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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  The actor’s stars
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The actor’s stars

Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah. Together, theirs is the story of Indian acting itself

Ratna Pathak Shah and Naseeruddin Shah at their home in Bandra, Mumbai. Photo: Ritam Banerjee/Mint.Premium
Ratna Pathak Shah and Naseeruddin Shah at their home in Bandra, Mumbai. Photo: Ritam Banerjee/Mint.

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.

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“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."

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.

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.

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.

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."

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Published: 08 Feb 2013, 06:04 PM IST
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