'I can’t write a book about any part of my life. I can’t even have a competitive husband angle': Ratna Pathak Shah
Theatre is a big binding force in the ‘happily-ever-after story’ of actors Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah.
There is a buzz around Yashwantrao Natya Mandir, a prominent landmark in Matunga, Mumbai’s central neighbourhood and for a good reason. Members of Motley theatre group are in the midst of rehearsals with founder, thespian Naseeruddin Shah along with collaborator and spouse Ratna Pathak Shah in attendance too!
As we sit down on the available props without any fuss for a quick conversation about their life together on stage and off it, it is easy to see why Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah are considered Indian theatre’s First Couple and the last of the liberals. Given their standing as cultural impresarios, it is startling to see that there is no entourage fussing over them. That the same rules apply to them as they do to the rest of their team is a rare feature that separates the Shahs from most stars in the business. Both emotional and proud of 40 years of creative collaboration under Motley, their biggest achievement, they agree modestly is having established a collaborative process of running the group.
“Motley was terribly amorphous then and is terribly amorphous now,” says Ratna, adding that it is (so) because of Naseer. “It takes a confident person to take other people’s opinions on board.”
A fun fact about the couple — they first met during a play titled Sambhog Se Sanyas Tak, directed by the late Satyadev Dubey. It was love at first sight, they agree in unison, although Ratna quickly revises her version. What remains an irrefutable fact though is that their time together has been so intermingled with theatre that it’s difficult to separate the two.
While it was Naseeruddin Shah who co-founded Motley with friend Benjamin Gilani, Ratna got involved with the group soon after and her contribution, he admits, has been immense.
With 40 years of theatre under Motely banner and memorable plays like Ismat Aapa Ke Naam, Dear Liar, The Father, A Walk in the Woods to their credit, it’s no revelation that the two can’t imagine a life without it.
Shah with characteristic nonchalance says, “It’s been great fun and very rewarding.” Almost finishing off his sentence, Ratna adds, “We have built up relationships (over 150 people) with so many people along the way.”
It would be accurate to say that theatre remains their common and first love, one that adds purpose to their lives.
“What else would we do with our evenings? We don’t party, we are not the clubbing types—rehearsals is what occupies us,” quips the thespian.
Theatre, according to them has not merely honed their acting skills but helped them hold on to sanity in the world of mediocre work as far as movies and television shows are concerned. Their deep commitment to safeguarding theatre in fact, keeps their creative partnership firmly on track despite differences of opinions. For instance, they both concur that theatre must reflect the truth of its times.
Strikingly, both actors are equally fastidious in emphasising the importance of their significant other and what they bring to the table.
“I always consider that any of the productions I have done have always been directed by the two of us, not by me alone because of the immense input that’s provided by her,” says Shah.
On her part, Ratna observes that his influence has been far reaching and all pervading. “He’s God!” she adds impishly, both breaking into a comfortable laughter that hint at many years of creative camaraderie.
“Naseer is in charge of the rehearsals. That is his special skill. I come in with suggestions as we go along. I come in with organising stuff, design, who to get to contribute to what,” she details.
Their compatibility and firm belief in being equal partners, quells the possibility of a professional or creative rivalry. When I put the question to them, they mull over it with a degree of amusement before Ratna replies, “I am sorry, my life is terribly boring. I can’t write a book about any part of my life. I can’t even have a competitive husband angle!”
Shah, who has been listening attentively so far, differs with Ratna on whether her life events make good material for creative repurposing or not. Woody Allen’s films and Ismat Chughtai’s stories, he points out, are marvellous for the fact at how they turn a little incident into a complete story.
However, the one thing they most certainly agree on is that a life together dedicated to theatre has been very satisfying. One that they would not trade for anything in the world.
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