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Away from the celluloid sizzle, a quiet performer carves her own niche

Nadira Babbar is no stranger to the allure of films, but she has eschewed the glitz and glamour of cinema to pursue her favoured medium — theatre. During her performances, she incorporates nuggets of social commentary, observes Nidhi Gupta.

NIDHI GUPTA  5th Aug 2012

Nadira Babbar at her residence | Photo: Abhishek Shukla

t is a paradox of sorts that Nadira Babbar has lived in public memory, to a large extent, as Mrs Bakshi, that raucous, over-bearing, shallow woman from Amritsar, as essayed in Gurinder Chadha's 2004 flick, Bride and Prejudice. It was a role deliciously done and duly despised. Yet, there is reason why this talented actress isn't seen on-screen so often – her heart beats only for theatre.

Babbar has been having a hectic couple of months, with all her energies directed towards a seminal celebration. Her Mumbai-based theatre company, Ekjute, has completed 30 years. "It has been a very satisfactory run," she says, even as she tries to catch a breather between interviews, shows, appearances and parties.

"There is nothing like being on stage. Yes, I know all our comforts come from the film industry, but I've always found it to be so commercial – you feel like a commodity there," she says, her voice modulation effortless. Her only other cinematic presence has been in Minaxi: A Tale of Two Cities, which she agreed to do because she counts artist M.F. Husain, the director, to be among her closest friends.

"Husain sahab was one of the kindest, most enigmatic souls I've ever met. His scope of thought remains unparalleled. He even designed my wedding venue and my dress," she reminisces. When, in solidarity, she tried to put up a play based on his life, some fascist elements of society (whom she refrained from naming) sent the group life threats. Although this was one case on which they admitted defeat and canned the play, Ekjute has a long history of being very vocal about social issues that Babbar feels strongly about.

"We've been presenting plays on corruption, women's plight, education, poverty and rural issues — everything that we see everywhere but choose to turn our backs against. Our aim is to entertain people with some profound themes, not with senseless comedy," she asserts. The company has some electrifying plays in its kitty – from their first production Yahudi ki Ladki in 1981, which is said to have revived the Parsi style of theatre, to the more recent Begum Jaan, where Babbar herself plays a yesteryear classical singer of immense fame, who extemporises on the zeitgeist of India's independence. More importantly, the company has thrown up and worked with some of the greatest actors on TV and film today, including Sushant Singh Rajput, Satish Kaushik and Kirron Kher.

But playing vigilante and activist has had its rough patches. "When the 1992-93 riots ripped Mumbai apart, I felt we had to get a secular message through. So we cobbled together a street play that narrated the story of how the unity between four ill-equipped cooks crumbled when they demanded better working conditions from their master, the king, who in turn used a divide and rule policy to overrule their strength. We then went out to the bastis to stage it, where our fear of being stoned miraculously changed to wonder as we saw our audience feel the message," remembers Babbar.

That she is socially committed comes as no shock if one only glances at her upbringing. One of four daughters to communist leader Syed Sajjad Zaheer and Urdu writer Razia Sajjad Zaheer, both among the founders of the Progressive Writers' Association (which also counts Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai amongst its ranks), her exposure to idealism started young.

We’ve been presenting plays on corruption, women’s plight, education, poverty and rural issues – everything that we see everywhere but choose to turn our backs against.

"My grandfather was a powerful man in the judiciary at one point of time. There was always money, sacks full of it, coming in, going out. But my father turned Marxist and left all of those comforts. So I've seen both: that feudal life and this other, bare, minimalist lifestyle that my parents chose," she elucidates. Eventually, when they initiated the movement, she remembers the house forever crowded with 'uncles' and 'aunts' who she later discovered were not really relatives, but much closer just by virtue of wavelengths shared.

t was definitely not an easy life, deprived as young girls of common comforts. "To supplement the family income, my mother began to teach Urdu at Lucknow University. We were four sisters, but through all those difficult conditions, we were always so happy. Every age was happiness. Your parents have one of the most lasting impacts on your life," she smiles. She feels indebted to them for teaching her "what to say, what words to use, how to express anything. Everything I've written has been inspired by Leftist ideas," she asserts.

Her training at the National School of Drama and, later, in Berlin (where she accosted greats like Ebrahim Alkazi, Grotovisky and Peter Brooks), could have only strengthened this frame of perception. Beneath the calm, zen-like exterior, one perceives a heart vexed with the injustice of things and people that surrounds us. "I just wish people thought a little of their children. Teach them to consider: what is right, who is correct? Even Naxals aren't born out of thin air. Nobody 'wants' to pick up a gun," she fumes. Though she quickly adds that she doesn't support violence either, syllables remain hanging in the air, for helplessness at circumstances overcomes her momentarily.

Yet, none of this stops her from incorporating and appreciating some much-cherished values of honesty and morality. "Today, people laugh at Raj (Babbar) sahab. They say 'he has been MP twice but still didn't even buy a few acres of land'. I've realised honesty can't survive in politics either," she laughs a tad disgustedly.

Whether it is due to a big heart or just grace inculcated over a lifetime, she makes no mention of the scandal that ripped her family apart and brought her under national spotlight. She upholds her husband to be the central pillar of both her personal and professional life. Crediting him for the genesis of Ekjute she says, "In 1981, when he became successful, a lot of people followed him and that is the beginning of my company. If it weren't for him, none of this would be," she says, making a sweeping gesture around a stately room.

Recognition arrived a little late at her doorstep, but she isn't complaining. She received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2001 and then, rather quirkily, there was a road named after her in Lucknow a couple of years later. Her life's biggest rewards would always be her family, she says. With her son Arya's acting career beginning to revive itself, daughter Juhi married to TV actor Anup Soni and grandchildren on the way, Nadira Babbar is a satisfied mother.

She also believes that had she not found a spot under the proscenium arc, she would've been a homemaker. "And a good one, I assure you, for I am a fabulous cook," she laughs as she shows, for the first time, some hint of immodesty. "I can make some excellent biryani for 50 people within an hour. The secret is there are no shortcuts. At the risk of sounding clichéd, I'll also add that love is the best, most important ingredient of all," she quips.

And for somebody who likes to keep a distance from Bollywood personally, she is seriously addicted to Hindi cinema. "I can sit and watch any film – even C-grade cinema. Nutanji and Nargisji will always be my favourites. I can watch Mother India several times. I love to watch Dara Singh's films too," she blushes. Given the chance, she admits she'd like to work with some of industry's greatest directors like (but not limited to) Ashutosh Gowariker and Vishal Bhardwaj. But, she says apologetically, cinema will always be her second choice. "It is only live art that I live for," she reaffirms.


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