AT FIRST IT’s a bit odd to think of Ratna Pathak Shah as Naseeruddin Shah’s daughter in the latest Motley play, The Father. You wonder why she chose that role. But to watch the play is to witness 40 years of her theatre experience unfold before you. She plays the devout daughter of a man who has Alzheimer’s disease and is losing grip on his life. It is a subtle yet heartbreaking role reversal where we see the daughter now taking care of a father, who has nearly been reduced to a baby and needs to be spoon fed.
At times she is his mother, dictating what he should and shouldn’t do. And the next minute she is his little girl, asking him for advice. She’s vulnerable, yet resolute. The characters are complex and deal with multiple emotions as they grapple with a situation that stretches them almost to breaking point. This is what seems to have attracted Ratna to The Father, which she has co-directed with Naseer.
“Alzheimer’s is not a very well-understood condition by lay people and yet a lot of us either have old parents or are going to become old ourselves. And we know this is in store. It’s a difficult play for the audience as well. It makes you uncomfortable. The play is non- linear in its narrative, scenes are repeated and it really needs you to follow the mind of the characters every minute,” says Ratna who speaks about The Father with great fervour. “It’s what theatre is, what it’s always been. It’s the driving force. Every time you do this, it’s a new self that you explore,” she says.
With 60 shows of the play scheduled over the coming two months—more or less one show per day—English theatre in Mumbai is witnessing something altogether new. “There are some plays that don’t last very long. Intellectually you start getting bored by them. You have exhausted what you can discover. A lot of Marathi and Gujarati commercial plays, I can see the actors are thoroughly and completely exhausted with this work. But it is to be done because it means food on the table, and they do it,” she says.
Sitting at her peaceful little Bandra abode, surrounded by walls covered with posters of various plays, Ratna exudes the energy of an artist who has found a whole new dimension to her craft. Her love for the form surpasses the exhaustion of rehearsals, or the compulsion to find something new within her character every time she performs.
It’s been a packed year for Ratna with her new play, the revival of her hit TV show Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai (2017) and of course the feature film Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017), among the most debated films of the year. As an actor who has always yearned for busy days, she revels in performance, and confesses that she is receiving the kind of attention that she never got in her younger days.
“The films I was part of were influential. But I really never got the kind of work I hoped I’d get within those films. My roles were completely innocuous and had undemanding things to do. Most of the time, I was not important enough even to register in the directors’ minds. In Mandi (1983), I had a scene or two, and same goes for Mirch Masala (1987). These were never roles significant enough for me to sink my teeth into,” says the 60-year-old.
One never knows when an actor will find a role that changes everything for her. That one role that makes you re-evaluate the very idea of life and freedom. Thirty-four years after her debut in cinema (with Heat and Dust, 1983), Ratna has found that freedom with Lipstick. As the elderly lonely widow Usha aka Buaji, who yearns for love, she explored novel aspects of her thespian self. “I really had to exert myself to play that part because I never understood that lack of freedom and what it does to your psyche. It’s only when I spoke to women who have grown up like that, I understood how it felt. The feeling of being constantly belittled. The feeling of living in a society that is vicious to anyone who is not toeing the line—and mind you, this can happen to men also,” she says.
I never understood lack of freedom and what it does to your psyche. It’s only when I spoke to women who have grown up like that, I understood how it felt. The feeling of being constantly belittled
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Perhaps that is why her performance in the film is not just the strongest, but is laced with nuances of female expression, which few actors can muster. Watching Usha, many ordinary women were forced to rethink their very identities. They detached themselves from being wives and mothers and even daughters, and looked at themselves as simply women. It was undoubtedly a bold role; it challenged her both physically and emotionally, especially since Usha was so removed from Ratna in real life.
“I always got all the freedom I wanted. So my initial response to a character like that was to fight back. But this woman was so trapped in her own home. She was someone without a positive sense of self. There are many women who don’t respond, even when they are feeling very wronged . Women who are flawed, scared, strong, and women who find their own freedom, but not in the mirchi-throwing-dharna-kind of way. Women like my mami (aunt) who was a traditionalist, a homemaker, and who showed extreme grace in all situations. She is very underrated and it’s only when that person goes that’s when that person is missed. It was the complete opposite of me and it was first time I really ever got a role I could dig my teeth into,” she says.
