Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah on three decades of togetherness and the creative dynamics of a partnership that tells the story of acting in India
He first experienced the magic of theatre while performing William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in school at 14. She had access to the backstage from her earliest years. His father strongly disapproved of a profession to do with the arts. For her, the smell of greasepaint was as familiar as that of her mother’s touch. He came from an orthodox Muslim family of non- actors. Almost everyone in her immediate family (from mother Dina Pathak to aunt Shanta Gandhi) was a popular theatre or film artist. “Theatre introduced me to everyone, from Shaw to Samuel Beckett,” he says. “For me it was about the fun of watching people rehearse and then the chai and samosa breaks they’d take!” she adds.
Here is a couple that looked at the stage from opposite sides of the curtain almost all their lives, till they found each other. Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah, often referred to as the first couple of the Indian stage as well as the new wave of Indian cinema, came from worlds that were poles apart. Yet, this morning, as they share the breakfast table at their home in Bandra—which looks exactly as one would expect, with bookshelves and paintings wherever you turn—it’s difficult to say they aren’t cut from the same cloth. She’s reading a newspaper review of their newest play, Einstein. “The first half has many chuckle-worthy and light moments,” she reads out loud to him, adjusting her glasses, with great emphasis on ‘chuckle- worthy’. He takes a sip of his chai and fervently shakes his head as if to ask, ‘Does it really matter?’
Einstein, co-directed by her and performed by him as a solo act, is the most recent form of collaboration by the husband and wife whose marriage is defined by a creative partnership that spans more than three decades and defines the course of Indian acting itself, on stage and in cinema. It premiered at the ongoing Prithvi Theatre Festival this month and explores the life and mind of the legendary scientist.
“I was allergic to physics in school. I had no idea what the theory of relativity was. I am still not quite sure I completely understand it,” confesses Naseer who is probably the only Indian actor who looks the part and could attempt it with as much conviction. “I still did it because I really believe it’s the play that chooses us.”
The script of Einstein lay in his drawer for years. So did plays like The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1990) and Ismat Apa Ke Naam (2009), the best among many staged by their theatre group Motley, formed in 1979. “You have to wait for the right time to do it,” he says.
“A person like Einstein doesn’t live by emotions as much as the mind and thought. Whereas an actor lives by his emotions. So how do you play that out?” she asks hoping to find more answers over the next few shows in which the production is expected to evolve. For Naseer, this play disproved legendary director Satyadev Dubey’s famous dictum. “Dubey always said, ‘Theatre cannot be democratic.’ He said, ‘You need one person to crack the whip.’ But here there was nobody cracking it. Everyone was working together.”
Dubey is their mentor and the man largely responsible for Naseer and Ratna’s first ever encounter almost 40 years ago.
At a sugarcane juice stall outside National College in Mumbai, a bearded kurta -clad student of theatre spotted a radiant college girl with sharp eyes and sparkling diction. “I was first impressed by how clear her speech was and the fact that she spoke Hindi very well, which was a rarity in Bombay.” And then he wooed her. “Assiduously!” he adds.
They started to work together in Dubey’s production Sambhog Se Sanyas Tak (1975), which almost prophetically flagged off their love story.
“Getting to know Naseer was partly inspiring and partly disturbing,” she says, “It made me aware of my short comings and how little I knew. That’s what inspired me greatly to go to the [National School of Drama].”
“An actor basically trains himself or herself, there is no textbook. Just that being in an institute is conducive to learning,” Naseer says. “It gives you the opportunity to try out what your ideas are,” Ratna adds. “And you are exposed to a lot more than you will be otherwise,” he concludes.
They don’t just complete each other’s thoughts. It’s a lot more than that. An almost manic devotion towards their passion has kept them together for 32 years now. After six years of knowing each other, they tied the knot in an inconspicuous ceremony in their Mumbai home in 1982. He had separated from his first wife Manara Sikri (the mother of his oldest child, Heeba) within a year of marriage. Naseer was just 20 at the time. Twelve years later, he was most certain of his union with Ratna. “What were your thoughts on marriage? Did you think it’s going to tie you down forever?” she prods him with a smile, “I thought I’d make him a better man, you see.”
“That she has,” he admits, “Without a doubt!”
Both their careers, however, took very different trajectories. Naseer was constantly employed and the only work Ratna was being offered was by Dubey. It was also a time when actors like Naseer, Om Puri, Smita Patil, Farooq Sheikh, Shabana Azmi and Deepti Naval were redefining cinema in the 70s and 80s. The divide between art house and commercial cinema broadened. Naseeruddin Shah soon became the face of the offbeat. Some of his best work, including films like Ardh Satya, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron and Masoom, came to him post-marriage. “I wouldn’t say it in an unqualified way that all of my best work came in the 80s. There was a lot of rubbish also at that time in the guise of art,” he says. “But that’s alright. What vanity it is to expect that you will get great work all your life!” she counters.
