Naseeruddin Shah is in no mood to direct plays any longer—at least, not when he is acting in them. “I find it a great strain now to direct and act in the same production,” he says during a conversation at his home in Mumbai. “I don’t know if I will do it (direction) again. It takes up too much of one’s energy.” This is one of the reasons why Shah, 73, is only acting in the new play that his theatre company, Motley, is producing for Prithvi Festival 2023 (till 13 November).
Written by Russian playwright Aleksei Arbuzov and directed by Arghya Lahiri, Old World will see Shah and his wife, actor Ratna Pathak Shah, play a taciturn doctor and an eccentric woman, respectively, who meet at a health resort. A play reflecting on life, love, loss and laughter, it has been lying with Shah for more than two decades. “The late Sudhanshu Mishra (film-maker Sudhir Mishra’s brother) had given it to me and it has been lying in my drawer for 20 years now. I think I was just waiting to get to the right age before doing it,” he says.
In the play, the doctor is in his 70s; the woman in her 60s. Initially, Shah had offered the role of the patient to Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal, but she declined owing to ill-health. According to Shah, loneliness in old age, one of the main themes of the play, has been dealt with in a very subtle manner by the playwright. “It has also become a part of our lives,” Ratna, 66, chimes in. “Growing old and the changes that come with it—one is able to empathise with it much more,” she says.
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Lahiri, with whom they have worked for many years, seemed like the apt choice to helm the play. “I have full faith in him and he is a genius as far as lighting design is concerned. He also directs very gloomy, dark plays and I wanted him to get out of that and do something which is more cheerful,” says Shah.
Next year, the theatre group, co-founded by Shah and Benjamin Gilani, will turn 45. In July 1979, the duo, along with the late Tom Alter and Roshan Taneja, had their first performance with Waiting For Godot at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre. In the years that followed, the theatre group staged numerous plays, including The Caine Mutiny, Julius Caesar, Ismat Apa Ke Naam, Einstein and The Father. “We have done some good work and had our failures as well. I have no regrets about them; it was something we wanted to do at the time—a thing like The Odd Couple or the Anton Chekhov comedies. There is no play that I really wanted to do with Motley and didn’t do,” he says.
One of the group’s biggest achievements, he feels, is that no actor has left Motley unhappy. “Whoever has left, has done so because of relocation or not having enough time. No one has left in a huff,” he says.
For Ratna, the satisfaction comes from the fact that they have kept plays going for a long time. Citing the instance of Ismat Apa Ke Naam, which they have been staging since 2001, the actor says she does not know of many theatre groups in the world that have done the same production on a regular basis for that long. “It has been such a huge learning experience for us in Motley—a company that goes back to the same play again and again, and with long gaps. We do as many shows as we want, take a gap and come back refreshed. We have grown up, the play has grown with us, and this give- and-take has been spectacular. I think that is something I find very rewarding,” she says.
Old World will be staged on 5 November, 5pm/8pm, at Prithvi Theatre, Juhu, Mumbai.
Deepali Singh is a Mumbai-based art and culture writer