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Naseeruddin Shah: Memory’s last hours

Naseeruddin Shah's acting prowess and experimental stagecraft expand the scope of 'The Father', a play about dementia and loss

Naseeruddin Shah backstage before a show. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Naseeruddin Shah backstage before a show. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

There is something deeply unsettling about the distortions of a dementia patient’s every-day life. French playwright Florian Zeller brings this suffering to the fore in his 2012 play, The Father. Brought to the Indian stage by Naseeruddin Shah, the play casts a keen eye at the fractured realities of a mind ravaged by this disease.

This is the first time I am watching Shah perform on stage. As an actor, Shah is compelling. He portrays Andre, a dementia patient who responds to his condition with humour, fortitude, anger and vulnerability. The starkness of the set, the shifting chronology of the narrative, an able supporting cast and evocative sound design draw me down the rabbit hole of a devolving mind. These is a sense of disquiet one is unable to shake off even when the lights come on and the actors take a bow.

Seeing Shah perform is not only a masterclass in acting, but also one in stagecraft. In his director’s note, he shares his angst against what he calls the Indian tradition of “fly-by-night" theatre where theatre groups barely do two shows a month and the continuous 30-day run of The Father is his response and a chance for his group Motley to let the play truly “catch life". The play will end its run at Mumbai’s NCPA Experimental Theatre on 30 September and then take a break before starting another month-long run at Prithvi Theatre from 21 November. Apart from Shah, the rest of the cast is rotating (with a set of characters for every 10-odd shows) and age-agnostic—the role of Andre’s daughter is played by both Heeba, Shah’s daughter, and his wife, Ratna Pathak Shah.

The Father is a difficult play to watch and Naseeruddin Shah admits that there are about 10 or so walkouts at every show. Some leave because the play makes them uncomfortable while others can’t understand the unconventional chronology. As he tells me backstage before the show that evening, “I want to tell them, welcome to the world of Alzheimer’s". Edited excerpts from an interview:

You have been performing ‘The Father’ every night for nearly a month, and you have regarded this as a period of development. Now at the end of its run, is it a different play from what it was on Day 1?

In this run we would end up doing 26 performances (barring Mondays) in one month. Normally, we do 26 performances in two years. And, to my great joy and delight, the performances are getting better and the play is making more sense to us. We are also able to communicate it better to the audience. I get the actors to read and re-read the play rather than jump into the acting. The process that leads to an understanding of how to play a scene, how to vary your tone of voice, your walk and so on, happens very slowly over the various shows. There was no one big thing that transformed the play, but many little things happened every day. Someone watching the “rehearsal" on Day 1 and Day 20 would say that there is something definitely changing here. The reason I call it a rehearsal is because unless you treat it like that, it will become boring. You have to leave scope for things to change.

Walk us through the stagecraft.

The moment I read the play, I knew two things—I wanted to direct it and I didn’t want it to be a realistic production. I do not believe in realism on the stage. In my opinion, it’s foolishness to even try it, because we don’t have the resources of Broadway. In fact, when I had googled the Broadway production of The Father, I discovered that they actually had an illusionist who helped the furniture disappear through the show. But this kind of theatre is not my cup of tea. I don’t believe in trying to create this mystery about a play, as I think it creates a barrier between the audience and the actors. And that’s why I am not disturbed by seeing the actors standing in the wings. How does it matter? If the play is not interesting enough, people will look at these unnecessary things. We remove the pieces of furniture in full view of the audience. And I think this approach works. Every time the lights come on, it’s a surprise. The moment from darkness to a lit stage is the equivalent of a thing being captured on frame. You forget what happened before that.

A still from ‘The Father’, featuring the actor and Ratna Pathak Shah.

Robert Hirsch played the central character, Andre, in the French original at the age of 87; in fact, you are the youngest Andre till date. How much does age matter in this case, especially as the rest of the casting seems pretty age-agnostic?

I hoped that I could get an actor who would play the father, so I would only direct it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an actor, and I know it sounds a bit vain, but I couldn’t think of anybody. I did consider the age of the character while thinking about casting Andre, because I don’t think it will work for a younger guy to play him. And you know what happens when young men play older characters—theirs is a stock way of playing it. I’m just terrified that this play will get adapted into Marathi and Gujarati and some young ham will do the part. I’ll just have to make sure that they don’t get the copyright! In my plays, I cast people that I can trust with my life. I can’t afford an actor calling me up on the day of the show and saying that he can’t come. And so, I can’t cast any young man or woman who comes to me, no matter how good they are. And I don’t believe in auditions as I feel they are humiliating for actors.

Naturally, the first two people I think of are from my family. They are good actors, completely reliable and in this case, they fit the parts as well. About five years ago, while I used to travel with Ratna (and this was when she was still dyeing her hair), people would often mistake her as my daughter. And so, I thought why not cast her in that role? Many of the other kids I have cast in the play are either my students, or those who I’ve worked with for a long time and know inside out.

I’m often asked the question, if there has been a role that has affected my life, and I always say “no”, because why should it? The roles I play affected my knowledge, but nothing that stayed with me so much that it made me rethink all my values in life.- Naseerudin Shah

While the rest of the cast keeps revolving, you remain a constant. How difficult was it for you to get into the skin of this emotionally charged character every night?

It’s fun and I love what I am doing and it’s what I live for. I get every Monday off and that is good enough to recharge my batteries. I make sure I keep my personal life well away from my work. I don’t believe this is necessary. I’m often asked the question, if there has been a role that has affected my life, and I always say “no", because why should it? The roles I play affected my knowledge, but nothing that stayed with me so much that it made me rethink all my values in life. It’s very flattering to do roles like Gandhi or Einstein, and everyone believes you, but I know the difference between the character and myself and I keep that distance.

Were there any real-life references for your rendition of Andre?

Dr Harish Shetty, one of Mumbai’s leading psychiatrists, gave me a lot of advice. My good friend Jyoti Subhash told me a lot of moving stories, as her husband suffered from dementia. The reason I changed Andre’s character to a policeman (in the script, he is a retired engineer) is because there is this uncle of mine who retired as an inspector general of police, who suffered from Alzheimer’s. As kids, we always thought he was a brave and fearsome character. To see what he was reduced to was very difficult and my interpretation of Andre is loosely based on him.

Tell us about the scene where Sahil Vaid/Sayan Banerjee’s character slaps you. There are no sound effects for this very shocking scene.

It was very hard to convince them to slap me every night. And mind you, there were two of them, so I get two different kinds of slaps. And we did away with sound effects because it would not be as effective. It’s so unexpected and really shakes the audience. So it has to be real. And what the hell, I can take a slap or two. As for these fellows, I had to threaten to slap the hell out of them, if they didn’t slap me properly.

The Father will be staged at Prithvi Theatre for a month, from 21 November.

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