Alyque Padamsee (1928-2018): The Magic of Theatre That Cinema Can Never Attain
I had the golden opportunity of having interviewed Alyque Padamsee twice over the past forty years with a twenty-year gap between the two one-to-ones. I cannot even begin to describe how enriching the experience has been for me, as a journalist learning to swim in the muddy waters of a turbulent media.
The last interview happened in March 2014. But I found this 80+ gentleman brimming with endless energy and innovative ideas. He was in Kolkata for a few days to do a come-back show of Death of a Salesman after a long gap. He spoke much more than about this play and for me, it was one of the best learning experiences of my life.
Everyone who had met him even once, or knew the wonderful ads he had created, or, watched any of his plays, would agree without debate that Alyque Padamsee was an institution unto himself – in the advertising world and in the world of theatre.
His personal life also was extremely unconventional ranging from his complete agnosticism when he withdrew from the religion he was born into through his three marriages that amazed the masses when he took all three wives together with the children for lunch or dinner at some posh dining place.
When this very radical and revolutionary socialist is immersed in civil rights in his city withdraws from the stage as an actor but continued to direct, it made news bigger than when he returned to act in the main role after forty long years.
Padamsee created Lalitaji for Surf, Cherry Charlie for Cherry Blossom Shoe Polish, the MRF Muscle Man, the Liril girl in the waterfall, the Kamasutra couple, Hamara Bajaj, the TV detective Karamchand, the Fair & Handsome brand, etc. Some years back, he created the Idea of a Fatwa against Terrorism which was announced by the Grand Mufti of the Deoband Uloom. For the Golden Jubilee of The Indian Institute Technology Bombay his Idea of starting an initiative to create 10 Great Ideas That Will Change The World In The Next 50 Years caused a great deal of excitement. He also worked on AIDS Prevention Idea with the Dept. of Biotechnology. Before we parted, he autographed the only copy of his book A Double Life and gifted it to me!
Excerpts from the interview:
What remembrances do you have as a small boy?
I have many memories, most featuring my mother sent us to boarding school because she was too busy giving birth to children. I loved watching the clouds up in the sky, changing their shape constantly, becoming butterflies and then waterfalls in innumerably imaginative ways. Picasso once said that it took 60 years for him to see life through the eyes of a child. ‘That is when I became a painter and everything became new, filled with the wonder with which a child looks at an aeroplane flying above. I think a little of that child has been with me all along, helping me to look at life and at the world with the wonder a child’s vision is filled with.
You withdrew yourself from your role as an actor four decades ago though you continued to direct. What made you come back?
My daughter Raell who owns and runs Ace Productions almost coerced me back on to the stage. And believe me you, it made me realise how much I had missed the audience-actor magic cinema can never parallel. I played Mohammed Ali Jinnah in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. It is one of the most memorable roles I played in my life. But I still hold theatre dearer to my heart and life than cinema. Death of a Salesman becoming a big commercial success will perhaps give a boost to more sponsors. I love each performance I play in.
In what way does your perception of Willy Lowman in Death of a Salesman differ from most other productions of the play across the world?
Death of a Salesman authored by Arthur Miller and first staged on Broadway in 1949 is a hit till today because of its universality in terms of time. Its portrayal of a family stands out in its contradictions and its vulnerabilities as a microcosm of all families everywhere. To me, Willy Lowman is a very positive character because he makes the greatest sacrifice to ensure a bright future for his older son Biff. He sacrifices God’s greatest gift, his life so that Biff can collect the $20,000 of the insurance money. Lowman commits suicide for a very noble cause – for his son’s success which places his act in a positive light and marks him as a successful man. Death comes as a very different catharsis in this play. I do not think other performances of this play have given this positive interpretation to Willy Lowman. His suicide is a very positive, optimistic, and courageous act.
Since you speak about your portrayal of Jinnah, what difference do you find between theatre and cinema?
The electric chemistry that evolves between the actor and the audience during a performance of a play is totally absent in cinema. While the play is on, there a line of unwitting communication that evolves between the actor and the audience. In cinema, there is no such interaction because the actor and the audience are in two worlds and there is no direct contact.
The portrayal of the actor is frozen in time and place and enactment. He cannot improve upon, change or transcend his performance in any way. But an actor, sometimes consciously depending on the audience applause, cheers, catcalls and the like, changes his portrayal a bit here and a bit there and therefore, his performance is dynamic, on-going and ever-changing. It is never frozen in time, place and performance. I am not saying that the character changes or the performance changes drastically.
