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Life is but a stage

Life is but a stage
Highlights

It was during the annual Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival in November this year; has become the tradition, QABF’s new play ‘Under an Oak Tree’ was to...

It was during the annual Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival in November this year; has become the tradition, QABF’s new play ‘Under an Oak Tree’ was to have its first show at Ravindra Bharathi, Hyderabad. The set looked beautiful under the warm lighting, with the lush oak tree in the middle as the background that would become an integral part of the play, antique furniture, rugs and vintage pictures of Qadir Ali Baig, with his horse, in his theatre costume adorning the makeshift wall on one side and a relatively modern look on the other.

Noor Baig – Mohammad Ali Baig’s partner in crime and life created a script for a monologue that was to chart Baig’s life as a child growing amidst horses and theatre, his moving away from Hyderabad to make a living in advertising after he lost his father and his return to stage to be where he is today – heading a thriving foundation promoting theatre in Hyderabad, a Padmashri awardee, who is only upping the ante each year.

A biographical play that has the protagonist playing himself is a situation that has all the trappings of self-indulgence – to take up such a theme is indeed a brave thing to do. Noor Baig and Mohammad Ali Baig pulled it off with aplomb. Life is but a stage, and in recreating life in a tight script (one-hour long to be precise) with all the emotions and drama intact to ensure there isn’t a dull moment gave it a universal appeal and ensured the couple have a winner at hand.

Excerpts from the interview:

What inspired you to pen down a biography?
NB: Writing a script or a novel based on Mohammad Ali Baig’s unusual and memory-rich childhood and adulthood has always been a lingering idea. Over the period of getting to know each other, he shared so many interesting anecdotes about his childhood and work experiences around the world. It’s been very inspiring to get inside the mind of a young achiever who made 450 ad-films before the age of 35 (including the country’s biggest ad film then), and then later got drawn back to his roots – theatre. A fascinating life journey that deserved to be expressed as a story. What struck me most about his journey – and what I find to be the narrative arc of this play – is the fact that he grew up with his father’s theatre in the background, ran far away from it only to return to make his own path.

What were the hurdles you faced while writing the play?
NB: To write this play was a tempting challenge as it drew from real-life incidents. The writing was free-flow and chronological, but the challenge was in chiselling the structure of this piece. There is a huge storehouse of memories, lessons, losses and glory in the family history. So, one had to pick what to keep and what to make public. As a writer, it was extremely gratifying to be able to take these personal observations and experiences to an audience, rather than a blog post or a tell-all book. Also, since it was to be a largely solo piece, the emphasis was on it being a third-person storytelling format. I took liberties in sketching some private thoughts but most of them seem to have been bang-on – about my husband’s reactions to them.

What was the process that went into creating the sets?
MAB: Aesthetics is a crucial element of my approach to theatre, be it in design, décor, scenography or text. They set the tone for my plays. ‘Under an Oak Tree’ unfolds against an Asaf Jahi backdrop. Set pieces include those of a plush modern pad and a heritage haveli with sepia frames, antiques, Persian rugs, polo gear and curios from our residence. The main element is the oak tree that forms a metaphorical character in the play – and plays a crucial part in the rain sequence symbolising a catharsis in the narrator’s life.

What was challenging for you to read your own story on stage?
MAB: It was as challenging as other characters I have played, be it ‘Quli Qutub Shah’, ‘Dada Saheb Phalke’, ‘Javed’ or ‘Turrebaz Khan’ or even the cop Shakeel in Tamil film ‘Aruvi’. I detached myself from the experiences and approached it as an objective outsider, as preparing for any character in the script. The interesting element here is the fine line between the narrator and protagonist that I had to keep not treading upon as an actor.

Can you share an unforgettable moment from the play?
MAB: Well, the rain scene came as a surprise to the audience at its premiere at the ‘Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival’ in Ravindra Bharathi.

How was it to narrate your life on stage?
MAB: It was cathartic and meaningful from the perspective of a performer and to watch how it connects with audiences.

What was your mother’s reaction to play?
MAB: Ammi was initially sceptical about the personal nature of the content, but found the play to have a life of its own, beyond all of us. There are references to her – and all mothers in general – but she seemed not to react on those.

Tell us about your participation in Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda Festival and UK premiere in London?
MAB: This is the third consecutive UK premiere for our home production. ‘Spaces’ (2015) and ‘1857: Turrebaz Khan’ (2016) had their UK premieres in London. In fact, ‘1857: Turrebaz Khan’ had its world premiere at the Edinburgh Fest with a weeklong run of ‘Quli: Dilon ka Shahzaada’. So, audiences at most of these festivals in the US, Europe, and Canada and in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata have connected deeply with these plays. Although the premise of all these has been Hyderabad’s heritage and history, its universality was evident in audiences’ applause and tears. And that’s what has made this journey fulfilling, to be performing to world audiences globally.

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