Pioneering plays of a kind

theatre talk

Pioneering plays of a kind

Mohammad Ali Baig and Noor Baig are no strangers to theatrical applause and appreciation, whether in their homeland Hyderabad, in any other part of India, or even on foreign soil. But this year, something even more special happened to the creative couple.

Post the global acclaim for their plays Quli: Dilon ka Shahzaada and Savaan-e-Hayat in France, Canada and the US, Baig was invited to premiere his play Spaces, written by Noor, in Chicago. But the Chicago premiere got delayed and the couple had to prep themselves for the premieres in Istanbul and London that came by.

“It was a challenge third time around to present our work to foreign audiences  with the Indian and Hyderabadi heritage intact. Challenge, because the time frame and socio-cultural milieu was to be made acceptable to a global audience,” says Mohammad Baig. And it was a mission successfully accomplished. “There’s a certain thrill and fulfillment when you present your original work to a global audience  and you are accorded a standing ovation,” he adds, visibly thrilled. Not just Turkey, London, Delhi and Mumbai, the Baigs held Bengaluru spellbound recently with Spaces. Just sometime ago, the play received a standing ovation at Mumbai’s NCPA Festival, attended by stalwarts of Indian theatre.

The son of eminent theatre personality Qadir Ali Baig, Mohammad Ali Baig is aware of the responsibility that the sobriquet ‘global face of Hyderabadi theatre’ carries. Earlier this year, he was invited to Istanbul and London for two retrospectives of his plays, the only Asian dramatist to be accorded the honour. In Turkey especially, it was a historic tour as his was the first ever Indian theatre repertory to present its work with three heritage plays:  Quli: Dilon ka Shahzaada, Savaan-e-Hayat and Spaces.

Overwhelming responses

“The response was overwhelming and the audience was varied. There were people from Turkey, Armenia, Bosnia, Uzbekistan, Iran and Azerbaijan out there who were moved by my theatre. In London, the pick of English theatre-lovers gave us a similar response. Theatre truly transcends boundaries — geographic, linguistic or cultural. Theatre is universal and timeless. And I also strongly believe that theatre is a visual medium, so the visual appeal is as important as the content.”

“Wherever we have travelled so far, it has been gratifying to see audiences connect so deeply to the universality of our themes such that they quote dialogues and subtexts back to us,” says Noor, adding, “In London, the audience held us back after the curtain call solely to ask more questions on Quli and Bhagmati, expressing their gratitude at having introduced them to Hyderabad’s history. When we played out Spaces, they said it reminded them of their own life story. There was a Turkish girl who felt she was watching herself in the protagonist Aziza; a Delhi mom said she relived the relationship she had with her father whom she lost over 20 years ago! One man in New York came up to say that his childhood memories were rekindled while watching the banter of the household staff. It has been touching, both as writers and performers, to evoke such poignant feedback from varied audiences.”

With every play in their repertoire being grand (and that’s putting it mildly), the Baigs certainly don’t travel light. So, while the acclaim is very gratifying, travelling with their production requires logistical wizardry.

Baig confesses, “The largeness of my productions is sometimes a deterrent while travelling. As a result, I abstain from attending several festivals that can’t afford these.”
Challenging times

Noor adds that the beauty is in adapting the play to suit new circumstances. “It’s such a thrill to be challenged and to see how we can transport our stories to such settings. Quli: Dilon ka Shahzaada and Spaces, although rooted in certain ambiences, are both designed as “portable” productions. I remember this year in Turkey, Mohammad Baig worked with technicians who could speak only Turkish. It was such a struggle, but the results on stage were magical!”

Originality of content is plaguing Indian theatre, Mohammad says. “The handful of plays that most directors attempt time and again seem to be from the same few playwrights who, at their prime, were influenced by the post-war European writers. Though they have attempted Indianising plays, streaks of their influences loom large, making them dated and pretty redundant,” he laments. Most writing in Indian theatre, in his opinion, is done without a sense of space, design, performance or production.

“That is what will pull audiences in, not dramatisations of written text on stage. What I attempt in my productions is to give my audience an experience of total theatre — dance, music, performance, literature, poetry, painting, and sculpture.”

According to Noor, more than films and television, the biggest distraction is the one that can be carried — smartphones and the internet. “Attention spans have rapidly decreased. But even then, theatre will thrive because it appeals to what is essentially alive in each one of us. Its human warmth touches people in a way beyond graphics and recorded images. It may be tougher to grab attention initially, but once drawn in, it’s hard to look away.”

Tenth Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival

The tenth edition of the Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival has just concluded with ‘Adaptations’ as this year’s theme. There were plays adapted from films, short stories, books and novels by Pankaj Kapur, Mahesh Bhatt, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, K K Raina, Ila Arun, Ramesh Talwar, Akash Khurana, Kitu Gidwani, NCPA and IPTA. Spaces was also performed. This is the only theatre festival in India which hosts 200 artistes from different parts of the country and several foreign countries too, even though it has no venue of its own. “Despite the challenges in a city like Hyderabad, ours is among the four largest theatre festivals of the subcontinent,” says Mohammad Ali Baig.

‘SPACES’
Spaces is a story by Noor, set across generations, across post-Independence Madras and modern-day Chennai. Mohammad suggested that it be adapted into a play and both of them found that Hyderabad formed a backdrop they were familiar with. The play is about an independent-minded only child on the verge of marriage; about a widowed mother and the decisions she has to make from the head, not the heart; about expat Indians who discover themselves in a new context; about loyal staff who have their attachments and expectations from the wards they have seen grow up. A story about a family, long-distance love, spirituality and philosophy, Spaces is served with a dash of subtle humour.

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