acting

Choose

I just finished performing in the play “Shiva Calling.” It is a piece that merges all the worlds, the galaxies, the star systems.  It merges past lives and folds time into itself. The Universe lives and breathes continuously, destroying itself and reforming in every moment. You believe what you perceive to be real.

Amar is going to be executed tomorrow morning. He sits alone in his prison cell at night. Or is he alone? He faces the task of believing that the path to freedom begins by looking inside. Will he believe? Or will he simply die? You know, they say you die twice. Once when you die and once when the last person that loved you dies. So I’m already dead. 

The show occurred in the backyard of a majestic historical site. The Qutub Minar. As we prepared feverishly, doing warm-ups, breathing through our nervousness, peering into the auditorium to see how many seats were still vacant, bantered backstage, the Minar and its surrounding ruins stood in silence. Witness to a time gone by. A million births and deaths. People must have gathered in the courtyard at night, just like us, to sing to the moon. To celebrate. To rejoice. To prepare for war. Belief clashing against belief, ideology against ideology.

qutub_minar

Time and again, they have come to me. Shiva! Shiva! To tell you the truth, I am just a simple ascetic who would like nothing more than to be left alone on his lonely mountain. Losing himself to meditation. 

Nothing is forever. Only impermanence. But we must keep playing the drama. On and on it goes. We have no choice. But, in that trap, we are free.

 

Qaid-e-hayat-o-band-e-gham asl mein dono ek hain

Maut se pehle aadmi gham se nijaat paaye kyun?

— Mirza Ghalib

 

The prison of life and the grief of man are the same

Why should man be free of grief before death takes him?

 

The Love Divine

Written for the play “Shiva Calling,” showing this weekend at Q’La, New Delhi.

 

ir_beardsley_lake_1_small


Oh you, who waits
Oh you, who waits
if it feels like another day
that is because it is
may you go in peace
may you go to peace
may your heart be at rest

 

The river dances on
to the beat of the cosmic drum
it flows past the setting sun
to the valley
of the beloved one

all desires spent
to the high temple I went
the snowy mountain wept
with the winds it swept
my dreams along the breeze

what is left?
wish everyone well
in to the eternal river I fell
no sound was heard
but a distant ringing bell

the heavens will draw ever near
the swan of fury dives in water clear
I was here once
who is here now?

like the scent of fine wine
you know its a love divine
when my heart beats in yours
and your heart beats in mine

 

 

Amar, The Eternal

Is khwaabgaah ke andhere mein main azaad hoon

Gahre neele aasmaan mein abaad hoon

(In the darkness of this dream chamber, I am free

in the deep inky blackness of sky, I thrive)

 

Tod saka hai kaun mere jism ko zanjeer se

Khoon ka rishta hai rooh ka taqdeer se

(who can break my body with chains,

the spirit is married to destiny through the blood in my veins)

 

Chala jaaoonga ek din doosre jahaan mein

Ummeed-e-kaamiyaabi rakhta hoon imtihaan mein

(one day, I will be gone to the next world,

I fancy my chances still in the test of life)

 

Roshni dar-o-deewar se gum hui to kya

Taron bhari raat se aati hai ik sard hawa

(the walls and corridors are blank, so what?

the breeze comes to me from the starlit night)

 

Sannata bahlaye hai mujhe har raat ko

Parakh chukha hoon beet gayee har baat ko

(the darkness whispers sweet nothings to me all night,

I’ve considered my past many many times)

 

Kaun kahe ke kyun kya hota hai

Kyun insaan guzre waqt ko rota hai?

(who will say why things happen that do,

why does man cry over things gone by?)

 

 

 

The Small Time

I fantasize sometimes, to contrive a very elaborate social experiment where as an unknown theater actor I should live the life of a A-list socialite like Kim Kardashian minus the huge quantities of money – because I don’t have it. For example, a reality show called “Being Saif Ali” which would basically be like Keeping Up with the Kardashians on a budget. Really on a budget.

It could only run on YouTube, obviously.

