For someone who did not go to any theatre or film institute to learn the art of acting, being appointed as chairperson of the prestigious National School of Drama (NSD) in New Delhi has come as a “very pleasant surprise”. Veteran actor Paresh Rawal, whose appointment was announced by the President last week, says the news came like a breath of fresh air in these corona-ridden times, when almost every industry and profession has suffered a severe setback.
“For any artiste, big or small, the future looks bleak, and this situation, if one were to look at things conservatively, is likely to continue till February-March. Of course, the optimist in me would say ‘kal parson khatam ho jayega’, but we’d be living in a fool’s paradise to imagine that the end of Covid-19 is just round the corner,” says the 65-year-old Padma Shri awardee. Rawal’s been essaying his roles of an actor and a politician — he was a Member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha from 2014-2019 (“but politics and political affiliations must be kept away from art”) — with considerable ease. But, on a positive note, he perks up, “Covid aa jaye, cholera aa jaye, live entertainment will never go out of style.”
Still in Mumbai — given the “sad situation of the way the virus is spreading here” — Rawal plans to get to Delhi for the four-year stint as early as possible. “I am raring to go,” says the seasoned actor. And he refuses to be intimidated by the fact that he will be doing administrative work for the first time. “I am already working towards having a good team, starting with an excellent director, of like-minded people to give shape to my plans and our collective vision for theatre.”
And one of these includes taking theatre to every city of India. “NSD must not be restricted only to Delhi. We must have similar institutes in other cities, too, for not every talented person — like say Manoj Bajpayee or Irrfan Khan — has the means to come to NSD,” states Rawal. There was a time, he recalls, when in the early 1970s, many youngsters like him learnt about NSD only when Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Pankaj Kapoor blazed onto the film firmament. “Now more awareness needs to spread and we must also connect with universities and colleges to offer our talented force, even in the remote regions, a platform to hone their talent and skills,” he adds.
Good theatre, too, needs to travel to every Indian city. “We need to expose audiences to plays that make them think,” says the actor. And while the theatre-going crowd maybe mature and censorship may not be required, a certain amount of self-restraint is essential while exercising creative freedom,” says the NSD chief who is currently working on three plays. “The moment the lockdown is lifted, I shall get onto the stage with them,” smiles the veteran actor who has always garnered rave reviews not just for his work in Marathi and Gujarati theatre, but also in films with a repertoire that ranges from commercial fare, including Mohra and Hera Pheri on the one hand, and critically acclaimed movies such as Woh Chokri and Sardar on the other. Those who’ve seen him essay the role of the Iron Man of India wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Sardar figures in his list of personal favourites — the others being Road to Sangam, Mumbai Meri Jaan and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!
Straddling the worlds of theatre and films — and doing them well — is all a result of passion. “Sab balance ho jata hai. In fact, you can pack in a lot more if you have the will,” he smiles. And although all his roles, many may argue, seem tailor-made for him, Rawal says he never allows himself to take any of his characters lightly. “More so, when you always seem to be pitted against a superb, bright crop of actors, but isi mein to mazaa hai,” he smiles, talking about Nawazuddin Siddiqui (“uska to kya kehna”), Rajkummar Rao and Pankaj Tripathi, among many others. “Working with them is like a wake-up call each time — it reminds you to always keep pulling up your socks”.
While on the subject of bright young actors, he mentions Sushant Singh Rajput, “such a talented youngster who’s gone too soon”. Impressed with his work in films such as Kai Po Che! and Sonchiriya particularly, Rawal remembers his brief meeting with Rajput not too far back. “Even in those 15 or so minutes that we chatted, he came across as very bright and positive, with a philosophical approach to life.”
Self-made actors such as him are to be admired, says Rawal, whose brush with theatre started in 1972 when he was barely 17. “Just watching good Marathi and Gujarati theatre helped me make a start. Soon after I got onto the stage, I started picking up the nuances not just of acting but also of direction, lighting and stage-setting,” he states.
He remembers, “Back then, the maahaul of Marathi and Gujarati theatre scene was very vibrant and motivating — with people like Girish Karnad, among many others, at the helm”. And when Prithvi Theatre came up in 1978, “it became Kashi, Mecca, Medina for theatre aficionados like us”. That is why, he stresses, while films and web-series may rule the roost in these times of Covid-19, theatre will bounce back, for, “there’s nothing like performing live in front of an engaging audience”.
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