M. Sayeed Alam Interview
While the rest of his contemporaries were seeped in despondency and despair, M. Sayeed Alam was burning the midnight oil. He was working on new plays, thinking about how to get his old plays on the digital platform and generally staying positive. Covid has put an end to many creative journeys. Many actors, writers and crew have changed career paths but Alam did not lose hope.

 By Jahnavi Pal

A veteran of Urdu theatre, Alam has to his credit plays like GHALIB IN NEW DELHI, MOHAN SE MAHATMA, CUT CUT CUT, AKBAR THE GREAT NAHIN RAHE , MUSHA-ERA, SAHIR KA KHAYAAL AAYA, SIR IQBAL, EINSTEIN amongst several others. A known face in the Delhi theatre circuit Alam has been actively involved in Urdu, Hindi and English plays.

Alam is a director, playwright and actor and is known for his unconventional approach to theatre. Having founded a theatre group called Pierrot's Troupe which travels all over the globe.

In an informal chat Alam speaks about everything from the current theatre scene in Delhi to his fixation with historic personalities and his work during the pandemic.

"After doing theatre for over 25 years I have a personal problem. I do not know any other thing except plays. Though I have been a University teacher and a journalist in the early 90s but I have forgotten it all. This was the only option left with me. Some time back we had recorded almost all my plays with an organisation called Play My Play which had approached us four years ago and asked us for permission to shoot our plays with a three camera set-up. They even edited them. We did not bother to interfere. So when the pandemic started we thought of showing all these recordings to theatre lovers. We had about ten plays with us and hence went ahead with virtual performances. Although the response hasn't been as good as a live performance I am pleased that we managed to give our audiences some entertainment in these gloomy times. In fact I am happy they didn't receive a great response or else audiences would stop coming to theatres.

"Of course there have been other problems like the fee of Rs 250 for one play being too steep for viewers as they feel that they can get the entire Netflix library for Rs 199!! But the flip side being that if I charged only Rs 50 then audiences would expect the same ticket value when they came back to the theatre. It simply cannot be compared to the OTT platform."

Alam says this exercise gave him great relief in these times. He says instead of performing theatre all people did during the pandemic was talk about theatre and this disturbs him. "This is very sad. What is the point of going international if you are watched by just six people? One must put a price tag on one's production as we have invested so much. Also one needs to stop blaming the government for everything. The government did not ask you to do theatre. It is not going to look after every small group of performers. In fact instead of asking for free auditoriums now one has the option of performing even in a small room."

Lamenting the current theatre scene in Delhi he says, "I can comment on this but not with great authority as I am not too exposed to what happens in other cities like Mumbai. In Delhi, Punjabi theatre has disappeared in spite of the fact that half of Delhi's population is Punjabi. Whereas In Mumbai you find plays happening in English, Hindi , Marathi and Gujarati. Though there are so many English performers in Delhi in the last ten years one hardly finds English plays happening. And yet another interesting phenomenon is that Delhi has started inviting Mumbai plays to be performed in Delhi and often you find more Bambaiya plays being performed in Delhi than in Mumbai. And because Mumbai is a huge theatre hub we too get a good audience when we perform there. Mumbai theatre scene is more disciplined. But one advantage about Delhi is that one gets a good audience for my Urdu plays which one can't find in Mumbai despite having so many Urdu speaking people in Mumbai. Unfortunately Urdu theatrewallahs have not been able to take their plays to non- Urdu speaking audiences. In Delhi we get theatre lovers from all walks of life because even if you don't speak Urdu most people love the language."

Alam is popular for 'bio-theatre' or plays that focus on the lives of historic personalities like Maulana Azad, Ghalib, Akbar and has written, directed and acted in several such plays. He is currently working on a unique concept titled Mushaira. "These are hypothetical or fictitious mushairas. The first one was LAL QUILE KA AAKHRI MUSHAIRA of which we have done many shows. Emboldened with the response I did another version titled MUSHA-ERA which covers all the historic poets of the past 700 years from Khusru to Pervin Shakir or Nida Fazli. Instead of one single biography I am doing a mushaira where I focus on 15 poets. Then I did a single show of a play called JASHN-E-AZADI, where I brought together all the poets who were active during our freedom struggle and who wrote about India's freedom movement.

"Unfortunately the second wave happened after just one show. From Bahadur Shah Zafar to Firaq Gorakhpuri all are featured. But people have started criticising me saying that you have now got one egg out of which you sometimes make a half fry and sometimes an omelette! When I did SAHIR KA KHAYAAL AAYA for his centenary everybody had by then started talking about Sahir Ludhianvi. But I had a serious objection as they concentrated only on his Hindi film songs. I argued that Sahir's contribution to his songs is only 25%. The rest of the credit should go to all the actors like Dev Anand and music directors like S.D. Burman, Jaidev and singers like Mohammad Rafi. On his 100th birth anniversary give him all the credit but don't take away credit due to all others. I also attempted his longest poem Parchhaiyan whereas others have only attempted Taj Mahal.

"Also what I don't understand is when doing a play on Sahir why is Amrita Pritam always the centre of attraction? His mother too was an integral part of his life so why isn't a play made on her? Sahir and Amrita met at concerts, chatted. Don't we too meet people from the opposite sex and share good relations?

"I would like to share an interesting aspect of SAHIR KA KHAYAAL AAYA which had some brilliant live singing by Abhinav Chaturvedi (who is best remembered as Nanhe from Hum Log) . Very few are aware that he is a trained classical singer and he was exceptionally good in this play. This is one of the few plays that talks about his poetry and not his songs. A lot many people have attempted to do plays based on Sahir's life but I don't call them plays. How can two people reading from a book be called a play? The same is the case with plays on Ghalib. I understand you have to take it to the generation next and introduce them to these greats but then don't call it a play. You can call it a musical but not a play."

Alam confesses that if there was any one play which he wished he had written it would definitely be TAJMAHAL KA TENDER. "And the second one would be AKBAR THE GREAT NAHIN RAHE which is written by Mrinal Mathur and directed by me. It's a wonderful concept and I wish I had conceived it."

With theatres soon opening Alam is all geared to perform GHALIB IN NEW DELHI in Bareilly in UP on August 17 and is excited to be back on stage doing what he loves most. "To me theatre is not just performing on stage but also a sport. So for me this is akin to performing at the Tokyo Olympics. I may be performing before only 50% of the audience as only that many are permitted but I will be giving a 100% performance."

*Jahnavi Pal is a journalist, writer and theatre buff

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