An affair to remember for long

Comedies are his forte and he is adept at holding fort on stage. Purnima Sharma gets theatreperson Sayeed Alam to share his stagecraft

Sayeed Alam as Ghalib in 'Ghalib In New Delhi'.

One of the most popular names in contemporary theatre, Sayeed Alam’s first brush with stage was as an actor while still at school. However, upon growing up, it was as a scriptwriter that he decided to take theatre seriously. Having just finished with his ‘Laughtival’ — a festival of comedies, the theatreperson settles down for a chat on his journey with theatre…   

You started out as an academician and were even teaching at the Aligarh Muslim University. How did theatre happen?

Well, it began when I was still at school in a non-descript town of Bahraich in UP. The two plays I did there still remain fresh in my memory — while the first was an English one, the second play was in Urdu. The latter was particularly interesting because it was staged as a mushaira (poetic gathering) based on the living poets of the time. I played Wasim Barelvi, an eminent Urdu shayar. I recently met him at an event where both of us were performing and I felt very proud of my theatrical journey — from playing Berelvi sahib in the early 1970s to performing with him in 2018 was a great honour. When I grew up and joined Aligarh Muslim University, I could have taken theatre seriously but somehow could not muster enough courage to join its amazing University Drama Club. But I used to watch all its plays. And this, I must admit, unwittingly ‘trained’ me in the finer points of theatre.

Soon after shifting to Delhi in the late 80s, I joined a news agency and was also busy with my PhD but somehow felt that there was something else in store for me. That’s when I accidentally met theatre guru Ashok Purang, who was running a theatre group called Pierrot’s Troupe. As we got talking, he asked me to adapt an English play called Letter To An Unborn Child into Urdu, which I did without even reading the complete original script. When it was staged, the play got some great reviews in major national dailies. And that’s when I realised that theatre was my calling.

Sayeed Alam as Shah Jahan in ‘Shah Jahan-O-Mumtaz’.
Sayeed Alam as Shah Jahan in ‘Shah Jahan-O-Mumtaz’.

Have you been making a conscious effort to revive Urdu theatre?

Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say that. It’s just that most of the subjects chosen for my plays are better expressed in Urdu, and, to some extent, literary Urdu. To give you some examples, plays like Ghalib, Maulana Azad, Mushaira, Iqbal or even KL Saigal made a tremendous impact because they were staged in Urdu. However, here I must stress that Urdu and Hindi are not too apart, especially in the drama arena. Hindi is the original, historical and correct name of Urdu. And I have not had to make any effort to bring Urdu close to my audiences. More often than not, they love its phonetics and realise that when spoken sweetly, Hindi becomes Urdu.   

Amidst all this talk of Hindi and Urdu, how come a French sounding name for your theatre group? 

Well, the troupe was founded by Purang sahib in 1989. Since he specialised in European languages, he named it after a famous French pantomime character. If I’m not wrong, he did a couple of French plays with Manoj Bajpayee those days. So when he left for Bombay and handed over the group to us, we saw no reason to change its name. This is even when we had started doing Hindi and Urdu plays. And so, Pierrot’s Troupe remained as Pierrot’s Troupe. In fact, we jokingly call it ‘The most pronounced and the least pronounceable theatre group of India’.      

 How difficult is it for theatre artistes to survive in today’s world when TV seduces many of the serious ones away?

Very difficult. Even in a commercial group like ours at the end of a houseful — a highly priced show — a senior actor does not earn more than Rs 5,000 for one performance. That’s when the gentlemen doing lead roles drift towards TV, doing largely obscure roles but earning ten times more than what he did with us.

 

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