With his gripping aura and stellar performances, Naseeruddin Shah is a crowd-puller, bar none. Unlike other Indian personalities, such as Mahesh Bhatt and Kuldip Nayar, who are frequent visitors to Lahore, Shah’s visits are of a different nature; he comes to connect with the cultural epicentre of Pakistan through theatre.
The Motley Theatre Group, which was created by Shah, Tom Alter and Benjamin Gilani in the year 1977, has been striving to bring quality theatre to people on both sides of the border. Although there has been limited media coverage of the Motley Theatre Group itself, Shah’s visits to Lahore always evoke interest in the group’s performances. On his recent visit, Shah’s Motley Theatre Group collaborated with Faiz Ghar to bring to the people of Lahore an adaptation of Lee Blessing’s Pulitzer prize winning play, A Walk in the Woods.
The play, which is being performed at the Alhamra Arts Council, opened to a fully packed audience on December 5, 2013. While some felt relieved to have scored seats for the play, others felt a sense of pride in being in the audience, since Shah’s contribution to theatre in Lahore has refuted criticism that the arts have left the city. Taking photographs and videos was strictly prohibited by the troupe to ensure that there were limited distractions for the actors.
Adeel Hashmi, a well-known commercial actor and grandson of the legendary Faiz Ahmad Faiz, made a short introductory note, where he clarified that the play was copyrighted and that the actors had done their best; now, it was up to the audience to make the play a success. And then, the lights dimmed and the play began.
The two-hour-long English play revolves around the relationship of a senior, cynical diplomat from Karachi, Pakistan named Jamaluddin Lutfullah (Shah) with Ram Chinappa (Rajit Kapur), a young, idealistic Indian negotiator, set against the backdrop of peace talks between Pakistan and India.
The set is sparse and comprises of trees and a wooden bench, where the two diplomats meet. In an attempt to ascribe meaning to what they do, the two characters engage in a dialogue that lasts over four seasons. Despite having polarised personalities, the two develop a ‘bromantic’ relationship as they deal with the harsh realities of their countries’ bilateral relations. They acknowledge that no matter how close they get to making it, their respective governments would ultimately avoid a peace deal.
Boasting great comedic timing and offering an overall entertaining experience, the play is a success. After the play, Shah thanked the audience as he took a bow. “Whenever I perform in Lahore, the audience gives me a great response and I hold the city very highly,” said Shah.
Shah’s wife, Ratna Pathak, is the director of the play. Originally Shah, along with Faisal Rashid and Randeep Hooda, were planning to direct. A thoughtful director, Pathak hopes that the audience takes something away from the performance and that the play delivers a thought-provoking message.
“Putting together a play of this scale is ambitious; whenever we reach out to the Motley Theatre Group, who are our friends, we find nothing but goodwill,” remarks Salima Hashmi, who is Faiz’s daughter and an organiser of the event. She recited some beautiful verses of her father’s poetry during the evening’s proceedings.
Cultural icon and good friend of Shah’s, Yousuf Salahuddin, describes Shah as a lover of both Lahore and the arts. He says that Shah values the opportunity to perform in Lahore, and bringing his theatre troupe here brings immense satisfaction to the actor, mainly because it promotes positive relations and cultural interchange across borders.
“While film is something he has always maintained he does for money, theatre is very important to him because he is very interested in the arts, Faiz and poetry,” says Salahuddin. More importantly, a lot of time and effort goes into the planning of his tours to Lahore. Just last year, Shah brought his complete production team to Pakistan and performed renditions of Ismat Chughtai’s poetry.
“It’s really amazing. He is the perfect ambassador and has the ability to cast a lasting influence on people. Just one look at the people he spends time with when he comes to Lahore — students, teachers, intellectuals — can show you how important and far-reaching his work is.”
The play was performed again on December 6, and will be followed by 3 stories by PremChand on December 7 and 8, in which Shah will also be performing. Tickets priced between Rs1000-3000 will be available through Faiz Ghar.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 7th, 2013.