Naseeruddin Shah trashed the play Waiting for Godot in his examination thesis at the National School of Drama (NSD), Delhi. Yet when Naseer and Benjamin Gilani were sitting over a cup of chai in Lucknow in 1979, and decided to start their theatre troupe, Motley, it was the first play they picked. “I don’t understand the damn thing,” Naseer says, reflecting on how the stage is not a personal medium to display one’s own wares. “We picked it because it had two or three actors.”
“No women, and we continue to do plays which have almost no women,” Ratna interjects, waving her hand, with a mild inflection of sarcasm.
Why? “Ask the director,” she points towards Naseer.
“It just so happened,” Naseer nods, apologetically. “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1990) had 18 men, Manto... Ismat Haazir Hain (2001) has four men, Zoo Story (1980) has two men...”
So it continues, this jugalbandi.
He, fresh off the train from NSD, student of theatre director Ebrahim Alkazi, post his first film Nishant, was searching for theatre director Satyadev Dubey, and had left a note with actor . She, still in college, daughter of Gujarati theatre artiste Dina Pathak, niece of theatre director Shanta Gandhi, working in Dubey’s troupe and charged with delivering the letter, misheard it as being from Shivendra Sinha.
“Because it’s so easy to confuse ‘Naseeruddin Shah’ and ‘Shivendra Sinha’,” Naseer snorts.
“Well, it talks about how clear Amol Palekar’s speech was,” Ratna retorts.
That play, Sambhog Se Sanyas Tak (1975), set their course. Naseer was drawn to Dubey’s austere, visceral work, a contrast to Alkazi’s showy flamboyance. “I’ve come to realize that Dubeyji’s theatre is really the kind of theatre I love,” Naseer says. For Ratna, the workshops Naseer held during the play culminated not only in their relationship, but “it was a great influence on me. I decided then to attend the NSD,” she says.
“What we were searching for was similar,” Naseer says. He came to theatre from the world of Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw and Oliver Goldsmith, operas, English and American films. “I was still grappling with the fundamentals of the systems, and Ratna was from this Gujarati theatre where acting is done by semaphore.”
“I thought I was a wonderful actress because I could cry at the drop of a hat,” Ratna nods. Many an actress has built a reputation over being able to cry, Naseer observes wryly.
"A DEMOCRACY OF TWO: Ratna: At home, I’m strictly the boss. "
They were married by civil ceremony in 1982. At home, Ratna interprets him. He seems quieter, she, chattier. Yet he is more sure of himself, and she, more diffident. They echo each other’s sentences and take them further, like a relay. They take turns playing good cop, bad cop with their three children—Imaad and Heeba, who have now moved out, and Vivaan, who lives with them.
They have never thought of themselves as a theatre couple. “My dream was to be a film star, like any actor. I wanted to be on the cover of Filmfare. I asked myself: Why don’t I play the lead in Zanjeer, why don’t I play Gabbar Singh? That was the beginning of my career. No one becomes an actor to ‘serve art’. We become actors because we want people to look at us, to like us. It’s as simple as that,” Naseer says.
"WIDE ANGLE, SHARP FOCUS: Naseer: I’ve decided on most of the plays we’ve done and I’ve decided to do them on a first reading. So I guess I’m the one who decides the projects, but there’s no way I could pull them off on my own. Ratna: We also have people like Jairaj (Patil), who does our production, takes initiative and helps Motley grow. We have friends who work with us for next to nothing."
It is fortunate, Ratna says, that Naseer earned enough money and she didn’t have to take the roles that came her way. She chose roles that didn’t belie her sensibilities, including the wildly popular Maya Sarabhai in the TV series Sarabhai vs Sarabhai. “I don’t feel I have enough reading in theatre,” she says, explaining why she made her directorial debut for Motley, with A Walk in the Woods, as recently as 2012.
“Naseer has consistently been offered work; a film every three months. There’s me who has consistently not been offered work. What happens to those of us who just don’t want to do whatever it is that is expected of women? You are of no use to anyone and I have continued to be of no use to anyone. So how to define yourself becomes a big issue,” she says.
"CROSS-CURRENTS: Naseer: I’m very tidy. I like things organized. Ratna: I throw things around. He loves going out, I love staying at home."
“I realize in hindsight that if I had been offered heroine-type stuff, I would have probably done it badly,” she says.
It’s why Naseer gave up film direction after his only film Yun Hota To Kya Hota (2006). He continues to return to film despite threatening repeatedly to retire, he says, to keep the kitchen running. “The only film I am committed to is the sequel to Ishqiya. I have been through tonnes of stuff (scripts) which makes me just want to kill myself. I try to offer as much input as I can into scripts, but I am not Aamir Khan, so my feedback is not taken,” he says.
"DO NOT OPEN: Ratna: Sports. With Naseer, it’s all sport, and I can’t play a thing. He’s entirely on his own in that department. Naseer: Sometimes on how to handle the children. Other areas when working where we may not agree, so we have a nice, healthy spat. Ratna: What a bore life would be without it."
It took Naseer a long time to achieve the clarity of being an actor over a star. “Had I turned into a commodity, I would not have been able to do the work I really love. As things have panned out, we’ve got what we wanted, our needs are met, we lead a contented life. We even have a few things we don’t need. I don’t have to buckle to market pressures,” he says.
Naseer says actors are caught up in the abstract; few check the dictionary. Acting is “to do”.
Ratna clutches her stomach and grimaces. “Find your core.”
Naseer mimics her: “Find your centre. It’s all nonsense.”
Ratna says, “You have to start with the simple, then you will get to the sublime.”
Naseer interjects: “You start with the simple and stick to the simple.”
They echo each other: “The sublime looks after itself.”