Becoming Romeo: an actor’s sojourn

An actor must first be aware of his greatest power: the body, before he has the luxury of dramatic dialogues

Once Moses was passing through a forest where he saw an unkempt simple man, praying strangely: ‘Oh Lord, let me caress your hair, let me look into your divine eyes, let me touch your face, your hands, let me bathe in your magnificent beauty…’

Horrified, Moses bellowed at him, telling him that he had committed a grave sin and asked him to repent. Ashamed, the man did so, and head down, went his way. Suddenly he heard the divine voice: ‘That man loved me, perhaps even more than you. But he was expressing it in his own simple way. And you stopped him!’

Love has a myriad of expressions; the words could be sophisticated and complex or simple and sweet… or the expression can be without words. I learned that as an actor at a very young age. Let me share with you the experience.

Year 2004, venue Amritsar: I am attending my first theatre workshop organised by National School of Drama, the most prestigious theatre institution in India. This is where Naseer-ud-Din Shah honed his art, and Shahrukh Khan was denied admission. The workshop was the first which was being attended by Pakistani actors along with a select group of young Indian actors. Partho Banerjee, a veteran theatre trainer and a brilliant mime artist, was conducting the 3-week long workshop.

I was a 15-year-old newcomer to the world of theatre. My credits included playing an extra in Ajoka’s play Kala Meda Bhes in which I got to say my first famous line: “Mother, I am hungry” and playing the challenging role of a tree in a school play. No one expected much from me, and I was just enjoying the experience. Like most teenagers, I laughed a lot and loved cracking jokes. But when it came to exercises, I would get deeply involved. There were various exercises about the body, such as moving in slow motion. It was exciting, sometimes hilarious.

Love has a myriad of expressions; the words could be sophisticated and complex or simple and sweet. It can also be expressed without words

My favourite one was when we were asked to embark on journeys. We were asked to lay comfortably on the floor, close our eyes, and have a meditation session guided by our teacher. After achieving a state of relaxation, we would be led on to the imaginary journey, passing from jungles to oceans, mountains to rivers, encountering incredible obstacles and challenging situations. During one of these exercises, we were to deal with pain and grief. When the session ended, and everyone started to get up, they all ran up to me worried. Tears were rolling down my eyes endlessly. Whatever profound pain a 15-year-old could have experienced in his life, I do not know; perhaps it was not getting those blinking shoes, I was not allowed to buy or being grounded as punishment. Partho Sir watched silently with a smile, was he laughing at us or pleased about our performance, we wondered.

We finished the first phase of the workshop and were expected to practice what we had learnt. We were to rehearse a fully-fledged play and perform it in front of a live audience.  We looked forward to the challenge, but then Partho Sir dropped a bombshell: the play would be a mime, a play with no dialogues. And the play was no other, but Shakespeare’s iconic ‘Romeo and Juliet’. When the casting was being done, I was sitting at the back, enjoying my favourite junk food. The names were being called, characters after characters were announced, and my name was nowhere. ‘Perhaps I won’t even make it as an extra’ I thought. The list of characters had almost ended, and the bag of chips didn’t feel so delicious anymore. Then the last cast was announced: the Capulet and Montagues families, Prince Paris. All the male characters were assigned. Someone whispered, “You are out. No role for you”. ”What?” I sat up in surprise, and my burger got stuck in my mouth when I heard: “Romeo; Nirvaan”. There was silence in the hall as everyone tried to digest the announcement.

I always thought Partho Bannerjee was an unpredictable teacher with a strong sense of the dramatic, now I was sure.

Partho told me, “you have a lot to prove, both to yourself and to everyone”. He asked me to get ready for the journey. He worked hard on me, scene by scene, bit by bit. I had to learn how to express Shakespeare’s long and complex dialogues through gestures, expressions and use of body language. Actors love doing Shakespeare for his powerful and lyrical language, but I was denied that advantage. Soon I realised why the form of mime was selected for the workshop performance. A musician must first learn to hold the instrument before he can play a single note. A painter must sketch before he can paint. A poet must read before he can write. And an actor must first be aware of his greatest power; the body before he has the luxury of dramatic dialogues.

Perhaps it was my childlike innocence that perfectly suited the role. The purity of emotion required to portray one of the greatest love stories was probably easier to exude. Of course, my dance skills sharpened at the school parties and family weddings, came in handy. Being a long distance “student” of Hrithik Roshan, I can blatantly say I was the best dancer there, having learnt all of his moves.

I stood out indeed. But the music and the choreography was Western, hence denying me some of the bombshell Bollywood moves I had perfected by watching ‘Kaho na pyaar hai’ over and over again. But my comfort with my body and a sense of rhythm enabled me to convey intense emotion through gestures and movements. Besides that, I had to practice sword fighting, ballroom dancing and mime skills. I would be exhausted by the end of the day, butI remained throughout under the Romeo trance, thinking of the passion and tragedy of the legendary lover.

The performance day arrived. We were asked to do the warm-up and meditation exercises. The costumes and makeup were done by a team of NSD professionals, who had done the makeup and costume of Bollywood and Indian theatre stalwarts. I anxiously peeped through the curtain: the hall was packed. I got goosebumps by the realisation that the entire production rested on my young shoulders. I was standing in the wings when the announcement was made. My heart pounded furiously. What if I miss a sword action in the fighting scene? What if I dropped Juliet when I lifted her during the dancing scene? (My Juliet was rather plump and older than me). What if I miss my cue? What if I just… freeze? Thankfully my entry was to be a solo one, a kind of dance with a solo spotlight. I figured I could always disappear into the darkness if things went wrong. I took a deep breath and took the plunge.

I could not see the audience, nor was I keen to see them. With each scene, I sunk into Romeo’s skin, more and more. I was dancing, fighting, climbing, jumping. I was in love, and I had to express it without words. That’s all I cared about. That’s all I thought. Only the sound of applause momentarily brought me to reality. But it was not smooth sailing. For whatever reasons, some of the supporting artists, all young actors, would disturb me during live scenes. I can now laugh about it, but at the time I wanted to kill them.

During the last scene, when Romeo commits suicide, I was to be picked up by six people and carried on their outstretched hands as high as possible. In that climactic scene, I was being pinched hard by my fellow actors, and I had great difficulty in holding my scream. Since Romeo was supposed to be dead, I could not even move a muscle. When I bowed down to the thunderous applause and standing ovation, I finally felt I had done a good job. As people came up to me to congratulate me, I felt awkward and surprised. I did not know then about method acting, character building or subtext, but I had always loved acting. I would play out various scenarios for hours alone in my room. Even when playing a tree, I always tried to be the best tree. Even when my only scene was passing through the stage, I would try to pass in the best way possible. Now I had played a mute but expressive Romeo. But later on, I had several opportunities to play roles with long and loud dialogues. Saying it with words is exciting, but the excitement of saying it without words is incomparable.

The writer is a director/actor; and a core member of Ajoka Theatre Pakistan. He has been involved in spreading awareness on socio-political issues through theatre

Published in Daily Times, February 24th 2018.