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Naseeruddin Shah: I am certainly no Einstein

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31 October,2014: Naseeruddin Shah has been associated with the Prithvi Theatre not just from its first festival in 1978, but even before that when it was being constructed. The festival this year, being held again in association with the Bombay Times, starts with the premiere of his play Einstein on November 5 (entry by invitation only) with him playing the brilliant Einstein himself. In between practising for his new production at Prithvi, he talks to Bombay Times over a cup of kahwa about the wonderful Jennifer Kendal, the generous Shashi Kapoor and the vulnerability of Einstein. Excerpts:

Naseer sahab, why Einstein?
Why not Einstein? Mostly because I look like him. Somebody once mailed me a drawing he had made of me looking just like Einstein, which is when it struck me how much I looked like him. I do have Jewish features actually and get mistaken for a Jew when I have a beard. But jokes aside, I have always decided to do a play I came across if I liked it after the first reading. I have had this script lying in my drawer for over 10 years and in fact, don’t even remember who gave it to me, except that it was someone in Delhi, but I had decided that I would do it one day. This time, for the Prithvi Theatre festival, I was a little bit stuck with ideas and was planning to do an Ismat Apa Ke Naam Part 3, but it wasn’t quite falling in place, so I decided to abandon it. Kunal (Kapoor) was insistent that I do something for the festival and it is a matter of pride to be part of the festival anyways. I had two months to practise a new play and I decided to do Einstein.

What is the play about?
It is not a technical piece at all. Anyways, I never understood Physics and I used to get zero in my Physics paper. But Einstein, in the play, briefly talks about his theory and about relativity and gravity and so on, but it is mainly about the person and the guilt he was left with after World War II, when the bomb was deployed against Japan and he felt responsible for having helped create the damn thing, as it was his research that was used and he was left with a massive amount of guilt for having contributed in any way to such a deadly weapon. He never realised that his research would lead to splitting of the atom. It’s damn complicated and I can’t claim to have understood it. I had a physicist friend who explained to me, but I am far from understanding it. In any case, I have always believed that you don’t have to understand a character to play him, you need to empathise with him. And I could empathise with Einstein talking about the persecution of the Jews, the way they were discriminated against, the horror and the betrayal by Germany and why he left Germany, how despite the fact that he had no Jewish beliefs until they were thrust upon him and he was made aware that he was a Jew. While it is not a biography, I have no doubt that the writer has a deep understanding of Einstein’s work. It is a brief telling about his life, a few sentences about his childhood, his youth, his leaving Germany and his coming to America. The writer has done a very fine job in explaining complex notions and as Einstein himself said, ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you can’t understand it well enough.’

Did you feel even more intelligent playing Einstein?
I never feel intelligent and don’t take myself seriously as an intellectual. It surprises me every time I am referred to as one. Compared to someone like Girish Karnad or Shyam Benegal, I am a pygmy. I have instinctive belief and opinions that are very strong, but I am certainly no Einstein.

What fascinated you to play him?
Apparently, he was quite a guy and got around. He was a flirt for sure. He got married twice, left his first wife with two children, one of whom was mentally challenged. He then married a second time and his wife died while he was in the middle of the research, and he did not even register her death. So the assumption I draw from it is that he was beyond these material considerations, but it also shows him up as a vulnerable human being. If we look at Faiz Ahmad Faiz sahab, for instance, he was also deeply involved with the world and its inequalities and wrote great poetry on it, but he was also an extremely loving and family man. Einstein was vulnerable and had a glad eye for the ladies. There is a great twinkle in his eyes and he was a livewire. I am sure he cried and laughed and grieved and I got a feeling that while he was extremely logical, he was also an emotional man.

You had performed for the first Prithvi Theatre Festival in 1978. Talk about your association with Prithvi?
My association with Prithvi is from even before it was built. Shortly after Junoon was shot, Prithvi was under construction and Jennifer would talk about it. When we returned from the Junoon shooting, the walls were up, there was no roof, but the stage was built. I asked her if I could go around and she very sweetly allowed me to use it for rehearsals. Prithvi was godsend and when it opened, I was part of the cast of Om Puri’s production Uddhwasta Dharmashala, the great Marathi play which had been made famous by Dr Lagoo. And then, Jennifer’s insistence was that we need to educate the audience to teach the audience punctuality and she started the rule of no latecomers. And she left it to the groups to enforce it, which was kind of tough, you know, as we were the only group to have enforced it. Nobody else did and while we enforced it, we were subjected to all kinds of tirades by furious latecomers, who would storm backstage and shout at us and thump at the doors and so on. It became extremely difficult and Prithvi and I had a falling out and I didn’t perform here for 4-5 years. I just stuck to my guns and felt that if they had made this rule, they needed to help us enforce it and not leave it to us. Later when we did Dear Liar, that was a tribute to the Kendals, Shashi Kapoor sahab called me and asked me to come back. He said, ‘Come on. Forget what happened.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ I was dying to come back anyways, so he just had to say it once. And since, we have stayed with them and it has been very good to us and to a whole lot of theatre people and kids. I feel Jennifer’s dreams have been fulfilled, all credit to Sanjana earlier and now, Kunal, and to Shashi sahab, who had the generosity to have put in his money. It was a colossal expense at that time and my hats off to him.

What was Jennifer like?
She was quite wonderful and was a warm and generous human being. She was always compassionate and her love for theatre was so evident. She came and saw every play we did or anyone else did, encouraged everybody and was very sweet and quite unbelievably wonderful. What I couldn’t understand about her was why she didn’t come back to theatre after marriage, but I suppose she had a huge establishment and kids to look after. I did ask her on a couple of occasions to work with us and she turned it down very sweetly, but she was very good at it and I know that had she pursued it, she would have found something.

Even at this stage of your life, you put in two months of practising for a play.
I love doing it, so I do it. I am staying in shape by doing this work, educating myself still, learning about the theory of relativity now.

Source:The Times of India

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