When I reached Bandra’s Perry Cross Road around 5 O’ clock on Sunday, India had lost its first wicket. Wahab Riaz took KL Rahul as the latter was caught at cover. Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli were batting. I was at Naseeruddin Shah’s house. He was lying on a leather couch in the large drawing room, facing the TV, and greeted me with a gruff ‘hm’. The interview had slipped his mind. He had also called his theatre students for rehearsals. Curtains were drawn on one side of the room, which retained the scent of smoked grass. I thought Naseer might be in a bad mood; but it was more likely to be boredom. It’s the most boring World Cup he has seen, he remarked, and he has seen them all. He said that he was telling his grand nephew, who sat with a laptop at the dining table, about the long history of dull India-Pakistan matches — the tradition of which go all the way back to India’s first ever tour of Pakistan, in 1954, when Vinoo Mankad and Abdul Kardar were the respective captains, in which all five test matches ended in draws. “The passion is generated in the beginning of the game, from both sides, and the end of the game from one side,” he said.
He reasoned that it’s because the two teams have never been at the same level. India is currently at the peak of its cricketing powers, but in the 80s and 90s frequently lost to Pakistan. He hated Imran Khan then “because he would defeat us all”. And Miandad’s six off the last ball at Sharjah “broke our bloody hearts”. “That guy was such a bastard, but you have to give it to his fighting skills,” he said. According to Naseer, a bit of nationalistic pride is part of any sporting event, but the bloodlust around the contest eludes him. “It’s a country that is 1/10th the size of ours. They are in a mess. They don’t know what to do with themselves. What is the big deal about beating them? It’s not that they are a world beating team. That would have been something to write home about,” he said.
India, meanwhile, were scoring fast. Rohit, with Kohli on the other end, made beautiful strokes. “He is elegant, he is like Dilip Vengsarkar: low profile beautiful game, very good, composed,” he said.
Naseer used to be a cricket nerd. He could remember scores, and in his schooldays would spend most of his pocket money in buying the Sport and Pastime magazines, a copy of which came for 38 paisa. He collected pictures of cricketers; his most prized possession was cut out from an old copy of Illustrated Weekly, London, which he found in an ancient stack in his school library. It was a rare photo of Don Bradman bowling in the nets. Obviously, he lost everything (when he was changing schools).
He briefly dreamt of being a cricketer — who didn’t? — but decided that acting is easier. “Cricket is a heartless mistress and much tougher than acting,” he writes in his autobiography And then One Day, “Cricketers were godlike creatures with special gifts”.
As an actor he happened to work in films that feature cricket prominently — whether it is playing a ghost called Marco who helps Shah Rukh Khan in the cricket field in Chamatkar (1992), or Maalamaal (1988), where he played with Sunil Gavaskar, “a great honour”. In Iqbal (2005) he was the gruff coach who motivates the underdog protagonist. Midwicket Tales, the TV series he hosted In 2015, when the previous cricket World Cup was played, is an excellent crash course in India’s cricketing history.
He has strong opinions about Indian cricket — just like he has strong opinions in general. Although he has his favourites from the current team — he loves MS Dhoni — he dislikes the brand of boorishness that the new bunch represents
He has strong opinions about Indian cricket — just like he has strong opinions in general. Although he has his favourites from the current team — he loves MS Dhoni — he dislikes the brand of boorishness that the new bunch represents. Last year in December, in a sharp-tongued comment on his Facebook account, he described Kohli as being “not only the world’s best batsman but also the world’s worst-behaved player” — ending with a sly “And I have no intention of leaving the country by the way”.
The 68-year-old actor isn’t even that active on social media, but his outburst was triggered by two incidents: Kohli’s sledging spat with Australian captain Tim Paine, when the two went nose-to-nose during a Test, followed by the Indian cricket captain’s suggestion to a fan that he “should leave India” when the latter said that he preferred Australian and England batsmen over Indian players. One of the hate mails he received after the comment on Kohli threatened to put “baarood up his ass”.
“His temper seems to have gone down,” he said about Kohli, “But still you see him mouthing obscenities on TV all the time, when he takes a catch, or gets run out, Behnchod Behnchod, all the time yaar. Children are watching this. We are going to have Shivaji park resounding with Behnchod Behnchod. Each one of those kids going Behn…” he said, with that bassy, sardonic laugh of his.
Naseer was wearing a loose, printed shirt and trousers. His fuzzy, white hair made him look like Einstein, who he played in one of their theatre productions the previous Sunday in Kolkata. Since the TV was on mute, we didn’t realise when Rohit, tricked by a last second field change, got out.
“Aa gaya Pandya,” he said.
Naseer likes Pandya; he said he hopes “success doesn’t go to his head.” He is a fan of Bumrah’s textbook-defying action, and he called him “our man”.
