The Napa Theater Festival kicked off on Saturday with an intimate invite-only question and answer session with acclaimed Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah. Shah has been conducting workshops at NAPA while here, and will be performing during the festival. His Motley Theatre Group, formed in 1977, will be staging Ismat Apa ke Naam, a collection of three short stories by acclaimed Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai.
An experienced stage actor, Shah has an intense stage presence that makes itself felt even when chatting informally. When he talks passionately about film or theatre, the fire in his words is inspirational. Talking to a mixed group of media, theatre students and afficiondos of the performing arts Shah spoke of his career, film, theatre and acting in general. He offered some interesting nuggets of wisdom.
“A lack of resources can be a strength for theatre. Theatre should not try to compete with film, creating an illusion that the audience feels a part of. Theatre can work well without fancy scenery or props. It is about creating an illusion in the minds of the audience.”
“Theatre is about human exchange. At its best it is about energy flowing from the actor to his audience and vice versa.”
On film vs theatre
“The only difference between acting in a theatre and for a film is that you have to adjust your performance to the size of the theatre. Traditionally the film and theatre fraternities are derisive of each other – for film makers bad acting is ‘theatrical’ whereas for stage people bad acting is ‘filmy’. At the end of the day bad acting is an unrealistic performance no matter which medium you aspire to.”
“Film making is takes whereas you act for longer stretches in theatre. That is almost the only difference - apart from making sure that your theatre audience can hear you.”
On working with newcomers
“I have never regretted working with first-time directors but I have sometimes regretted working with cinema masters.”
“I enjoy working with young people. I like their fire, passion and their dreams. They remind me of how I once was.”
“An actor should be like a blank canvas – jis par koi bhi rang sachayi se nazar aaye (upon which any colour shows truly)”
On ‘commercial’ verses serious films
“I’ve always done commercial films as well as artistic and serious films. After all a man has to eat. It’s only when my commercial films were successful that people started realizing I was doing them.”
“I have done many, many dreadful films and a handful of good ones. However, you always go into a project thinking that it has some merit. No one ever accepts a film without the hope that it will be good movie.”
“Making a good film is the last priority for most filmmakers in Bollywood. The first goal is to make money. The second is to fool the audience.”
“I will always say yes to a film that deserves to be made. ZInda Bhaag was one such film.”
Advice for young writers
"At any point in history, it is writers give a new form to old stories and who tell stories that are relevant. Writers have a responsibility to record their times and to hold up a mirror to their own times”
The session was moderated by Mazar Zaidi, the producer of the film Zinda Bhaag, As a fan of Shah’s work, it was interesting to see him in such a setting. The first thing you notice is how Shah is perpetually in motion. He gesticulates, scratches his head or leg, twiddles his fingers or holds his chin as he talks. He is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, particularly about Pakistan and its fledgling theatre and film industries. He is charming and self-effacing but has strong opinions about what acting, film and theatre should be. He had plenty of pertinent advice for students or those in the industry.
He is performing in Ismat Apa Ke Naam from Wednesday 5th March to Friday 7th March at Napa. Most performances are already sold out but try to go whether you have to beg, buy or steal a ticket. It’s not often we get to see an actor of his calibre in Karachi.
Naseeruddin Shah is not the only attraction at the Napa Theatre Festival. A number of theatre companies from around the world are staging in a variety of plays. There is something for everyone, including the excellent Ali Baba aur Chalees Chor for kids. Here’s the schedule for the festival so you can decide which shows to catch. Tickets are available at Napa, Agha’s, Farid’s, The Forum and The Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture.