Celebrating three decades of incredible theatre, magical Motley continues to experiment with truth
Reema Gehi Mumbai
In the winter of 1977, at a coffee house in Lucknow's Hazrat campus, two young actors, Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani, fostered a dream of staging a play. What was an eclectic dream grew into a bigger passion and soon transformed into reality.
Back then, the two ambitious, highly creative actors were grappling with their own financial perils and a struggle which seemed relentless. They had to select a play which didn't outlay much. Consequently, they chose to stage Samuel Beckett's masterwork, Waiting for Godot. "It fitted the bill perfectly since the play required a minimal set and only a handful of actors," quips Benjamin. In the months and years to come, the play became a legendary epical narrative, staged various times all over the country to packed audiences, a classical rendition of studied,great theatre.
Having read Beckett's literary work of genius during his college days, Gilani concedes, that he never managed to go beyond the first page. At the outset, the two didn't know what to make of it, but gradually, got their heads around the 'absurd-text'. Soon, actors Tom Alter and Kenny Desai joined the cast and inevitably, became part of the group. Together, they put up the production at Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai, July 29, 1979, which, incidentally, also marked the ignition of the remarkable theatre group: 'Motley'.
Later, actors Ratna Pathak and Akash Khurana joined the Motley bunch. Today, the group also comprises Jairaj Patil, Manoj Pahwa, Seema Pahwa, Lovleen Mishra and a league of second-generation actors including Heeba Shah, Rahil Gilani Randeep Hooda, Ankur Vikal, Rakesh Om and Imaad Shah. An emotional Ratna Pathak, an amazing actress, shares, "I did all my growing up in Motley and it has become the prime focus of my theatrical work. Being part of the group has both changed and moulded me. There has been a huge amount of growth as an actress, with the kind of parts I got to play, and the writers I came in touch with."
Over the last 30 years, Motley has experimented with the various genres of theatre. Their miscellaneous portfolio comprises Edward Albee's Zoo Story, Neil Simon's The Odd Couple, Jerome Kilty's Dear Liar, Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, George Bernard Shaw's Androcles and the Lion, and a medley of Hindustani productions - Ismat Aapa Ke Naam, followed by plays like Manto... Ismat Haazir Hain, Safaid Jooth Kaali Shalwar, and Katha Collage I & II. The much-acclaimed Hindustani plays are mainly adaptations of stories penned by iconoclastic, great writers like Saadat Hasan Manto, Munshi Premchand, Kamtanath, and Ismat Chughtai.
Explains Naseeruddin Shah, "English is the language in which I think and communicate, but there was an innate need to do a play in my mother-tongue. But we discovered that there are very few plays written in Urdu. So, one had to resort to their skilled writing, which to my mind is astounding."
Ratna concurs, "It's remarkable how very little has changed in our country and that sharp and bitter criticism of our society six-decades ago in their stories is still the same and relevant."
Of late, Motley has been gravitating towards storytelling. Perhaps, for that reason, recently, Naseeruddin collaborated with artistes Mahamood Farooqi and Danish Hussain to stage Dastangoi - the lost art of storytelling in Urdu. "Dastangoi is a bare stage with two actors and the words. I thought there could be no greater challenge for a theatre actor than to sit in front of an audience and tell a story and yet gauge their attention," says Naseeruddin.
Inevitably, the younger generation of Motley actors seem to have carried on with the story-telling trend and adopted the lessons learnt. Last year, with the production of All Thieves, the older repertoire, officially, passed on the baton to the young members of the group. Ankur, Heeba, Imaad and Rakesh, along with senior actor, Denzil Smith, adapted and directed several short stories by legendary authors like Italo Calvino, Haruki Murakami, Kamtanath and Mohan Rakesh.
Ankur ponders, "The biggest lesson I have learnt from Motley is that you never really know enough. There's not much time to get smug in life, one can always get better as a human first and then, as an actor. I think the intention behind doing a play sets us apart." Heeba Shah adds, "If you are working on a Motley play, you have to get obsessed with it and work on it. I remember times when there were five-six people sitting in the audience and now we have people who want to be part of the group."
Her brother Imaad, too, owes his humble knowledge of the theatre to his association with Motley. He reasons, "Just being part of the thought process of the actors or the logistics of staging a production - the hands-on experience has taught me a lot," he drawls.
It has been 30-long years and Motley has stood and survived the test of theatre in an aesthetic context perennially burdened with problems of funding. Naseeruddin states, "Our Motley theatre group is self-sustaining. Our plays are moderately priced and they make a small demand on the audience. We've survived because we have all believed in the plays which we have chosen to do. It has indeed been a great and fun-filled journey. There's no other activity in life which is as pleasurable as working in theatre."
An expression manifested when the group helmed a festival together to commemorate the completion of three-decades of Motley last month at Prithvi. Subjectively, Benjamin concludes, "It's hard to believe that 30-years have gone by. But, like all parents, their grown-up children, will always be babies for them."