A tall, handsome man with a beautiful voice, Girish is very proud of the fact that he wrote Tughlaq originally in Kannada. When I first asked him to do an English version, he refused. Which I felt was a bit of false modesty, since he had been President of the Oxford English Union when he was there. But I finally prevailed and it turned out to be a very fine piece of work which is used in the syllabus in many universities in India.
Gerson [Da Cunha] came to me one day and said, “Look Alyque. I’ve got this young man here called Kabir Bedi. He is a model who wants to be a film maker. Will you take him in your films department?” I said, “Sure, Gerson.”
At that time Shyam had left, and I had no one. So Kabir became my Films Deputy and eventually the Films Chief of Lintas. He not only made ad films but he also acted in ad films as a model. So he got a double income out of advertising.
And then I said to Kabir, “Have you done any theatre work?”
“Yes. In St Stephen’s College. I have done a bit of Shakespeare.”
“Great! I am casting a new play. It’s called Tughlaq and it’s by Girish Karnad.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard of it. It’s been done in Hindi.”
“Good. I’m doing the English version.”
It really is a terrific play. Without a doubt, the best play written in English by an Indian. So we got into rehearsals. To play the lead, I was gambling with a new talent. We were spending big bucks with massive sets and elaborate costumes. The late Pilloo Pochkanawalla, the famous sculptor and my dear friend, did the sets. Pearl Padamsee did the costumes in conjunction with the costume designer of the movie Mughal- e-Azam.
Kabir was acting with an array of very senior talent. We had various veteran actors of the Bombay stage, all playing one-scene roles. There was Gerson, Usha Katrak – another brilliant actress of the time (who played the female Caesar in my mini production of Shakespeare’s play in the 1970s), Bomi Kapadia – who is still as active today as he was fifty years ago, and is one of the best comedy actors this country has ever seen in the English theatre; plus Kersy Katrak, the late Protap Roy, and Zafar Hai, who is now a well-known film maker. Every scene featured a star performer.
And against this galaxy of stars, a very young Kabir was going to play the lead role. We worked very hard together for about six months, on his voice, on his posture, on his gesticulation, on his articulation, on everything. I also sent him to weight-training classes, because, I said, “Kabir, you’ve got a good body, but it’s a little unmuscled.” He had never done any weight training before. He said, “Okay, Alyque, I’m on. But you know, it’s very boring going for weight training on my own. Do you mind coming along?” Bloody hell! Every morning I had to get up at seven o’clock, go across to Talwalkar’s Gym and do weight training with Kabir. Of course, after a week, I dropped out because it was exhausting. But Kabir continued and he developed a superb body.
As usual, I had an obsession. To me, Tughlaq is about a man who was not ready to be emperor, but was catapulted on to the gaddi owing to the death of his father.
I was very obsessed with Jean Genet’s famous quote, “Once you wear the emperor’s robes, you become the emperor.” Remember, Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister when her father died, because there was no one else fit to take over. She was pushed into the role and then gradually she became the role. Narasimha Rao, another former Indian Prime Minister, is another example. A sort of faded backroom diplomat. Suddenly he becomes leader of the nation and finds the guts to usher in Liberalisation.
The heat of the spotlight turns a wallflower into a vibrant orchid turns an ordinary man into a mighty emperor.
I was haunted by this “man into myth’ idea. One day at the gym, I saw Kabir in his briefs doing his weights. It hit me. “My god! What a beautifully muscled back. What a well-sculpted body he’s got now.” It suddenly came to me in a flash. I saw a bare forked animal, a vulnerable naked man. And I saw him being dressed in the robes of the emperor, and when he turns to face the audience, he is the emperor.
And that’s what my version of Tughlaq was all about. I asked Girish, “Do you mind if I put in a prologue?”
He said, “Look Alyque, I wrote the play many years ago. Don’t ask me what it means. Don’t ask me about your production, just do it. I won’t come to a single rehearsal. I swear to you I won’t interfere. You forced me to translate my own Kannada play into English. I have done it. I don’t want to hear anything more about it. I will come to opening night and that’s it.”
So our prologue, which was less than two minutes long, had Kabir in the nude with his back to the audience. Well, not quite nude. He was wearing a kind of a fisherman’s langot. Just a thin string running across his buttocks but otherwise totally nude from the rear view. And on either side of him were two servitors in Moghul outfits, holding all his robes. To an eerie sound track, they dress him from head to foot. Eventually they put the emperor’s pagdi on his head. He turns to face the audience and lo and behold, a bare forked animal has now been transformed into the powerful Emperor of Hindustan.
At this point, the audience let out a huge gasp because a) Kabir is a very handsome man and b) the transformation was so incredible. Of course, it created a scandal. And scandal always creates an audience. So it became a compulsion to never miss the opening of Tughlaq. An amusing sidelight was the tussle I had with Kabir every show just before the curtain opened. I would pinch the string of the langot into a thin line which was nearly invisible...and he would try and stretch the cloth as wide as he could to cover his naked buttocks. By the intensity of the audience’s gasp, you could tell who had won the battle of the langot that night!
While Tughlaq was running, Kabir became a movie star. BR Chopra, who worked with me on many Lux film commercials with movie stars, said to me, “Hai Bhagwan! This man must be in my next movie.” He grabbed Kabir and so we had to close Tughlaq which was still running to packed houses.
Excerpted with permission from My Double Life: My Exciting Years in Theatre and Advertising, Alyque Padamsee with Arun Prabhu, Penguin India.