We may have come to a stage, where theatrical performances in India are getting showcased in banquet halls of five-star hotels across the country and receiving a huge response from corporate houses in terms of promotion of the fine art, but point this out to veteran actor-director Aamir Raza Husain, and he’ll promptly tell you the scene was quite different till only about a few years ago.
“There used to be a time when we had to struggle to put together three shows. When we started out in college, we used to face problems even in advertising our plays. We didn’t have the money to print posters and there was no concept of pamphlets. We used to spend nights writing on walls and flyovers. In the daytime, we used to go from door to door, stick posters on lavatory doors, write on blackboards of college classrooms and try to explain to people why a front-row ticket for a play cost R10 whereas one for a movie in the balcony row cost R6,” says the 58-year-old theatre veteran, who is revisiting an old Agatha Christie classic, The Mousetrap, after over two-and-a-half decades.
The Mousetrap is a murder mystery. It was first written in 1947 as a radio play called Three Blind Mice to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of England. It became such a hit that Christie wrote it as a full-length play and it opened on the West End in London in the same year in 1952. In its first run, it had Sir Richard Attenborough and Sheila Simms in the lead roles. Since then, it has become the longest running play in the world.
Talking about the selection of the play, Husain says: “It’s a great play. Every year or every six months, we look for something, which is going to create a bit of a tamasha with the audience, something that will interest people who come to watch us. It’s a constant search, and there is no particular reason for choosing a play apart from the fact that it’s going to appeal to the audience.”
The Mousetrap was first showcased by Husain over 25 years ago. But, of course, his rendition of the play has witnessed a lot of changes since then. “The play doesn’t change, the characters don’t change. What changes is the cast, the sets, the technology or maybe the lighting,” offers Husain, who is noted for his large outdoor stage productions like The Fifty Day War (2000), which was based on the Kargil War, and The Legend of Ram (2004), based on the Ramayana.
The murder mystery, says Husain, is set in an English country house in 1952 and has a brilliant intricate plot with red herrings, changing theories and suspicious characters. However, the audience can also expect a dash of humour with the constant thrill. The cast (of seven) keeps the audience guessing throughout the 90 minutes of the show where murder lurks around every corner.
Lamenting the pathetic state of theatre around the world, Husain says: “Barring English theatre in London and New York, there is hardly any ‘commercial’ theatre in the world. So what can our country do? Out there, it survives only on tourism. But in India, where there are so many monuments of historical importance and which can be converted into platforms for staging shows every night, there’s hardly any talk of tourism and theatre here.” Quoting some foreign media reports, Husain says: “There was an article, which said only around 2% of the English population watches theatre. Even if that 2% was doubled to 4%, theatre all over the UK would not need government subsidies any more. So you can imagine the situation and how a little effort can help change the entire scenario.”
Despite the demands of time and space, the ethos of theatre has never changed, says Husain. “There are two aspects to theatre. In one, there’s no evolution, not in one’s lifetime, not even since the time theatre was born. In the other, there’s constant change,” he says.
The whole idea is about capturing the imagination of the public, as well as holding it. “It’s like the classroom of a typical school. We, as students, are like the audience and the teachers are the performers. We have teachers who are boring and teachers who are exciting. The boring teachers are like bad actors because they are not able to hold the attention of the students. They may be very learned, but they are not good as teachers. A teacher, who may know less, but is able to communicate in an effective and interesting way, will always be remembered. I still remember the teacher who taught me history in college (St Stephen’s). He was a legend,” Husain explains.
So, is India ready to take up theatre as a sustainable profession? The answer is both yes and no, says Husain. “You have to work hard in theatre. You have all kinds of success stories in all kinds of professions. But it takes time to get noticed in theatre. I can only advise those people who are patient and have the ‘staying’ power to take up this profession full-time,” he explains, adding: “In today’s corporate set-up, people jump from one place to another as per the pay packages they keep getting from time to time. There’s no sense of belonging in today’s world, there’s no taking the rough and tumble with the good. There’s a rush in today’s times to achieve everything in life, which is not possible in theatre.”
Take Husain’s own story, for instance. After college, it took him years to reach where he is today. “I remember the first sponsorship I got was from ITC. They gave us 100 sheets of paper, which had some of their products advertised at the bottom. Although the ads were in colour, we were forced to get our show details printed in black and white, since we couldn’t afford otherwise,” he says.
Today, Husain is lucky to have his shows sponsored by big corporate houses. “They are sponsoring our shows. They are buying our tickets. They are making our lives easier. Aircel has been with us for seven years, ITC has been with us for 30 years. Every big company has been with us,” he adds. The show must go on.