Of course, as a young girl, the challenges Ratna faced were different. She grew up among artistically and financially independent women who had a huge influence on her personality. Her mother Dina Pathak and her aunt Shanta Gandhi were stalwart performers in their own right. Ratna was always the backstage child, who watched the women of her family on stage. Yet, there were times she felt like a fish out of water. In her words, she liked to rock the boat, “I didn’t really fit in anywhere. I grew up in a Parsi environment in Dadar Parsi colony, but I was not one of them. On the other hand, there were the gujjus, I didn’t really feel like one of them, and neither did I feel like the Punjabis which were my dad’s side of the family. I was always the outsider and very happy being one. I was always the one looking in. It gives you a perspective, for one. It can make you nice and sharp and you can take whatever you want from it.”
She knew people she wanted to emulate, but not copy. She wanted to be her own person and was always encouraged to be one. “Fortunately nobody said ‘ladki ho, yeh mat karna’ (You’re a girl, don’t do this). Even in my extended family or married family, there was nobody like that. I have been brought up thinking you’re going to have to work. You’re not going to be married off. You’re a professional, you have to stand on your own feet.”
However, after graduating from National School of Drama, getting work that she really believed in was difficult. While her contemporaries like Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri became the face of a new kind of movement in Indian cinema, she was expected to hang around at the sidelines. “I don’t consider myself part of that phase. I didn’t get any work, or work of very little consequence at that point. Naseer, Om, Smita (Patil) and Shabana (Azmi) were a parallel star system. I have to say they made it impossible for other fairly good and fairly deserving actors to get more work, like Deepti Naval or even Bhakti Barve for that matter who deserved a lot more. It was a star system of another type that operated. I do feel resentful about that and it’s not surprising,” says Ratna.
We were asked to have our own world view but today everyone is telling kids to toe the line. Get a job, make money, buy a car, travel, that’s it. That doesn’t make a life
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She felt valued only years later for her work as an actor, in TV shows such as Filmi Chakkar (1995), Tara (1997) and Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai (2005). While the 90s witnessed a downfall in quality Hindi cinema, television proved to be a great platform for actors like Ratna. It was also where audiences got a chance to encounter her impeccable comic timing. “I found comedy and paying work in TV. Doing theatre was hard work, and you got Rs 15 at the end of the day. It was tough to sustain yourself. Television gave me that opportunity to stand on my own feet. And most importantly it [rid] me of this desperate need to be a dramatic actress since I was always surrounded by the gujju melodrama mode.”
Today, she does a film a year, continues with her theatre and hopes to encourage social change in whatever way she can. “I have done so little of it I am actually having fun working in films. It’s hard to meet an actor these days who has fun shooting. Out of a whole day’s work, it’s a lucky day if you managed to do two minutes of real acting,” she says.
Her attitude reflects in the roles she picks. She believes ‘meaningful’ cinema can only do that much, and real change can only come from people who want it. “Films cannot solve the problem of women’s rights in this county. One film like Pink doesn’t stop women from being attacked,” she says.
According to her, even in the 70s and 80s, films only gave hope and didn’t foster change. “Mirch Masala and Umbartha (1982) showed women fight, but was that enough? They were nice little fantasies that didn’t translate onto the ground. The fight of a woman against a subedar is not like that in real life as anyone living in rural India will tell you. The sarpanch of the village is able to do things no amount of mirchi throwing is going to cure.” she adds. For her, the lack of hope in Lipstick Under My Burkha is more realistic. “I think Lipstick is a more nuanced and more real look at women’s lives today. Less rose spectacles. Ask yourself what is your maid’s life like? Is it more like Lipstick or Mirch Masala?”
Ratna has a knack of voicing unpleasant truths. A few years ago, she told me, “We were the last of the liberals. Today young girls are keeping Karva Chauth. Come on, that’s what we fought against.” She sticks to that belief, though she feels more empathetic towards the generation of today. “I see the young kids who come to watch our plays today. There is much more information but a lot more despair among them. It’s because they are feeling like they are getting no answers from anywhere.”
She feels today’s generation is suffering more than she did in her youth. “We were asked to have our own world view, but today everyone is telling kids to toe the line. Get a job, make money, buy a car, travel abroad, that’s it. That doesn’t make a life. Large numbers of educated people think like this. Youngsters feel they have disappointed people who have ‘invested’ in them. I’m sorry but my kid is not an investment. I can’t think of that child as X amount of rupees spent over X number of years. I see so many parents doing it and, unwittingly, other friends are doing it. What are we doing to our youth?”
Ratna has never been one to shy away from uncomfortable truths. By virtue of being an artist she hopes to one day give form to her ideas through a film of her own. “Stanley Kubrick once went up to the great British filmmaker Alexander Korda. He was 18 or 19 then and he said ‘Mr Korda, I have a great idea’. Korda turned around and said to him, ‘My cook has a great idea. When you have a script, come back to me.’ We all have great ideas, no scripts. We should work on that both in film and in life,” she says.