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The larger than life director 

There is an unusual streak in Aamir Raza Husain. When theatre lovers bemoan that theatre is dying, he is demonstrating time and again that it's thriving. When people would be happy to make a movie with a Rs 1.5 crore budget, he splurges the sum on stage. When people try to reduce theatre to a bare minimal exercise, he revels in blowing it up into a larger-than-life experience.

When directors struggle to handle their crews, he takes on the additional burden of managing the audiences, who watch his play seated on revolving platforms. When people conspire to use theatre to jump on to the television and film bandwagons, he steadfastly holds on to the plank-at least for the present.

Confesses the 43-year-old Stephenian, who has been associated with 91 productions, and more than 1,100 performances: ``Theatre is a passion with me. I get a ******* kick out of it.'' It's this passion that fuels his big dreams. And it's the extra mile that he goes that translates these dreams into reality. Adds Virat, his wife and associate director in his current production, The Fifty Day War: ``His biggest strength is his perseverance, and the hard work he puts in.''

Inspired by the Kargil episode, The Fifty Day War has a cast of more than 100 people performing on sets constructed by 200 skilled and 200 unskilled labourers, who worked for a total of 18,000 mandays, using 85 tonnes of steel, nine tonnes of nails, 405 tonnes of wood, 2,500 bags of plaster of Paris, 700 litres of paint, 12,000 ballis, 1,700 metres of cloth, and 24,000 chatais.

The sets include the massive seating platform for 600 people, which revolves 360 degrees around the action of the play. During non-show times, the sets may resemble more an assembly line than an esoteric theatre setting, but during the shows, these gigantic sets, accompanied as they are by special effects like brilliant lighting and thundering sound and the smell of gunpowder, succeed in re-creating the magnificent dimensions of the Kargil war front.

Husain says: ``The play tries to break the conventional paradigms of time and space by transposing audiences from one set to another.'' While audiences are transposed to the locations, Husain himself crosses his fingers during every show. ``I am petrified every time. Everything is not in my control.'' The reference is to the goof-up during the staging of Sare Jahan Se Acha in Mumbai, when the sets refused to move because the hydraulic wheel system failed.

If everything goes well on stage, trouble can brew off-stage. During the staging of Legend of Ram, environmentalists took up cudgels against him for ruining the ecosystem with his extravagantly constructed mobile podium.The big party can get spoiled even by so trivial an incident as rubbing a scribe the wrong way. Incidents involving theatre critic Kavita Nagpal and film journalist Komal Nahata kicked up their share of dust.

Nevertheless, the labour of love is necessary. Never mind the bitter wages that accompany it at times. Husain is too preoccupied with his theatre to get bogged down with peripheral issues. He explains, ``It's part of the game. The bigger issue is that theatre has to move with the times. You have to compete with 30-35 free television channels. Theatre is expensive, and you have to give people their money's worth. They should not feel that you have taken them for a ride. If they don't feel cheated, they will come back again.''

Of course, it costs the earth. But who's afraid? Husain says matter of factly: ``Money is available. Getting big sponsorships from large companies is possible. You have to work for it. You have to convince the marketing executives that they will get their money's worth. The play will generate great public interest. It will be talked about in the cocktail circuit. Then your reputation also counts.''

Husain seems to have cracked it all. His earlier productions like Legend of Ram, Satya Meva Jayate and Sare Jahan Se Acha were also in the same genre, and equally successful. In the current production, Virat's contribution is more than ever. She has not only done her research meticulously, but is also assisting him in the direction and the production. Says Husain: ``She has taken the pressure off me. It has made life easier for me.'' The compliment from her husband, who confesses that he's not an easy guy to get along with, speaks volumes about Virat's work. But then who said that working in theatre was easy?

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.

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