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`Crazy things happen on shoots'

Wondering what to hide and what to share — Shobana


He is an internationally known Bangalore playwright now scripting and directing films ("Ek Alag Mausam", "Mango Souffle", "Morning Raga"). She is a national award winning star with off-the-rut roles ("Manichitrathazhu" and `Mitr... "), and a Bharatanatyam dancer with a school of her own.

In the just-released "Dance Like a Man", the movie based on his play, she plays the lead as a Bharatanatyam artiste. But Mahesh Dattani and Shobana had their first long coffee chat only last week, between day-long promotional stints for the film in Chennai. In sassy colours and sporting mood, their initial sallies flowed into moments deep and quiet.

Gowri Ramnarayan listened in.

Mahesh Dattani: I first saw you dancing in Thiruvananthapuram, with some 3,000 people. I was right at the back, you were a speck in the distance, but I can't forget your varnam.

Shobana: I was doing a lot of Malayalam films then, that explains the crowds!

Dattani: And how articulate you were when you explained each item! Nothing breathless or disjointed.

Shobana: After dancing I stop breathing for 15 seconds. Makes it easier to speak.

Dattani: Really? As a theatre trainer I'd never advise that, strains muscles.

Shobana: I've never seen your plays. But I hope you saw our "Dance Like a Man" and liked it.

Dattani: Everyone's raving about you.

Shobana: My best performance to date. Never said this before, never been so happy, not even over the award winning performances. (Twinkling) Remember you came to the sets and asked me questions? That's when I figured out I really had to work! I've put a lot of myself in this film, not only into my role. Felt a sense of responsibility about everyone and everything, choreography, dance, music and editing. It had better be right I thought.

Dattani: What a range you've covered in your career! "Mitr... " was held together by the remarkable depth you brought to a cliched character. I've trained a lot of young people in theatre but now I want to work only with seasoned artistes. I'd love to do a film with you and Shabana (Azmi). You'd be sensational together.

Shobana: You want to move on, gathering everyone's creative ability. Makes the work richer. What made you write a play about classical dance? Did you empathise with Jairaj?

Love for Carnatic music

Dattani: My parents didn't oppose my Bharatanatyam lessons with U. R. Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi. I was inspired by their struggles, though my play is very different. Through Bharatanatyam I learnt to love Carnatic music. I'm no expert but it transformed me, I feel its spirituality.

Shobana: Did "Morning Raga" come out of this love?

Dattani: I wanted a song with the mother motif and Rajiv (Menon), who shot the film, played "Maate" with the names Sankari, Chamundeshwari... We shot a fantastic sequence with it, no dance, but the music dances along. (Chuckling) Shabana was nervous ("No close ups!") because she was to be young, in her twenties.

Shobana: I'd have felt the same. I just did "Maambazhakalam", where I'm on the better side of thirty but also cut down to young bride. Tricky! Come to Chennai for the season! It'll blow your mind!

Dattani: I'd love to. Shobana, how does one learn more about music?

Shobana: Once I heard Zakir Husain accompanying Lalgudi Jayaraman. I thought, who is this magician? Started following all his concerts. Soon I was enjoying the main artistes too. Listening, that's the key. What excites me now is not trips abroad but music. (starts singing)

Dattani: Unlike you I don't have roots in the performing arts, I come from the trading class. Right now I'm experimenting with an eclectic group of contemporary dancers and martial arts people. The politics of what I write is important to me. Ultimately it has to reflect the human condition.

Myth-centred

Shobana: I don't hanker after naturalism in my dance, it's there in cinema. Bharatanatyam is mystical, ethereal, myth-centred.

Dattani: But not removed from the human condition. The nayika pines for a god who is a projection of human imagination. Think of Ardhanariswara — ancient tradition meets post-modern feminism!

Shobana: I'm not too aware of theatre. (with a comradely look) I will be now!

(The publicist breaks in saying it's time for the press meet. "No," says Shobana. "I'm having so much fun." Mahesh begs, "Give us a little more time.")

Dattani: Crazy things happen on shoots. We had this crowd scene with Lillete (Dubey) riding a buffalo, but the buffalo would not budge. So I shouted, "Don't wait for the director's cue. When the buffalo moves it means action!"

Shobana: A huge costly slum set had to explode into flames. They had match and kerosene but where was the junior artiste who had to shout "Help! Fire!"? The set was aflame when they dragged an unwary onlooker into the frame to shout the line. She was a folk dancer. Instead of shouting, she sang and danced "Fire! Help!" (imitating her). They cut the scene.

Dattani: (naughtily) Embarrassing moments?

Shobana: (grinning) Question is — what to hide and how much to share.

Dattani: (grinning back) — with The Hindu readers...

Shobana: Hmmm... I used to stammer a lot. Had a speech therapist who went away stammering after lessons with me, or so the family story goes! I developed ways of hiding this defect. For 15 years no one knew... Then one day came a scene where Mammootty had a long speech at the end of which I had to speak a single word. He delivered his speech. No sound from me. He said knowingly, "So! You have that problem."

Dattani: Good that you can talk about it. This is the playwright in me probing. Did your stammering have anything to do with growing up in a family of celebrity aunts?

Shobana: (Ruminating) When I started acting I was too young to feel insecure.

Dattani: These things work subliminally.

Shobana: (Slowly) You could be right. I'm not conscious of being Lalita-Padmini-Ragini's niece. But their children didn't enter cinema. And everyone still calls me "Padmini's varisu". My aunt is a super star. At 72, she came from the U.S. and was splashed on the covers of every magazine here... (softly) I'm an introvert you know...

Dattani: (gently) I sensed that. But you are your own person now.

Shobana: (Perking up) I hope so! So many things I want to do. I'm writing a book (regretting the slip), I'm dying to make a music video. I want to take our art forms to the people. (Eyes gleaming) Ta-rum-tum-tum Ta-rum-tum-tum... So what about your embarrassing moment?

Dattani: So much ridicule those days because I wanted to write plays and not be a doctor or engineer. Even today when strangers ask me what do you do, I tend to say I'm a teacher.

Shobana: (Pleased) Me too! "You teach," they ask, and I say yes, I teach dancing. "Oh, dance!" they say and move on. We have a lot in common.

Dattani: Though different sets of baggage! But in terms of what we aspire for in our artistic journey, yes.

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