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 (Edward Albee), 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 (Satyadev) 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 most important thing was that it cost almost nothing to perform there. You got all the help you needed. You had a bunch of crazy people around who were willing to chip in any time you asked them to. It was the kind of scene that did not exist in Delhi, where I came from.
I don’t claim I was very deeply into theatre in Delhi. I was in this cocoon of NSD. But I hadn’t encountered this kind of spirit there. (At Chhabildas) you could just say to anybody who was part of any other group, “Can somebody please help me?” and they would come along and do it. It was something I had never experienced before.
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 small 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, someone else puts up the sets, 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 humein khujli hoti hain; aur jisko khujli hoti hain woh aake dekhen’ (We do theatre because we have an itch and those who have the itch to watch, let them 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 realise 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 realise 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. The audience doesn’t need any reminding. All they have to do is look around and they know they are in the theatre.
So Dubeyji’s little practice of having the “nata” (actor) and “nati” (actress) enter – he even wanted it in Dear Liar, if you please, with Ratna coming late and I looking around saying “kahaan gayi thi” (where were you?) – all of that made complete sense to me. There is no mystery, no secret ceremony that is going on here.
What we are doing is not secret. We are actors who have come here to do a play. Welcome, sit down, please be comfortable, our play is about this and that and now we are going to begin. That is the way to do a play and that is the way we did plays in Chhabildas.
Excerpted with permission from The Scenes We Made: An Oral History of Experimental Theatre in Mumbai, Edited by Shanta Gokhale, Speaking Tiger Books.