I am not sure exactly when he asked if I had another joint, but I asked him a few questions about being a celebrity stoner. He said he was careful during his days at the National School of Drama (NSD), when he was warned that smoking hash could lead to him not getting work. He was completely off it when he was working on his first few films, because he was too nervous that he would mess it up. But soon there was to be a sneak picture of him smoking a doob published in Stardust magazine — REVEALED! The secret of Naseeruddin Shah’s intense acting read the sensational headline. “Once the cat was out of the bag” he has never tried to hide it. He said he can live without it, “but why?”. He is basically high all the time — except when he is shooting. When he has the munchies, his favourite is M&Ms. “Dangerous stuff, the peanut ones, uff, I can’t resist those. Hehehe,” he said, giggling dopily.
I looked around the room, and saw a framed picture of German actor Klaus Kinski, the bad-tempered genius who once Werner Herzog threatened to kill. And then I saw Ratna Pathak Shah, who had just walked in. There was just too much awesomeness in one room. She sat and drank her evening tea, and said something funny about Pandya and Gujarati pride — in Gujarati. Pandya though, after a quick fire 26, got out. It led Ratna to ask Naseer about the rehearsals.
Ratna: So what’s happening rehearsal wise?
Naseer: We are just seeing who is batting next, and then we’ll see.
Ratna: I mean is it worth calling everyone? People are coming from great distances.
Naseer: Of course.
Ratna: Because this is going to go on.
Naseer: I know, but this is practically a forgone conclusion.
Naseer was delaying the rehearsals because he was expecting Dhoni to come down to bat. Dhoni it was. And Dhoni was out. 1 run from 1 ball, Amir, again, caught by Sarfaraz. With 350 looking difficult, and the TV being back on mute, the rehearsals began.
The girl who had been quietly preparing on the side started saying her lines. She was fair and was dressed in black. She was doing a piece which required her to tell a story, which have several characters in it — and become those characters one by one. She spoke in Urdu, in an old lady’s voice. Using the drawing room as her stage, she moved around on the carpet, and in the spaces between the sofas and the tables. The most striking thing about the performance was that she looked into your eyes — straight, direct. I didn’t even realise that it had begun raining in Manchester and play had stopped.
The preparations were for a two week long festival that’ll be held at the Prithvi theatre, over the course of which five Motley productions will be staged. The event is to mark forty years of the theatre company. It’s a momentous occasion for Naseer, that circles back all the way to when he was in Class 9 in St. Anselm’s in Ajmer, when Geoffrey Kendall arrived at its gates in a red jeep with his troupe Shakespeareana — an incident he writes about in great detail in his book. Or even further back to his first ever memory, of a performance by a person with a thickly-painted face who mesmerised him “dancing on top of a very high platform, his face alight, his eyes darting like agitated snakes”. Naseer said he’d like to think that Motley had served Indian theatre well by encouraging others to produce “plays that one believes in”.
He hates the razzle-dazzle of “broadway-type” productions, and the attention it gets. “They are part magic show part rock concert, part cinema,” he said. “Our kind of theatre is that which is not dependent on machines, but it’s the living being who communicates with the other living beings present, and the exchange of energies that occurs. Wherever there is two people having a conversation — that’s theatre. They are both listening to each other,” he said. In one of Motley’s upcoming pieces, similar in format as the one the girl was performing, Naseer plays an elderly bachelor who falls in love with his domestic help. Contrary to the audience’s expectation when the girl won’t appear on stage, and her character will be described in words, he said it’ll involve the the audience’s imagination even more strongly. “It’s a medium of words,” he said.
Naseer finds it “slightly unfortunate” that Motley is synonymous with him…“I am keen to do plays in which I don’t act — and I have done several such plays. Because I want Motley to outlive me. I don’t want it to die with me,” he said.
Naseer finds it “slightly unfortunate” that Motley is synonymous with him, and that he wants it to be a “repertory kind of company” for actors. “I am keen to do plays in which I don’t act — and I have done several such plays. Because I want Motley to outlive me. I don’t want it to die with me,” he said.
The rain at Manchester had stopped, the match set to resume. Other members of Motley had started coming in. One of them was Heeba, Naseer’s daughter from his first marriage, and who is one of the driving forces of Motley along with Ratna. Another round of chai was served, along with some namkeen. The place was busy, like a theatre workshop, which is exactly what it had transformed into. “We need to get the original poster of Godot”, Naseer reminded somebody, referring to one of Motley’s oldest productions ‘Waiting for Godot’ . He asked one of the male actors if the trousers and jackets fit him. The place felt different from when I’d arrived a couple of hours earlier. There was drama at the Shah household, and it was all happening off-screen.