All the “behind the scenes” footage would be of my rehearsing or teaching workshops. Or possibly backstage gossip about co-actors around the Delhi theatre circuit.

We could do a “days in the life of” type section where we would show parking disputes with neighbors. We could also show my social life and tape long hours of house parties and terrace get together. We could also arrange public appearances in DDA parks etc. It would all have to be edited to music that my musician friends would whip up on keyboards.

So, I could launch my own line of perfume. The other day, I went to the attar shop in Old Delhi and they do their own blends of attar and all of them are named after international and I’m assuming, deliberately misspelled. There was a “Yugo Bos” and a “Deekayenwai.” I know for a fact that if I paid them a reasonable amount of money, they would make one that was called “Essenti-Ali” or something. They have really nice bottles that cost a 100 rupees so packaging would be a no-brainer. Marketing would be easy because I could just get people in my neighborhood to pose for the ads in everyday domestic environments. Like, Rohatgi Uncle from around the block could be holding a bottle of Essenti-Ali while he eats his daily evening snack of cucumbers while watching TV in his living room.

I cannot possibly release a sex tape because my parents would never stand for it. I would have to make do with an MMS scandal of some sort where faces are blurred out. But MMS is such an outdated technology. Hmm. It would have to be on WhatsApp. Then later, I’d have to ask my filmmaker friends to do a short docu about the state of the theatre industry in Delhi and upload it to vimeo.

I would have to attend dharnas and the like to show that I care about political causes. I would probably have to tape a statement on current affairs every now and then, but that’s easily done on my phone. I can always write open letters to Anupam Kher etc. Supporting him, that is.

What else?

Oh right. Brand endorsements. I think we could get our local community center shops to pay for small ads during our shows. Meaning, we would have to stop the play and do a product placement and go right back as if nothing had happened. Like … “This play is sponsored by Bakshi Brothers convenience store. Ham udhar nahin karte!” … breathe…aaand back.

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing to be done

I arrived in Mumbai in the morning. I always enjoy the first taxi ride in a new city. I’ve been to Mumbai before but I still count it among my list of new cities. We went inside an old building in Kemp’s Corner. We waited for the elevator, an old elevator with the sliding iron grill door mechanisms. The steel plaque declared a recognizable name. I like flats that have very little furniture. It is an ongoing battle with my mother. This one had a one-person balcony that overlooked the city from a height that was high enough to be exciting without triggering my vertigo. It was quieter than Delhi. Only the odd car would honk and that for half a second. A sense of the tropics is ever present in Bombay.

What is the relationship between a sense of abandon and a sense of purpose? Do we not need both to create meaning?

20151216_125820Mumbai Art Room is a tiny room off the main causeway in Colaba. It is packed on all sides by markets, office buildings, fruit stalls, random little houses, photocopy and print shops, cafes. Everyday, the merchandise from the surrounding ecosystem flows into the room and fuels the process of art. With everything that goes with it. The contemplation, the depth, the artifice, the ego hassles and the pretense. Stationery, printouts, idlis, chai, bobby pins, double-A batteries,  white socks, guavas.

Start a huge, foolish project like Noah. It makes absolutely no difference what people think of you, says Rumi.

The istiri-waala was a very thin man who wore a gungee and an above-the-knee lungi. He had a flummoxed expression when he held his face at rest. He worked inside a little one-room house on a high table. He used an electric iron. I had to instruct him which clothes I needed right away and which ones could wait. It is for a performance, I explained. He didn’t much care. I gave him a little netted carry bag I had bought at the Embarcadero Shopping Center in San Francisco which was meant for specifically this purpose. To carry important items of clothing through short distances. Please arrange the clothes inside this bag, I told him. He complied.

We had a day to wander about. I kept cooing about how awesome Bombay was but my co-actor kept explaining to me that I was in the best part of the city and that there was elsewhere to be seen. Carrying on with a sense of peace and contentment is a service to humanity. I will not be held hostage by a guilt about the elsewhere. There is a place in Mumbai, called Fort. It is old. An old place. We stopped by an old bakery. Fascinated. I asked for the menu. There was on old gentleman with white balding hair. Very thin and tall.

