Naseeruddin Shah.
Naseeruddin Shah.

What I learnt: Naseeruddin Shah

In a forthcoming book, the actor recalls his apprentice days under Ebrahim Alkazi and Satyadev Dubey

I heard of Chhabildas in ’73 or ’74 while I was studying at the Film Institute in Pune. I think I first went there to see a performance of Dubey’s production of Adhe Adhure with Amrish Puri, Bhakti Barve, Amol (Palekar) and Sunila (Pradhan) in it. That first experience of seeing Chhabildas was a shock. It had none of the jazz which I associated with theatre, having been a student of Alkazi’s at NSD, and bowled over by the spectacle he always liked to create and at which he was very good. But even while we were in the middle of grand productions like Tughlaq and Razia Sultan, I had seen my first Dubey play, Evam Indrajit. I was struck by the starkness of his staging and the austerity of his approach to theatre. I have to say I preferred Alkazi at the time. I was dazzled by him. Yet I identified more with Dubeyji, with his crumpled jeans and rugged chappals, although he was nowhere close to Alkazi, who I thought was the real representative of class in theatre.

My orientation in theatre—thanks to Alkazi and the fact that we had done grand operas annually at my school, and I had seen filmed theatre with Olivier—was towards the typical West End kind of thing, which I have now come to abhor. I think it was Jaidev Hattangadi, my contemporary at NSD, who talked a lot about Chhabildas. But I was pretty appalled when I saw the place. I said, ‘Hell, this is theatre?’

I saw several wonderful performances there, but the supposed magic of Chhabildas continued to elude me until I myself finally performed there. It was a place which was hardly conducive to concentration. There were sounds from the street, sounds of television sets. You could see the neighbours’ television sets when you were on stage. There was no air-conditioning, the seats were uncomfortable, lighting arrangements rudimentary. We were actually performing on the floor with just black curtains and flats around. But that is where I realized that ideal conditions are not of paramount importance when you are performing a play. I saw Dubeyji rehearsing in all sorts of places, wherever he got an opportunity—in lassi shops, in buses and so on. This is one of the treasures that Chhabildas gave me—the realization that you must retain your concentration no matter what. All the disturbances in a funny way helped me to keep my energies together while performing. The audiences were always very thin. I think we once performed for an audience of fifteen or twenty. But they were people who cared.

I even felt encouraged to do a production in English. I don’t think that was ever done at Chhabildas, with the exception of Don Juan in Hell which Dubeyji did later. So Chhabildas gradually became a tacky little heaven for me, available to people with no resources, and where you could count on a few crazy chaps to turn up to watch you perform.

I don’t think anybody becomes an actor to serve theatre or to serve art anywhere. We all become actors because we are insecure people who want to be looked at. That was the reason I became an actor. Theatre always gave me a tremendous high, but I always knew I was going to earn my living in the movies. In fact at the interview for admission to the NSD, I put my foot in my mouth by saying so. Thankfully they didn’t hold it against me. It was a dispiriting thought that I wouldn’t be able to live off theatre, because the process of theatre was always so enjoyable.

I had been dying to get my teeth into directing The Zoo Story, to perform it to an audience! Chhabildas welcomed anybody who was crazy enough to attempt something like that with open arms. I did not take myself seriously as a director. I did not think that thirty-five years down the line, I would have directed thirty-five productions. I still don’t think of myself as a director. I think of myself as an actor, so my involvement then was really to display my wares. I wanted to be noticed. I wanted to be on the map. I wanted to get employment. So that was really the reason, and Chhabildas didn’t ask questions. It was there for all of us. Coping with the less than ideal conditions there was a tremendous learning curve for me. And watching the spirit with which Dubeyji and others who came to Chhabildas worked was also an eye-opener. And somewhere I think, Chhabildas was responsible for my resolve to continue doing theatre, irrespective of the conditions I encountered, as well as for helping me sharpen my communicative instincts as an actor....

...The NSD environment, honestly, wasn’t a very healthy one. There was a star system there. There was competitiveness there. There was politics there. It bred a lot of wrong ideas, testified to by the average of the number of NSD students who are actually doing theatre in the city. There are hundreds of them here, but barely four or five who are actually doing theatre. And I think that’s because they have been conditioned to the kind of theatre where someone else gets your costume and someone else puts up the sets and someone else does the lighting and you complain that your costume is not ironed and throw a tantrum. As against that, here was an open environment, in fact, just an empty space coming alive! You could set up the stage where you liked, you could arrange the seating as you liked and you could perform without fear of losing money or face. It was a place where you could make a fool of yourself, a place where great creation could happen. It was heaven!

I think it’s a great loss that Chhabildas withdrew its support for theatre. It has taken away a space from theatre people in the city where they could be on an omni-cool platform; where they could be on common ground with co-practitioners; where they could sort of smell each other. That’s the only way I can put it. There was also Dubeyji’s famous statement: “Hum theatre isliye karte hain kyon ki hamein khujli hoti hai; aur jisko khujli hoti hain woh aake dekhen" (We do theatre because we have an itch and those who have the itch to come and watch, come and watch). This has made more and more sense to me over the years, although I can’t claim to have the same Zen-like approach to doing theatre as Dubeyji had. Today if I perform a play and ten people turn up, I’m sure I would be shattered. I have not achieved that kind of equanimity where simply having done the job gives complete satisfaction. I really can’t imagine how he achieved that state. But then he was one of a kind.

My association with Dubeyji also helped me to find a reason, apart from displaying my acting, to do theatre. That reason was to get across. I’m not a political person, I’m not an activist, I’m not a guy with strong beliefs about anything. I have nothing to say to the world. I’m content to act as a spokesman for those who decide to use me as one and I think I’m a good spokesman. So I think that’s a good enough thing. But, thanks to Dubeyji, I found a reason apart from showing off to do theatre; and certainly Chhabildas where there was nobody to show off to, has helped to shape whatever views I have.

Another thing that Chhabildas did was to finally help me realize that the damn front curtain was an archaic bloody institution. What is the big deal of making a mystery about what you are doing with actors hiding away and nobody appearing and all that kind of stuff? Then the curtain opens and the mystery is finally revealed. And I said, hell, what is this? It ceased to make sense to me entirely. Alkazi would kick our asses if we so much as peeped out of the curtain to see how many people had come. Chhabildas made me realize that the mystery of theatre has nothing to do with any of this. The mystery of theatre is the stimulation that the audience gives and so, why hide? Why try to disguise the fact that you are in the theatre.

Excerpted from The Scenes We Made: An Oral History Of Experimental Theatre In Mumbai, edited by Shanta Gokhale, with permission from Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt. Ltd. The book, yet to be published, documents the history of experimental theatre in Mumbai from the 1960s through three spaces: the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute, Walchand Terrace and Chabbildas School Hall.