She was always his voice of reason. He’d bounce his scripts off her, but wouldn’t always follow her advice. “Thank God for that!” she says. “Naseer has an instinctive ability to see through that proposal of what makes a ‘hit’ film. His interest is always on the work and not on the peripherals of that work. What will I gain from it, will I get another film like this, will I get the money, will I build a network—all these were things most actors, myself included, were going on and on about. But Naseer had only one notion: ‘What interests me’,” she says.
Being idealistic about the work one wants to do is never easy and so there were times when Naseer decided to bite the bullet. “The money is not to be sneezed at, but I don’t think I’ve ever done a film only for the money. Except maybe this film called Jackpot [in 2013]. There was a time when I wanted to increase my audience base and I never felt the need to justify why. Mujhe hero banna thha…kisko nahi banna hai?” he asks bluntly.
Then came a film called Tridev (1989), which Ratna confesses ran their kitchen for a long time. “He’s always been nervous about dancing, but when I saw him in Oye Oye, I thought he was doing whatever he was expected to very comfortably. I can’t say that he was enjoying himself in the way a Shammi Kapoor does, but then I don’t know too many other actors who do that. At least he had worked harder than Rajesh Khanna ever did on dancing,” she says. “Oh no, that’s actually a horrible comparison, isn’t it?” she asks him. “Yes,” he says, “Considering there is a ‘slight’ difference in star stature between Rajesh Khanna and me.”
Despite being fine actors in their own league, Naseer and Ratna did not choose to work together very often. They have only four films together: Mandi (1983), Mirch Masala (1985), Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na (2008) and The Coffin Maker (2011).
“I work better with actors I don’t have a personal equation with,” says Naseer. “We had one scene in Mirch Masala where Ratna was a village girl and I had called her into my tent to seduce her. I was very uncomfortable doing that scene. The camera catches moments you don’t intend to—and that may or may not be a good thing.” The stage, however, he points out, is different. “Which is why you often see husband- wife teams in theatre, but not many in cinema.”
Apart from their choice of roles, they are one couple who are famous for not mincing words in expressing their opinions, both political and personal. It is indeed rare in an industry where outspokenness is considered a vice. Naseer recently called Farhan Akhtar’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag a ‘fake film’ since he saw it as a movie more about Farhan’s physique and less about Milkha Singh’s achievements as an athlete. She, on the other hand, found Sholay “deeply embarrassing” to watch.
“I don’t think I’m misunderstood. They understand me and that is why they take offence. No regrets, though. I have friends who have stayed and those who have fallen by the wayside weren’t friends in the first place,” says Naseer.
For Ratna, the times we live in today are worrisome. “We are the last of the bloody liberals left. Today, girls are doing karva chauth! C’mon, that’s what we fought against,” she says. “Today, girls as young as two are wearing hijabs. Muslim boys are growing beards claiming it’s a sense of identity,” says Naseer. “We lived in much more liberal times where you were expected to have your own opinion. Now everyone wants to have one opinion—which is a dangerous thing for us,” she adds.
That may perhaps be why the cinema their children are part of today hardly makes the kind of statement it did in their time. “Naseer and I have a long- lasting battle about talent. He doesn’t think there’s any such thing as talent. But as Robert de Niro once said, ‘Talent consists of the choices you make.’ To me, that is a very good description because that really separates the wheat from the chaff.” And what of the future? Theatre will obviously continue so long as they live. “I owe everything to theatre. My learning, my understanding of life. Why do you think I keep going back to it?” says Naseer.
However, what they do wish is for their children to find a lot more than just cinematic success. Naseer’s recently released autobiography And Then One Day has a moving account of his unresolved relationship with his father. It is something he was keen not to replicate with his own children Heeba, Vivaan and Imaad. “We have enjoyed having our bachchas,” they say almost in unison. “Our kids enjoy spending time with us—which not many kids feel like doing today. I certainly did not when I was 20 or 21 and neither did Ratna. We don’t impose ourselves on them. We let them be,” he adds. But they do have some advice for them. He says, “If our children choose to make films a profession, good luck to them. My wish really is that they can do something more with their lives than just be Hindi film stars.” She adds, “Becoming a star is an ephemeral thing. Anyone can make money, but to make a life for yourself, something that will keep you happy to wake up every morning, that will be a life with purpose.” Says Naseer, “That’s all that one can hope. And one hopes that Hindi commercial cinema will improve.”
“It’s like wishing for… the moon,” she finishes for him.