Tete a tete with Salim Arif

Salim Arif’s Aap ki Soniya, starring Farroque Sheikh and Sonali Bendre, is currently making waves in the Delhi theatre circuit and has won aapluse abroad. Having explored the wounds of communal riots through the lens of Gulzar’s poetry in his Kharaashein, Arif looks back at the time he entered the theatre scene in the late 1970s when the field upcountry was largely influenced and dominated by Ebrahim Alkazi. For all his tall stature, Alkazi was also criticised for being western at the cost of Indian ethos — but Arif begs to differ. “On the contrary, Alkazi Saab understood the importance of Indian forms got veteran artists to train the students. I would say it was the golden era of Indian theatre.”

Then comes Arif’s rider: “But it has got stuck there. Theatre (in India) looks dated today.” And the renowned director-designer reasons, “The two major strengths of theatre — the quality of acting and scripting — has gone down. It has failed to revive ever since.”
An alumnus of Delhi’s National School of Drama, Arif has more to say about the problems theatre in India is embroiled in today. “The main goal of the NSD was to create a national face for theatre, when India, with all its diversity, cannot have just one national face. There not enough places in the country for the NSD graduates to go back and work. Only two theatres — Prithvi and Raj Shankara — are able to stage a play everyday. None of the so-called Hindi states have a repertory company. Another issue is that the Hindi television and film industry were not born in the Hindi heartland. This shifted their focus to cities away from their linguistic roots.”

So how can this imbroglio be eased out? “Encourage new playwrights and theatre practitioners. Introduce schemes to support them during lean times. What they need are not just awards, but fellowships, like the ones avalable for classical artists. Another problem is that actors who gain fame through theatre are forced to move quickly to television and cinema for their bread and butter. If these stars return to theatre once in a while, the star value can bring some new audience to theatres. Nasseruddin Shah was one who kept in touch with stage even at the peak of his career. Just imagine the impact Shahrukh Khan can have if he decides to do one play in four years! Theatre needs support from society and state”.

Unfortunately, a successful artist moves quickly from the stage to the screen. Even Arif moved from theatre to television in the late ’80s and later to cinema, though he has always remained a theatre person. Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj was a landmark on Indian television and Arif was the designer of its costumes. The serial leapt into a new era every two episodes and therein lay the challenge — to make the viewers feel the change in era through the costumes. “It was not the only problem,” quips Arif. “It entailed the research that went with any historical. It was not easy, say, to make Om Puri look like Duryodhan in one episode, Ashoka in the other and Raja Raja Chola in yet another one. Today, the costumes of Bharat Ek Khoj have become a point of reference for historicals in India. But now, when I look at it, I feel a lot of things could have been better, had I had more time at my disposal. I believe I did a better job in Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s Mauryan epic Chanakya

Arif broke certain conventions while presenting certain characters in Bharat ek Khoj. “I believe in seeing costumes as an extension of the director’s vision. The costumes we see on the images of the Hindu deities today are mainly influenced by the calendar art forms, which owe their designs to the art of Raja Ravi Verma. I decided to go by my own research. For instance, when I had to show Ram, Sita and Lakshman during their exile, I had read that they had worn the valkal (tree barks). Hence I got the trio into jute garments. It became a talking point those days.”

Television today has expanded like never before and has assumed the shades of the Bombay film industry. “The effort you put does not translate into value for time on television today. Earlier, the television projects ran for a fixed period of time, which gave you the time and possibilities to explore. Moreover, today, there is too much intolerance around, with many small and big censors operating at multiple levels. Twenty years ago, Govind Nihlani could showcase partition in its raw format in Tamas. It is impossible to have another Tamas made today”.

People have lost their tolerance for multiple interpretations. History, which has been Arif’s forte, has become a holy cow. “We love to keep myths alive. Just imagine, the biggest love story of Hindi cinema, Mughal-e-azam, is based on one big myth. But then there is also something called creative freedom”.
So how do we express our disapproval? “Through another work. Else, ignore it and it will die a natural death. When Salman Rushdie wrote The Moor’s Last Sigh, it was seen to be a dig at Mr. Bal Thackeray. But Mr. Bal Thackeray was smart enough to ignore it. The book just sold a few hundred copies in Mumbai” he says. “But when you go around on a rampage sabotaging things, even cheap works sell on the basis of that publicity. Nevertheless, an idea, whose time has come, can never be killed with a hundred protests. Godse killed Gandhi. He was not able to kill Gandhism”.
The call seems timely. But in the volatile times that we are living in, the answer to this call is yet to be known. Perhaps more mirrors like Kharaashein are needed to show what we have become from what we were.

(This interview was published in The New Sunday Express)

One thought on “Tete a tete with Salim Arif

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  1. Wow! Salim Arfi's words r really impressive. Had seen Bharath Ek Khoj and Chanakya. Never really thought abt custome designs then….

    I am very ignorant of these theater works…never saw one in my life…There is a local form called Yakshagana and tulu dramas which are very popular and have seen those.

    Nice interview


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