Brand father is back
Actor, director, theatre personality, advertising guru, Alyque Padamsee returns to the stage with Death of a Salesman
Shoma A. Chatterji

A scene from Death of a Salesman
A scene from Death of a Salesman

Alyque Padamsee with Sabira Merchant in a scene from Death of a Salesman
Alyque Padamsee with Sabira Merchant in a scene from Death of a Salesman

Alyque Padamsee has a nickname — the ‘brand father’ of advertising in India. He is also one of the pioneers in English theatre in the country. He directed and acted in his own plays but quit acting 40 years ago. He came back in the intriguing role of Willy Lowman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. He sheds a little light on the topsy-turvy nature of his life in theatre and in his personal life.

You distanced yourself from the audience as an actor though you continued to direct. What triggered the return?

I am grateful to my daughter Raell for having almost forced me to play Willy Lowman in Death of a Salesman. I did not realise what I missed all these years I was off-stage. I have always loved theatre much more than cinema. Now that Death of a Salesman has become a big commercial hit, Raell’s coercion has worked both critically and commercially. The commercial success of a play is critical for sponsorship without which theatre cannot survive.

You say you love theatre much more than you ever loved cinema. Can you explain?

Theatre creates magic between the audience and the actor that cinema can never replicate. The electric chemistry that evolves between the actor and the audience during a performance is absent in cinema. The actor enacts a given scene in one show in a particular manner. The next day, he brings in minute changes in the same scene triggered by the audience response the previous day. The basic premise of the character and the play remain the same. But little changes here and there keep challenging the stage actor all the time. This can never happen in cinema because once a scene is captured on camera, it is frozen for all time. There is no scope for improvisation, ever. So, with each performance on stage, I grow as an actor. It gives me a greater high than LSD does an addict. The 1,200 pairs of eyes concentrating on you is a feeling acting in films can never bring. The chemistry between two groups of living, acting, reacting human beings on both sides of the footlights is magic.

But you did play Jinnah in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, didn’t you?

Mohammed Ali Jinnah is one of the most memorable roles I played in my life. Attenborough was great as director and brought out the best in all his actors. I feel honoured to have been picked for the role.

Why did you choose Death of a Salesman to make a comeback?

Why not? Death of a Salesman was first staged on Broadway in 1949. It is a hit till today because of its universality in terms of time. Its portrayal of a family stands out in its contradictions and its vulnerabilities as a microcosm of all families everywhere. The original play, a Pulitzer prizewinner alongside 12 Tony Awards appeals to the contemporary urban Indian audience that finds close identification with the recession that threatens the average urban Indian family’s Great Indian Dream. We have had 20 houseful performances in Mumbai and two in Kolkata. Death of a Salesman is read differently by different people at the same time and by the same people at different times because it throws up multiple layers of understanding.

Your latest play Broken Images, which you have directed, was a bit hit in the US. What is it about?

It is based on a play by Girish Karnad. Shabana Azmi is the central character who interacts with her own image on video. In the end, the audience actually sees the real Shabana on stage break down into fragments of herself as if she is made of glass. The use of the screen in the backdrop functions sometimes to establish time-space factors, sometimes as a metaphor, and sometimes is not there at all. Magic transfers the audience to a different realm. In my plays, I try to put in some magic realism through lighting and sound effects. Broken Images has had more than 100 houseful shows in 16 cities in the USA.

Which of your own plays do you hold closest to your heart?

Evita – The Musical, Jesus Christ Superstar and my latest play Broken Images.

You have married thrice. How do you look back on several marriages — as self-indulgence of a creative artist? Or, as symptomatic of a celebrity persona?

Creative artists are by nature restless. So they become restless after a point of time in the same relationship. That part must be true of me too as it is for most creative artists across the world. But I also have the guts to live life on my own terms: be it marriage, advertising or theatre. I have taken all my three wives and their children to dine at restaurants. It is not as much about fame as it is about being restless and having guts. Marriage is a choice, children are a responsibility. My children are my responsibility and I will never ever divorce from my children.