But I might add a mannerism here or a facial tic there and somehow, this change has been instilled in me by the audience that has watched my play the previous night. So, Willy Lowman of Death of a Salesman performed for 20 nights will come across as 20 different performances that are similar but never identical. This is the magic of theatre which cinema can never ever attain.
What brought you to theatre?
It was my elder brother Sultan better known as Bobby who took us on the road to theatre. I fell in love with it and am still nurturing that love to this day. For me, is an obsessive compulsive disorder. Bobby banded together Ebrahim Alkazi, Hamid Sayani, Jean Bhownagiri and Deryck Je-ffereis. Theatre performances were staged with a flourish on the terrace of our home. Sultan died early in life — but I was too young to understand what was happening. The seed was sown and I am still here, acting and directing.
You are known as the Brand Father of Indian advertising. The Advertising Club of Mumbai has vested you with the title, "Advertising Man of the Century". You are also the guru of English theatre in the country. How did manage to merge these two disparate worlds so beautifully for so long?
Why do you call them two ‘disparate worlds’? Both deal with communicating with the people. Both demand a creative brain – the director/performer on stage and the audience out there. Both demand creativity, industry, hard work and the capability to spot talent at the right time and the right place. It is only in terms of application and execution that some differences in strategy and technique come up. I do not look at them as two different worlds at all. I can dream up a campaign like the Liril soap one or the Lalitha detergent one as fluidly as I can direct Death of a Salesman and do the main part in it.
You have said in your autobiography, A Double Life that you are a good spotter of talent. Did it come from theatre or did it come from advertising?
It is the wide and intense travelling across the country and the world and the interactions with different situations, different kinds of people, different environments I have been privileged by, both as an advertising person as well as a theatre personality, has given me this gift of being able to spot talent and put it to the best use or position it ideally where a person’s true talent will find ideal expression. Travelling gave me the opportunity to witness Laurence Olivier and Al Pacino perform on stage live.
We would like to hear of some of these talents who became famous household names in different fields.
The first name that comes to mind is Shyam Benegal. He was a painter and when I saw him working under Gerson Da’Cunha also from advertising, I told I told Gerson: 'I see possibilities in Shyam. He will be better off in my department than in yours.' Gerson said: 'Give him a try.' And I did! I asked Shyam to paint a mural on the water tank of our terrace and he did it. Later, he did the make-up of the entire cast of my play Hamlet. His wife Nira did the costumes.
Today, he is one of the most outstanding filmmakers in India. Evita – The Musical, created a galaxy of stars – Sharon, Shiamak Davar and others. Among other names are Kabir Bedi who I picked for Tughlaq when my original idea of taking Amitabh Bachchan failed after his accident on the sets of Coolie, Rachel Reuben, Suneeta Rao and Alisha Chinai, who are pop stars now; Javed Jaffrey, a wonderful actor, dancer and reality show anchor today and Karla Singh, who went on to become top choreographer. Zeenat Aman and Persis Khambatta are included in this list.
You keep saying, “You do not play the character, the character plays you.” Would you elaborate?
It is Marlon Brando who said – ‘I do not play the role, the role plays me. I do not know what I am doing once I am into the character.’ This becomes a dynamic interaction when it is an on-going ‘conversation’ between the actor and his audience. In cinema, your performance is frozen forever in time and space and you have no clue about how your audience is reacting to your performance. So when you are doing the same thing the next day, it is not really the same thing you did today because the audience has somehow inspired those changes. So, even when you have internalised a character completely over many performances, it is the character that keeps manipulating your portrayal from one performance to the next.
Among the plays you have directed down the years, which do you hold closest to your heart?
Evita – The Musical, Jesus Christ Superstar and my latest play, Broken Images which has had over 100 housefull shows in 16 cities in the USA. I am in love with every play I direct at that given point of time. This does not mean I grow away from it but rather, I grow with it and extend myself to reach out and do more. We did Streetcar Named Desire twice and the same goes for Death of a Salesman in 1981 and again today, in 2014.
The audience belongs to two different generations almost. But they respond positively which means that the plays are not outdated and they strike a chord somewhere across all audiences across time, place and culture.