Actors play roles. Good actors live roles, often becoming the characters they play. Legend has it that Maria Falconetti, who played Joan of Arc in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, was unable to act in other films after it. Meena Kumari noted in her diary after the continuous shooting schedule of Guru Dutt’s Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam that she was “sick of choti bahu", implying that the character had eclipsed her real self.

Directors, on the other hand, become the actor. A good director achieves an understanding of the actor, and gets him to merge with the character, yet allowing him space to express his individuality. At least, that’s how Feroz Abbas Khan, the director of iconic plays such as Tumhari Amrita and the movie Gandhi, My Father (2007), works.

Centre stage:(from eft) Feroz Abbas Khan; and a poster of his play with Kher.

“I knew Anupam’s skill and ability, having directed him in Saalgirah way back in 1994, and also because we’ve been close friends ever since," Khan says. “Now, I wanted to allow him the best performance of his life yet."

A few years ago, Khan realized Kher’s life had come full circle. The man who had tasted success of the sweetest kind was now facing failure—his television show Sawaal Dus Crore Ka bombed, creditors and court cases had lined up. He decided to help his friend reinvent himself. “He had hit an all-time low, but he was still the same actor...with loads of talent. I realized that there were two aspects that would work wonderfully: He was ready to experiment and not afraid of failure and yet, he was desperate to prove himself a success," says Khan. The catchline for the play was born out of this observation. It reads, “He will try anything to succeed, even failure." Indeed, failure is at the heart of the play’s theme. The play traces one man’s journey. “Through this narrative, I wanted to show that Anupam’s failures underline that here is a man who just never gave up and was not going to give up now,"explains Khan.

Khan is a perfectionist. To choose episodes that would achieve what he wanted, he persuaded Kher to narrate stories from his entire life on tape. Everything on the stage—every chair, every move of Kher has been orchestrated to convey a certain meaning, although Kher does improvise. “It is in many ways a work in progress, very experimental," Khan explains. This has been his way: experimenting with actors to help bring out their best. While directing Naseeruddin Shah in Mahatma versus Gandhi, for example, he’d told the actor, “Just forget everything that personifies the recognizable Naseer, and in that space, Gandhi will enter." Of Shabana Azmi in Tumhari Amrita, he says: “Shabhana is as dedicated a worker today as she was in her first role. But with her, one has to be precise and pinpoint problem areas." And there is Boman Irani, a “natural" when he plays other people. But Khan sees a challenge in the fact that Irani is reluctant to play himself. “Perhaps one day," he says. But it is Satish Kaushik whom he calls a masterclass in acting. On his part, Kher has started using Kucch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai as a base for his lectures at Actor Prepares—The School for Actors, the acting school he founded.

“Something uncanny happened," Khan tells me as we part, “Anupam told me about his work at Dilkhush, a home in Mumbai for mentally challenged children, and Sister Dolores from there. I imagined her as a frail old woman with a shaky East European voice. I cast her in my mind as such. And when I persuaded him to take me to meet her, believe it or not, she was exactly that, the exact mental image and voice!"

Sathya Saran is the former editor of Femina and the author of 10 Years with Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi’s Journey and From Me to You.

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