Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah might not have been a couple if not for theatre. How Naseer met this “striking-looking girl who henceforth I could not keep my eyes off,” while sipping sugarcane juice with theatre guru Satyadev Dubey, is now part of his autobiography, And Then One Day. “I took to her the moment I saw her, and I really felt that I would like to get to know her. I even considered the possibility of spending my life with her…. We had not yet spoken to each other…but somehow I felt certain she was my kind of person,” recollects Naseer in his memoir.
They were destined to be a couple, and the stage brought them together. In Dubey’s play, Sambhog Se Sanyas Tak, they played husband and wife. Ratna, who had initially misheard his name as Shivendra Sinha and confused him with the filmmaker from FTII, soon took a liking to him.
“He used to wear these John Lennon dark glasses, which I loved. Also, he was the only one who knew what he was doing as an actor as opposed to the rest of us who were just blundering along,” recalls Ratna.
That was just the beginning, but the journey was anything but smooth. Ratna’s mother, veteran actress Dina Pathak, was not too fond of Naseer, and the fact that he had been previously married and had a daughter (Heeba), didn’t make matters any easier. But three decades and two children later, they are not only a happy couple but their collaboration on stage seldom misses the mark. They even take turns to direct each other.
And when they are on stage together, you can see the sparks fly.
“I think trust is key, and constant revision. Long ago, Naseer had said that the best relationships are the ones that cannot be defined. As actors, such indefinite relationships are crucial; we cannot be husband and wife when we are performing,” says Ratna.
Now even their kids have joined them at their theatre company, Motley. “Imaad and Vivaan are theatre babies. Just like Ratna herself. She grew up watching her mother (Dina Pathak) perform on stage and her kids grew up watching her and me,” says Naseer.
For Heeba, it was different. Naseer first saw her perform when she was 15. It was a school play and she played Mother Teresa. “It was a short act but I knew then and there that she has the potential to be a great actor. But, as I say to her often, being talented is not enough, you have to work hard,” he adds.
Heeba remembers the day vividly when she was performing in front of Naseer and Ratna and had hardly three lines. “But when the play ended, both came backstage and hugged me. They were elated!” says Heeba.
The Shahs never stop encouraging their kids, but they are also strict critics. “Mom is a hard taskmaster,” says Vivaan. Imaad agrees: “I’ve observed their working style quite a bit by now and I think they can both be taskmasters at different times when the situation calls for it. But mom will raise the slightly uncomfortable questions and cut straight to the crux of the matter without beating around the bush at all.”
Although acting runs in their genes, Imaad has branched out to music and has composed a few scores for Motley’s plays, the latest being Gadha Aur Gaddha. “I just told him one line and he got all the scores done. When I heard them, they were just what I had wanted,” exclaims Naseer.
The same goes for Heeba and Vivaan, both of whom have already directed their first plays, Parindon Ki Mehfil and Comedy of Horrors, respectively. “They are nothing great, but I am glad they are going in the right direction,” says Naseer.
If you’re the sentimental type, you may believe that working together as a family helps you understand each other better.
But for Naseer, the best part about working with family members is that you can round them up whenever you want, and start rehearsing!
Ratna believes that theatre has been the glue that not only holds them close but also keeps them sane and connected to new ideas from all over the world. “Theatre is part of our lives so there is always some preparation, discussion or rehearsal happening every day. I don’t know what we’d talk about if it weren’t for theatre, films and music,” says Ratna.
As a family, they talk about their projects and share ideas and, when needed, the parents are there to guide the kids. But Naseer and Ratna are against spoon-feeding. “We contribute with what we can when it is needed. But ideally, I try to stay away from what they are doing as much as possible. They have to grow and you can’t do that freely with mom looking over your shoulder! I am deeply grateful that my mom stayed out of our work but was a fantastic supporter and audience for everything we did. Nothing really grows under the shade of a banyan,” says Ratna.
Imaad explains that even though all of them occasionally turn to their parents for advice and opinions, the actor’s process is a fairly solitary one. “However, when the performance is for one of our own plays, of course everyone climbs onto the boat and we all love pointing stuff out to each other!” he adds.
The team that works together
In November, the entire family finally came together on stage for Riding Madly Off In All Directions. But Naseer points out that this is not their first time. “We did Julius Caesar together. Heeba was 15, Imaad was three and Vivaan was a baby. But they were there…all part of the crowd,” he guffaws.
It was different of course, all five working together as adults. “I thought it would be good apprenticeship to see how an entire production gets done,” says Naseer. “Although all three of them are exposed to the stage and very comfortable with the medium, and none of them suffer from stage fright, so far, I think, they had a very peripheral role. One wouldn’t call them for the entire rehearsal, and they would not know how an entire play gets done from scratch. I think this play gave them that. I had to push them a bit, but that is my job as the director of the play.”
For Vivaan, it was a learning experience in every possible way. “We never really got the chance to attend his workshops as students, and this was the first time I was part of the entire process of creating a play. We knew that dad is an amazing actor and director, but all this while we had seen him with the final product. This time, we saw him with the nuts and bolts, creating the entire experience. And that gave me the actual picture of how talented he really is!”
Vivaan has worked with several directors, both onstage and in movies, but he believes working with Naseer is a whole new ball game. “Not only is he a very visual director, almost cinematic in his approach, he is also one of those old-school directors who come with a very particular vision of what they want, and it is important for the actors to be able to execute that,” explains Vivaan. “That doesn’t mean he doesn’t encourage us to bring our own ideas to the table, but at the end of the day, it is his show.”
While rehearsing together, the Shah family found new equations with one another. “We laughed together, worked together, and yes, sometimes we also fought with one another, but disagreements are part of any creative process,” says Naseer. “But there were no hiccups working with them as actors. In fact, all three of them surprised me with their understanding of acting. I had worked with Heebs before, and knew she is a talented actor. Viv has always been a gifted and uninhibited actor, Imaad is a bit shy, but I realised that he is also deeply interested in acting. It makes me proud to see that they have found their individual connect with acting.”