Interview
 
Mohammad Ali Baig Interview
His profile describes Mohammad Ali Baig as ' a true-blue theatre actor who performs in Urdu, English, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi with equal ease and who commands a box-office sell-out in any 1500 seater space selling for Rs 1000 a seat in India and 100 USD overseas, without a single Bollywood film release or TV serial to his name.

Founder of the Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation, Baig has theatre running in his veins, as he is the son of renowned theatre personalities Begum Razia and Qadir Ali Baig. He has single-handedly revived theatre in Hyderabad and as a curator of the Qadar Ali Baig Theatre Festival, he continues to give theatre its rightful place. Awarded the Padmashri for his contribution to the performing arts, Baig is a respected name on stage.

Mohammad Ali Baig has excelled in period pageant roles of an Indian king and poet -prince on world stage and is now also seen playing a gamut of roles in several web series.

His plays like QULI: DILON KA SHAHZAADA, SPACES, 1857 TURREBAZ KHAN, UNDER AN OAK TREE and EXALTED HIGHNESS have premiered in London.

Taking time out from his busy schedule as he is curating the celebrated festival which is on the calendar of most theatre enthusiasts he speaks of his passion for theatre and much more.


 By Jahnavi Pal


You were one of the few who worked during the pandemic. What kept you motivated at a time when the world was at a pause?

Theatre for me is not just about performing, it's for sharing and giving. Sharing with the fraternity what I have earned in experience all around the world ever since I was born into theatre and giving the audience more than just the experience of a show. We realized during the pandemic that as a theatre foundation that was formed as a tribute to Baba, we had to reach out to fellow theatricians, be they actors, technicians, musicians, dancers or stagecraftsmen in times of distress. So, we reached out to about 300 families around the country and helped them to the extent that we could while there were strict lockdowns.

Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival has a responsibility towards the country's theatre fraternity and Hyderabad audiences who look forward to this gathering of 100-plus performers from all over the world every year. So, we didn't want to have an 'online/digital'or any such compromise of the art form. We were the only theatre festival in the country which was conducted live post-pandemic last year, though in an abridged version of five days instead of the annual 10 days, with groups from Bombay, Delhi, Rajasthan, Assam and Telangana. Though we did not include any overseas groups because of the quarantine requirements. The audience lapped it up and thoroughly appreciated the gesture of the 'treat' that they got, having been locked in the confines of their four walls for months. There were some heartwarming stories from performers themselves, some of them saying that the first sight for them after several months was the airport and the Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival venue. It was equally touching to be able to provide them a platform in those times to perform and keep their craft aflame.

Having had a ring- side view of theatre for so long how has theatre evolved over the years?

My approach to theatre is vastly different since I'm born into it, and grew up in the wings with the fragrance of freshly painted sets and green rooms with the feel and touch of the crispness of the newly made costumes. The final bell and the curtain call seemed an essential part of growing up. My entire work in theatre, as is fairly known, is a tribute to late Qadir Ali Baig saheb and his pioneering efforts in 1970s and early 1980s. As a toddler I've seen him introducing to the South upcoming playwrights of that time like Vijay Tendulkar, Mohan Rakesh, Badal Sircar and Shambhu Mitra. In a city where theatre was not even nascent, he successfully staged SAKHARAM BINDER, AADHEY ADHURE, KHAMOSH!ADALAT JAARI HAI and his own historical spectacles, when even “evolved” theatre cities like Delhi and Bombay couldn't find easily actresses to play a Champa or a Savitri. He was a real star - people bought a five-rupee ticket for fifty rupees in black to watch him perform on stage. When I see theatre around the country today, I feel delighted that technology and talent which was so rarely available then is so easily available today. But what pains is that many of us still stick to those handful of playwrights and plays done to death, without much contemporary relevance. It would be nice for Indian theatre to have original, contemporary writing and to see us depart from those few post-war European playwrights and their morbid writings we keep paying obeisance to in various forms and shapes time and again. And to believe that theatre is and can be a paying profession.

For some reason, we've taken on ourselves that theatre has to be morbid, morose and depressing to be considered serious or thought-provoking. We probably don't realise that we subject our audiences to same misery and turn them off from the real captivity of the performing art form. I've often said that my theatre is a celebration of life, life in its fineries with text, poetry, performance, music, décor, costume, jewellery, stagecraft and fine aesthetics. A spectacle of life. In the present world of shortening attention spans, we need to not just hold our audiences but multiply them.

