Theatre veterans Mohan Maharishi and Bhaskar Ghose on two great leaders
‘Actors aren’t puppets’
PHOTO: S. R. Raghunathan
With a framed-in-grey face and won’t-suffer-fools stance, Mohan Maharishi looks exactly like the theatre veteran he is, with 37 production-crowded years behind him. A student of the National School of Drama who went on to become its director, and later, dean of the Punjab University, Maharishi’s years of ‘retirement’ are his busiest in setting up Natwa, a new theatre group in New Delhi. Bhaskar Ghose’s self-effacing smile hides multi-layered achievements as IAS officer, Director of Doordarshan, Secretary of the I&B Ministry, writer, journalist and TV presenter, while continuing an unbroken love affair with the theatre.
When Maharishi and Ghose get into conversation, there are no wide pans, but narrow focus on the art and craft of building the play that excites them these days, “Dear Bapu”. But the resonances spill into life-in-theatre and theatre-in-life. Gowri Ramnarayan records.
Mohan Maharishi: How do you convert a series of 22 letters, written by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru between 1927-48, into drama?
“Dear Bapu” was a challenge.
Bhaskar Ghose: Their debates are still relevant to us — on globalisation, caste or science and technology.
Maharishi: Of course. What brought them together despite dissent was their concern for the poor. Only, Gandhiji saw the village as the spot for action, while Nehru dreamed of big industries.
Ghose: You’re the gentlest director I know, though you left me in no doubt about the dos and don’ts.
Maharishi: It’s not all pretence. But a younger actor in some other play may find me a tyrant! Nor were you easy to manipulate. Bhaskar, you were my first and only choice to play Gandhiji.
Ghose: That didn’t make it easy to show the psycho-ideological growth of Gandhiji, especially with your demand that Sunil (Tandon, playing Nehru) and I had to be completely involved with the text, and yet dista
nced from it!
Maharishi: You tried many things.
Ghose: Gandhiji’s personality is extraordinary. I was afraid I’d make him grotesque or unreal in performance.
Maharishi: That’s the danger with both Bapu and his Jawahar. You started with large sweeping gestures, trying to be Gandhiji.
Ghose You said you’re not the actor here, you’re the reader of somebody’s words.
Maharishi: I wanted you to understand the man as you read his words, even include your own disagreements with him, if any.
Ghose: Frustrating moments...
Maharishi: In Germany, I had the good fortune to meet (Bertolt) Brecht’s wife who talked about “BB” so vividly that I thought I was actually sitting with the master himself. I like Brechtian alienation.
Ghose: Don’t know if you got exactly what you wanted from us.
Maharishi: There are no ideal results. Actors aren’t puppets. I have to take their suggestions. These are not always verbal, but come out in expression, gesture, pause...
Ghose: You’re sensitive to that. That’s teamwork.
Maharishi: Yeah, theatre is the art of collaboration, but adjustment should not become compromise. (Laughing) Habib (Tanvir) used to say that by nature, theatre becomes Left.
Ghose: It thrives on openness, reason. “Dear Bapu” had to give the impression of being in the middle of action, not a history lesson.
Maharishi: Shyam Benegal warned me that Indians are not interested in history. He should know! But I find my audiences are different from his.
Ghose: This is the first time I’ve done theatre of this kind.
Maharishi: Me too. It’s also my third play in English. It posed special problems. Actors were unable to learn lines, exchange dialogues with the ping-pong effect I want, or technically prepared to take their cues sharply. I was often dejected. I had terrible doubts about whether audiences would accept “Dear Bapu”.
Ghose: Did you have doubts about the form?
Maharishi: Did you?
Ghose: Yes. Then, one day, part way through the play, I felt empathy for the word, import, man.
Maharishi: There should be space for theatre of debate and ideas. Here’s excitement of a different kind — taking the argument to a higher level of intensity. I’m lucky. I have intelligent actors.
Ghose: I’d never built the relationship of the actor to the character in this way before.
Maharishi: Bhaskar, I wish all actors had your discipline. You’re a busy man holding an important job. But you leave your office in the car when you come for rehearsal — always on time, sometimes even before me. And your co
mmitment! Why, you called me the day before we came here to discuss your role.
Ghose: I’d definitely like to work again with you. You know, the play worked because it had conflict. We know that the two leaders were extremely close, but these letters reveal just how remarkable their disagreements were, about
everything. What kept them together was their commitment to the country.
Maharishi: They never allowed their ideological differences to affect their personal bonds.
Ghose: And that we’ll never see today...
Maharishi: I don’t like nostalgia. I look at the past to see just how relevant it is to us, here and now.
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