shah in the Instagram Live session held by HTbrunch earlier this month.

“Our theatre performances have to get smaller and it is not impossible. One can do poetry readings, story-telling sessions, and even plays…”

But as a 27-year-old, Shah wasn’t too keen on the play when Gilani had first suggested it. “Ben and I knew each other from our film institute days. But we weren’t friends then. He was a class senior and in the film institute the seniority is very much observed. I had heard about him in drama school in Delhi, he was big actor in the St Stephen’s College Shakespeare society. I had read about him in play reviews that would come in magazines at that time. Eventually we got to know each other and found many common grounds,” he said.

Staging the future

“But when he suggested we do Godot, I was sceptical. Because I found that play very obtuse. But Ben insisted and I eventually gave it! When we first started off with it, none of us really understood it properly. But as years have gone by and we have aged with the play, it has acquired more and more meaning,” said Shah, who will turn 70 this July.

Shah and Gilani, along with their third comrade, Akash Khurana are already rehearsing the play making optimum use of technology. “Benjamin, Akash and I have been rehearsing the play on Zoom! It is very weird, sometimes there is a lag between the dialogues and if you want someone to quickly come on a cue, it seems the person has got delayed! But it is better than not doing it,” said Shah

“Theatre means a meeting place. The energy that is created during a live performance cannot be created via camera”

Shah agrees that the future of theatre will see a gloomy phase. “Things will not open in a hurry. Even when the theatres are allowed to open, social distancing norms will have to be followed and theatres would have to limit the entries, and that means the loss of revenue for the theatre groups as well as the auditorium owners. Bigger productions will face more of a quandary. For us, who do experimental theatre, we can still put up show in smaller theatre spaces, like the Cuckoo Club, OverACT, Tamasha theatre, that have come up in the recent years. Those theatre spaces will be able to get active sooner.”

According to him, both movies and theatre performances have to look at reducing the scale. “Movies and plays getting smaller can only mean a good thing according to me. Our theatre performances have to get smaller and it is not impossible. One can do poetry readings, story-telling sessions, and even plays. Akarsh Khurana has just put together a play where four actors are acting it our over Zoom,” he said. Although he is all for technology, according to him recording a play defies the entire idea of theatre. “Theatre means a meeting place. The energy that is created during a live performance cannot be created via camera. The live audience is such an essential and integral part of a theatre experience, and can’t be recreated when the performance is recorded and played.”

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From HT Brunch, May 18, 2020

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