Rarely has Naseeruddin Shah been away from theatre for long periods. “There probably have been other times, for instance in the 1980s, when I was shooting round the clock for various forgettable movies—doing that rubbish probably made me realise theatre was a lifeline for me—but not being able to do any theatre has never been this hard to bear,” he says. Although the actor and director did not miss shooting for films, the forced separation from theatre was hard. “I pined for it more than I have ever pined for any other beloved,” he says.
For eight months, the pandemic forced him to stay away from the stage. Now, with theatres allowed to function at 50% capacity, he is more than eager to don the greasepaint again. His theatre group Motley’s popular play, Einstein, is being staged at Prithvi Theatre.
The 75-minute solo act sees Shah get into the shoes of Nobel laureate Albert Einstein. “I would have liked to start with an ensemble piece like Aurat Aurat Aurat but Einstein was the easiest to get together at short notice because it’s perennially ready. And logistically, it was convenient, as I can rehearse it on my own,” he says. As it happens, the theatre stalwart never stops rehearsing.
“I keep going over my scripts even when there’s no performance in the offing. Rehearsing is great joy for me and I devote maximum time to it,” he adds.
Like many of his colleagues, the actor took to performing online during the lockdown—and enjoyed it. From a dramatised reading of Teen Ishqiya Afsaane, to several readings of poems and stories and even Act 1 of Waiting For Godot, he performed quite a few of them.
“I never thought performing online would be fun but it not only turned out to be fun. It emphasised a very important lesson for actors, which is not to concentrate on the audience but to concentrate on what is to be done. Your effectiveness in getting the text across should ideally not be diminished or heightened by audience reactions,” he says, adding that while he is grateful that he had this chance, nothing can compensate for the feeling of performing before a live audience.
With the pandemic still raging, does he think the audience is ready to come back to watch plays? “I am certain they will be back. Time will tell—all I know is I am dying not only to be on stage but to watch a play again and I am certain that’s true of a lot of people,” he says.
Through the pandemic, he has done the groundwork to bring to life a couple of ideas that had been brewing in his head. One of them is a stage presentation of Teen Ishqiya Afsaane, Ismat Apa Ke Naam Part 4. Also on the cards is a dramatised reading of George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan In Hell and a production based on Faiz Ahmad Faiz and his wife Alys’ letters to each other when the poet was imprisoned in the Rawalpindi conspiracy case, which Shah describes as “a kind of contemporary Dear Liar”. They’re all works in progress, he says.
“I have no idea when these plays will materialise but definitely not before they are well and truly ready. But I am raring to go!”
Einstein is being staged at Prithvi Theatre, Juhu, Mumbai, till 29 November.
Deepali Singh is a Mumbai-based writer.