“Menu!!!” he said.

“This is a heritage hotel Sir.”

You die twice. Once when you die and once when everyone that knew you dies. The traces of the past die off, gradually. In Fort, there is a tall tree that filters the sunlight on to the metalled lane in the market. It is narrow. The lane. It is by an old Central Bank building. Underneath, a man with white hair and spectacles was taking a stroll in his khaki uniform.

20151217_113516

The piece I was performing in asked questions about identity. How do you say who you are? Who are you? On opening night, Mumbai Art Room was packed. Standing room only. A very pious silence. The polite seminar-etiquette of the artistic elite. There was a talk by a philosopher and some performed demonstrations by us. People asked a lot of questions and then also hung around later talking about the project. Everyone was hungry enough that no one could decide what they wanted any more. We went to a house that belonged to the curator’s friend. It was an old house. With a lot of very old furniture and chandeliers. Someone took pictures because I suspect that dim lighting looks good on instagram. All the delivery restaurants were closed. People lounged about with fatigue and exhaustion. The active exhaustion of stimulated minds. Other talks took place, many others.

Someone had once told me that there is a zen of auditioning. That the audition means everything. It is critically important. And. It means nothing. It is not important in the least. It is vitally important that you do it. But it matters not in the least whether you do or don’t. Everyone had a different idea about how long it would take to get to the airport from Colaba. It was rush hour. They were amused that I wanted to leave so early. One and half hours yaar.  They said that Indigo airlines are very co-operative. They will pull you out of security and shuttle you through. The guys standing around the taxi stand looked very concerned. You have to leave right away they said. Office ka time hai. Nobody accounted for the holidays. And of course, nobody accounted for the broken bus on the bridge at Santa Cruz. The traffic jam was a peak experience. It took three hours. The taxi driver was in shambles. He drove in first gear for an hour and a half during which we moved less than two kilometers. Are you in a panic? My co-actor asked. No. We left four hours in advance. The best you can do is your best.

 

Eastern Promises

I’ve been performing at the India Habitat Center in the Short + Sweet Delhi Theatre Festival. A mixer format that puts up 10 ten minute plays in one evening giving the theater community a great opportunity to come together, create a tasting menu of theatre presentations and exchange ideas. Really fun.

Our last show was on Ashura. The day of mourning in the month of Muharram. My auto got stuck in the Karbala parade on Mathura road past Nizamuddin. A great commotion. A large procession was snaking up the road. A group of boys were beating a variety of drums. Younger boys had wooden sticks that they were using as performance swords and playing out swordfights with each other in the middle of the road. Traffic was honking but the parade was oblivious to the noise. They were marching to their own beats. Far in the distance above the heads of people, were two taziyas decorated in black, green and gold. Being carried along. Bobbing on the surface of the crowd like logs of wood are carried along by a rousing river. Under the flyover, a dozen military men waited with big guns. Lean, tall statures. Bodies relaxed, leaning on the pillars but the gaze alive and alert, full of intelligence, confidence and swagger. A majestic sight.

The auto-waalah was whining about the jam. He didn’t understand why festivals needed to block the street. I nodded along. All the while thinking in my head.

“Why do I need to be anywhere else when we have this to be part of? Can anything be more enthralling? My performance later in the evening does not hold a candle to this story.”

He finally peeled off to the wrong side of the road and went against traffic, zig-zagging across cars coming from the opposite side. I was dizzy with excitement and joy.

“The Muharram traffic is insane”

I texted my friend. It sounded like a complaint but cell phones often overturn meaning. In reality, it was like I was shouting the words while dancing on the road myself. Later when I met her, I said “how is this related to Muharram?”

“How is anything related to any religion in this country?” she answered.

That’s when I realized this has nothing to do with Muharram. This is just the passion of humanity. The desire to put on a show, to participate in the public space, transcends all boundaries and connects us as human beings. Although my insistence on piety and sincerity in matters of religion was still firm, I could set it aside and just see these people have a good time. I wonder how often they actually take the time to do that.

