Writer, director and actress Nadira Z. Babbar is indeed a name to be reckoned with in the field of theatre. She pioneered Ekjute Theatre Group, which has successfully completed four decades, and put good content on the map for theatre lovers who were tired of Bollywood’s predictable song ‘n’ dance fare. Ekjute has performed at various national and international theatre festivals, covering a wide spectrum of plays spanning various genres from comedy to tragedy, satire to varied emotions that make you laugh, cry or think closely on various social issues.
Nadira’s journey, too, has been eventful. After acquiring a BA degree, Nadira enrolled as a diploma student for direction at the National School of Drama (NSD) under the able guidance of the illustrious Prof Ibrahim Alkazi. She then received a government scholarship to pursue her studies in theatre from Berlina Ensemble — The Brechtian Theatre, founded by Bertolt Brecht. She also won a scholarship for further studies at the National Theatre of Wiemer in East Germany and worked with renowned theatre personalities there.
Back in India, Nadira worked for a while as a teacher in New Delhi and later came to Mumbai after getting married to actor Raj Babbar in 1975 and in 1981, established Ekjute Theatre Group. She is ably assisted by Hanif Patni, director and actor for more than three decades. Excerpts from an interview:
How did you get involved with theatre?
I hail from Lucknow and my father, Sayed Sajjad Zaheer, was the founder member of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), and founder of the Progressive Writer’s Association and Afro-Asian Writer’s Association. My mother, Razia, was a renowned Urdu short story writer, novelist and teacher at the Lucknow University for 25 years. After my graduation, I enrolled as a diploma student for direction at the National School of Drama (NSD) and that is how I developed my natural inclination towards theatre.
Can you tell us about your theatre experience in Germany?
After completing my studies at the National School of Drama (NSD), I was fortunate to receive the Government of India scholarship to study theatre at Berlina Ensemble — The Brechtian Theatre founded by Bertolt Brecht and later, I also won a scholarship for further studies at the National Theatre of Wiemer in East Germany. My studies not only opened up new vistas pertaining to the theatre of Germany, but also universal theatre. I was fortunate to work with great theatre personalities like Fritz Benevitz, Groto Vosky, Walsgang Heinz, Ursula Kchimskye and Henry Haward.
What was the motivation behind starting Ekjute?
While I was at the NSD and later on in Germany, I was introduced to a lot of new ideas and subjects pertaining to universal theatre. Hence, I decided that I must have my own theatre company to promote and project good theatre through the presentation of plays covering a wide spectrum.
From the numerous plays that you done, which is your favourite?
You have asked a difficult question. If you ask a mother, who is her favourite child, what would she say? Every child is her favourite… Likewise, every play or role has its own importance for me. For instance, in Begum Jaan, I play the role of a classical singer who is quite witty — this play is written by Javed Siddiqui and the highlight of the play is humour and pathos. Another play is Meri Maa Ke Haath, which is about my mother Razia and is enacted by me. This is the journey of an extraordinary woman who was a political worker, social activist and a great human being. Despite problems in her life, she was a great example of hope and optimism for each and every one of us who was close to her. This play is quite beautifully directed by Makarand Deshpande. My mother’s writings were an outcry for the downtrodden, which questioned the existing dogmas in the society, thereby successfully moulding the psyche of a whole generation. We also did plays like Daauda Daauda Bhaga Bhaga, which is a comedy and a satire directed by my daughter, Juhi Babbar, and adapted from an American comedy by George Abbot and J.C.Holmes. Another one from the comedy genre is the women-centric Chalona Aajao.
Could you throw some light on your workshops for children and the youth?
Everyday a lot of youngsters come to Mumbai from different parts of the country to join the film industry, but they do not realise if they have the calibre for it. In our workshop, we teach varied aspects of acting. However, I can understand that there is no money in theatre, hence they would like to act in television serials and movies. Many actors who have done these workshops have become professionals and are doing extremely well, and they have all been my students. Sushant Singh Rajput was one of them.
Some of the most interesting plays for children are Aao Picnic Chale (Our Day Out), Azdak Ka Insaaf (Caucasian Chalk Circle), Habib Tanvir’s Charan Das Chor and Bhartandu’s Andher Nagri Choupat Raja.
Do you prefer directing plays written by you or the ones written by other writers?
The plays written by me — I know how to visualise them, hence it is easy for me to direct and take certain liberties. But if I have to direct plays written by other writers, I have to first study the play properly without making any changes whatsoever.
What according to you is the basic purpose of theatre: Inform, educate or entertain?
All the three combined together! A play should be significant, engrossing and soul-stirring to capture the attention of the audience.
During the lockdown, did you ever consider doing plays online?
Theatre is a live show and not an online medium. I have worked on two scripts and am waiting for them to be presented on stage.