A romance with the stage

Theatre talk

A romance with the stage

Theatre revivalist Mohammad Ali Baig is fresh out of the ninth edition of the Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival in Hyderabad and is feeling exuberant.

The festival and the Qadir Ali Baig Foundation are tributes to his father, late Qadir Ali Baig — the towering dramatist of the 1970s and 80s, and the festival’s mandate is meaningful theatre with popular appeal. “It has been a fulfilling journey. It has got audiences back to theatre, brought in vibrancy and revived theatre in Hyderabad.

From a five-play, five-day festival it has grown into a fortnight-long, six-venues and eight-languages festival with an assembly of about 200 artistes every year!” he says, taking pride in the festival that features some of the most respected names from Indian theatre as well as globally-celebrated theatre professionals from France, Germany, Pakistan, East and South Africa, Spain and Ireland.

“I am glad that a son’s tribute to his father took the shape of a movement and gave birth to the country’s benchmark theatre event. Immodestly, I can say that it probably is the only theatre festival in India where serious theatre is sold at Rs 5,000 a seat,” he adds. The festival is woven around a theme every year. While past themes have been love stories, humour in theatre, women directors of the subcontinent and global theatre, in 2014 the theme was biographies. There was a conscious effort to include biographies of not just famous political figures or poets but even of unsung heroes, of victims of sexual and gender abuse and issues of foeticide and women’s independence. Some of the plays were based on research reports, real-life incidents and stories.

Baig says that it gives him pleasure that his theatre connects with people. “My theatre celebrates life in all its fineries. It is for people, for the audience. It is a legacy, a family responsibility. When 1,200-1,500 people flock my venue having bought tickets as high as Rs 5,000, I feel that I have a responsibility towards them. Not just as a playwright-director-actor, but also as a bearer of baba’s legacy which is paramount. Part of the audience comes in to see Qadir sahab’s son on stage. So, I feel duty-bound. My themes and productions seem to strike a chord with them, otherwise why would they give me a full house for even repeat shows?” he asks.

Reminiscing about The Festival in France where he was invited to perform his Quli: Dilon Ka Shahzaada, he says that crème de la crème of world theatre was present in the audience and they came backstage after the performance to say that they were moved. “This, even though the play is in Hindustani! My Taramati — The Legend Of An Artiste, which had 10 consecutive sold-out shows at the 250-year old Baradari on the outskirts of Hyderabad, had audiences between 16 and 80 year olds; from grandparents to fiancées of their grandchildren — all engrossed in the two-and-a-half hour spectacle with a 40-member cast, chorus dancers, horses and camels on stage.

I make history and heritage relevant, fashionable and desirable, not archaic on stage.” He adds that his Raat Phoolon Ki at Gaddafi Stadium at the World Performing Arts Festival in Lahore received a similar response, as did Savaan-e-Hayat in Canada and the US. “For me, historical is contemporary. I seriously believe that theatre should get its place of dignity and prestige, that’s the basis of my work. For me, it’s a brand, a high-end one,” he explains.

Reiterating that theatre is a visual medium, much like cinema, hence making the visual element as important as the text and performance, Baig defines his theatre as “Spectacle Theatre mounted on multiple stages with at least a 40-feet proscenium opening where the stagecraft, light and sound design, costume, jewellery and styling form an important aesthetic element of the production.

If the audience is given textbooks or scripts on stage, they might as well read it in the comfort of their study or living rooms. Not many playwrights and directors in our country realise this, as they rarely understand space, structure or visual imagery on the stage. With due respect, most of us cater to conceived and continued archaic notions about playwriting and theatre. We still consider redundant themes and outdated techniques as ‘drama’,” he says candidly.

The Padma Shri earlier this year came as a reward for his relentless efforts to give theatre the honour it deserves. “The Padma Shri is an honour. The award is a national recognition of my kind of theatre, my revival movement in Hyderabad, my approach to the performing art form and my commitment to my audience. I am grateful to the Almighty for his mercy and the admiration and love of my audience,” he says.

2014 was particularly good for the theatre personality who married Noor, his co-writer and co-actor. She is a writer from Chennai and the two of them have travelled around the world with their plays that they wrote and performed together. “Noor and I share a lot of things in common. My last two plays have been co-written by us and it is nice to have her as part of the legacy,” he smiles.

Baig has recently made Changing Lives, a documentary on life around River Musi and the hundreds who inhabit the banks of the river and their struggles. Written by Noor, the documentary talks about the slum dwellers and the devastation they faced post Cyclone Hudhud. “While my epic spectacles give me creative satiation and TV commercials bring in the moolah, documentary films bring in the feeling of doing something for society.

Baig thanks Bunty Peerbhoy (for initiating him into Odyssey Communications), Mohan Krishnan and Ram Seshu for teaching him the intricacies of visual communication. “I had spent almost a decade in Bengaluru, which was my second home before I relocated to Hyderabad.

Having been my training ground, Bengaluru has a special place in my life. It was here that I groomed as a professional and made some wonderful friends like M S Sathyu, Vani Ganapathy and many others who often are a part of my productions now,” he says. His play Savaan-e-Hayat, the sequel to Quli: Dilon Ka Shahzaada, has shows lined up at the Goa Arts Fest and in Dubai and in South Africa. “I would like to bring both my plays to Bengaluru soon,” he adds.


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