I felt gratitude towards my friend for propelling me to a larger truth. I felt gratitude toward the military men. Toward the city of Delhi for opening its streets to its people to just have a ball. To the autowaalah for finding the fastest possible way to get me there.

I left the pandemonium behind as I walked in to the premises of the Habitat Center. As I approached the Stein Auditorium, I stood in the open courtyard for a while. I appreciated, as if for the first time, the tranquility of the building. The red brick. The trees swaying in the breeze. The marriage of the interior and the exterior. The oblique lines and open vistas. Surely, Mr. Stein, deserves to have the auditorium named after him. What a privilege to perform here.

20151024_152217

India Habitat Center, New Delhi

A group of people had spread a very large canvas on the floor under the open sky. The canvas was full of wild and colorful art. A public art project. Buckets of paint lay around. I put my bags down and looked at the artscape for a while. Vivid. Mediocre. Free. I saw a large yellow flower someone had painted. I painted a bunch of green men climbing all over it. They looked somewhere between aliens and grasshoppers. At the very end of the canvas, there was a girl. She sat wearing jeans and a denim shirt. On the floor. Her hands folded around her legs hugging her knees in. Evening had begun to set in and her face was illuminated by the glow. She said nothing but her eyes smiled without any effort. I pretended to walk to the end to draw something there. Then I struck up nonsense conversation with her. I spoke in my best Urdu. She replied but her Hindi was terrible in an adorable way. She spoke with a thick Eastern accent. Bihar, Bengal, Odisha, was my guess. She told me “aap is corner ko aur sundar bana sakte ho.” Then she coached me through some basic art work. I was just blankly dipping my hand in the paint and drawing circles with my index finger. I was trying to look at what I was doing but my entire aware consciousness was transfixed on her. It was awful, what I was drawing.

“Mere khayaal mein, yeh corner ab pehle se zyaada khoobsurat hai,” I said.

20151024_153129

We invited her to come to the show. She never did. After the show, a father came on stage with his son. A little boy. He said that his son wanted to congratulate us in person for a good show. How beautiful is life? The energy. The color. The irritation. The thwarted promise. The parrots perched on trees. The desperation. The desire. The dominance. The death.

A Life of Devotion

Through logical reasoning and contemplation, today I am more convinced than ever that the quest for personal glory ends in dissatisfaction, if not disaster. As an actor, this present certain problems. Every now and then a demon of confusion and envy awakes inside me when I watch a particularly compelling performance or see a career take off. I am left with the unfortunate choice of having to either ignore this demon or worse still, whisper incantations of self-righteousness to my heart to alleviate his fiery onslaught. Often some ghost of an existential question arises that demands of me whether I think my life is so important that it not be squandered on a self-serving acting career in big ticket cinema. It taunts me. A coward who cannot weather the emotional storm of Mumbai, Los Angeles or New York. A quitter. At these moments, I seek refuge in meditation, in God. I have been doing this for the last year now, plunged for the most part in personal crisis. Not really having filmed anything. Off late, the silence is starting to break. The answers are starting to come. A thousand plans swirl in my head and I let them. I let the waves rise and break on the shores of my rock solid resolve never to give in to the temptation of personal glory. The entire time I grieve for yet another loss. The loss of a love I have nurtured for the last 7 years. I grieve for my dreams. The dreams that are so holy in the epoch of personal fulfillment. I fear the coming of regret. Today I saw this short film, that eradicated, if momentarily, all fear. All doubt. And filled me with contentment. It confirmed in my heart that a life of devotion to other living beings is the only kind of life I wish to have. In this short film, I admire equally the subject of the film and its makers. I felt grateful for the skill of the cinematographer, the editor, the cameraman, the voice artists all working to produce a story that moves hearts. I am filled with respect for what I have done and for my fellow artists who have been with me along the way. In this story, I find hope. The hope that no matter what I do, my limbs move fueled by devotion, guided by love. I am not the happiest man in the world, but I am happy.