Do you think gen next may lose interest in this art form and in order to woo them you modernise history?

I try and make history contemporary and relatable with audiences globally, departing clearly from the archaic, filmy style presentation of stoic, historical characters. Why else would 1200-1500 people throng the Golconda Fort in Hyderabad repeatedly or the Horniman Circle in Mumbai or the Van Gogh Castle in Herisson or the Versailles Centre in Toronto to watch a 17th century QULI : DILON KA SHAHZADA, the love story of a Deccani poet prince and a devadasi? It's because it could be Rahul and Priyanka in Mumbai, Nick and Kate in Chicago, Jean and Amelie in Paris or Adnan and Kubra in Istanbul. When theatre is made to connect with the audience, it stays with them, becoming intellectually stimulating and visually captivating. This happens when you respect your audience. With this maturity and a sense of responsibility, you automatically have their pulse in your palms controlling the movement of their eye-balls and the racing of their hearts for the entire duration that you are on stage, be it in an arena, thrust or proscenium. Be it in a tragedy or a comedy.

Besides paying a tribute to Baba, my theatre is for audiences. I produce and perform for them, not for my own kick or therapy. Else, I would be painting next to the fountain of one of the ponds in my house, and hanging it in the verandah for my own creative satiation.

ALONE was the first play play to be staged post the pandemic. What was your experience and the response?

It was during the pandemic that I asked my wife Noor to adapt one of her short stories ALONE into a full-fledged theatre piece. It is based in the lockdown itself. We had its premiere in Bangalore and Hyderabad this March and despite safety protocols and spaced out seating, there was a full-house turnout at the opening shows. The audience in both cities turned out in numbers, was deeply moved and thanked us with tears in their eyes for getting them out of their homes and giving them not just the experience of theatre but also the opportunity to interact with fellow human beings after months. They obviously were full up with web series and webinars. Its Delhi and Chennai shows had to be postponed because of the second wave. It again gave me a fulfilling experience as a theatre maker and performer to give audiences and fans more than just a show, and be a part of their changing lives.


Tell us about the annual festival offering you make to theatre lovers. What do we have to look forward to this year?

I'm glad that audiences love and the immense fan following made Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival such a sought after theatre assembly in the past 16 years. As I said, it was the only theatre festival of that scale in the country that was conducted live after the lockdown last year. This year, we have an abridged version of 5 days instead of the annual 10 days, with a mix of contemporary theatre in intimate space and classics in proscenium, with a blend of young performers as well as seasoned ones. The official announcement will be made shortly.

You have forayed on to the OTT platform. Being a theatre loyalist what attracts you to this medium?

It wasn't a conscious decision. Directors who wanted to work with me for a long time on screen came with some interesting roles and those I found worthwhile I said yes to. I found the challenge of the compact medium interesting. It was the same for films. As an actor, it is just another avenue to cater to my audience and fans.

Is theatre losing ground with the advent of so many alternate platforms?

I don't think so. Theatre keeps losing its actors and technicians periodically to newer, but a new crop comes by. This has been happening since the advent of black and white cinema.

What do have to say to actors seeking an entry into the world of acting?

All the best to actors wanting to do films or web series or whatever! But this should not be at the expense of theatre. You should not use theatre as a stepping stone. If you are coming into theatre come with the conviction that you want to be in theatre. Graduation is natural. Everyone from actors to technicians do it. As for me that's never been my goal. I never set out wanting to aim at the silver screen. For me its been as a tribute to Baba and hence I do it with utmost sincerity and with the focus of bringing theatre back in Hyderabad. It had reaped rich dividends for the audiences of Hyderabad and I think its because of the honesty with which I do it. There's nothing wrong in doing multiple platforms but don't leave theatre, go there , play your innings and come back to theatre. I am not saying this is right or wrong as its to each his own. Moreover, it bothers me when they say they move on because there is no money in theatre. This is 'bakwaas'. Either you don't know your job or you are lying. I made my living from theatre. I drive my Mercedes Benz out of theatre. There is nothing wrong in youngsters coming to theatre but have your approach right. Give it the respect it deserves. Don't fool around with the sanctity of the performing arts. If you are coming to theatre with the intention of becoming a Bollywood star then theatre is not for you.

*Jahnavi Pal is a journalist, writer and theatre buff





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