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‘I was called a doormat by feminists and others, but I didn’t care’

Tête à tête

The gentleman at the door looks familiar. I move closer and see that it’s the actor Raj Babbar. I am in an auditorium in New Delhi to watch a play featuring his wife and her theatre group. I take my seat, while he stands at the door, wishing almost everybody as they enter. When the lights dim, he quietly takes a seat in the second row.

The play, directed by Nadira Babbar, is about to end. The footlights are now on the director-actress, who plays the role of a dastangoi (traditional storyteller). In a long and emotional monologue, she argues that the mark of a true artiste is dedication to and respect for the art and not fame and money. Tears stream down her cheeks as she speaks.

I take a look at Raj Babbar. He has a big smile on his face, and he is wiping off his tears.

The next day, when I meet Nadira Babbar at our appointed time, I ask her if the tears were part of the script of Hum Kahein Aap Suney. “I just remembered my 40 years on stage and all the trials and tribulations I have gone through. I got very emotional and tears found their way out,” she says.

We are sitting in the same but now almost empty auditorium. Nadira keeps a close eye on actors in army fatigues as they work on a forest scene for the play Operation Cloudburst. Directed by Nadira, the plays are being staged in the capital as part of the Ekjute theatre group’s 30th anniversary celebrations. Nadira and Raj Babbar founded the group in 1981.

The night before, Nadira was resplendent in a pink Rajasthani lehenga-choli studded with mirrors, looking a lot younger than her 64 years. Now, in a dull green salwar suit, she looks her age, with signs of fatigue on her face. Is the tight schedule taking its toll? “Arre, nahi. Everything will change once I don my make-up,” she says with the wave of her hand.

Titled Ekjute Caravan, the festival kicked off with a play based on M.F. Husain, called Pencil Sey Brush Tak, featuring her daughter Juhi and son-in-law Anup Soni. “Husain saab was a great family friend. It is our tribute to him,” she says. She’d also played a role in his film, Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities in 2004.

She recounts how once Husain came calling and found the house empty. So while he waited, he painted the door. “We had to pacify our landlord and later had to replace the door with a new one. The painted door is with us in Mumbai,” Nadira says.

Within minutes, I realise that she has a humorous take on almost everything in life. Her happy-go-lucky nature, she admits, made her a bit of a “black sheep” in an illustrious family. Her father Syed Sajjad Zaheer was one of the stalwarts of the Communist movement in India and Pakistan and an acclaimed writer; her mother Razia too was an author and political activist.

“Even my elder sisters were rank holders in school and college. I was happy to be just promoted to the next class,” she chuckles. After a few years at Lucknow’s La Martiniere, she was moved to a government school after her grandfather, a former chief justice of what was then called the Oudh Chief Court, disowned her father because of his Leftist leanings.

Syed Zaheer even spent a few years in a Pakistani jail when he was accused of conspiracy to overthrow the government there before being deported to India in 1954. “We were in a small house in Lucknow, but it was always buzzing with activity. Many Leftist intellectuals used to stay in our house,” she recalls. Writer Mulk Raj Anand was among those who had a great impact on her.

“I was always there, dressed as a flower, whenever the Leftists went on a march or sat on a dharna in the city. I was happy to do anything as long as nobody asked me to study.”

After college in Lucknow, she moved to Delhi to be with her parents, who had already shifted base. “I had secured a third division and my parents didn’t know what do with me before they decided that I should study library science. That was the ‘in thing’ then,” she recalls. She would have joined up, but a chance meeting between her father and the legendary director Ebrahim Alkazi, head of the National School of Drama (NSD), pushed her towards theatre.

I didn’t understand theatre and moreover I didn’t like NSD at all. Initially I had a terrible time. I came from a very conservative town and I didn’t like the openness there. I thought library science would have been better,” she says. That feeling lasted around six months till she took part in a play featuring NSD students and directed by Amal Allana. Nadira recalls playing the role of a barmaid in The Elephant Calf.

“I wore a short skirt with my cleavage sticking out. I also had to sing and dance. One of India’s greatest critics Romesh Chander wrote the next day that I stole the show. I was jumping with joy, but not Alkazi saab,” she recalls. “Rather than praising me, he gave me a stern look and said I had to improve a great deal and that I was not working hard enough. He asked me, ‘When will you start working hard?’ I realised that day that theatre was my real calling.”

She won a scholarship soon after graduating from the NSD in 1971 from the information of broadcasting ministry and spent around two years in Europe studying theatre in Germany, Poland and elsewhere. But after her father’s death in 1973, she cut short her trip and returned home.

Raj Babbar came to her life in 1975. Four years junior to her, he’d graduated from NSD in 1975. “It was during the play Jasma Odan that we fell in love and there was no drama-shama about our affair,” she says. When her mother asked Raj if he was earning anything, he said that he had nothing except for an NSD diploma. “My mother was aghast, but she was okay with it since I didn’t have a problem,” she laughs.

Seeing the couple’s pecuniary condition, her mother asked her to move into a house that had been allotted to her by the government after the demise of her husband. “We had to pay around Rs 6,000, but Raj saab and I couldn’t even pay the instalments. We had to sell a scooter to fund his trips to Mumbai in search of work, while I was raising my daughter and also running the house,” she remembers.

When he made a name for himself in Bollywood, Nadira moved to Mumbai in 1980. Although she was also offered a few film roles, she preferred to concentrate on theatre with her husband helping her at every step.

And Raj Babbar remains her biggest critic to this day. “Phaad ke rakh dete hain. He rips everything apart,” she says, adding that at times she doesn’t feel like speaking to him for days. “But more often than not, he is right,” she says with a smile.

She goes silent for a while when I ask her about the toughest period of her life. She turns philosophical sensing where I am heading. “Tough phases make your personality mellow; you understand the value of patience and goodness and what love is all about,” she says and then starts to address the rehearsing actors. She urges one wearing a turban to tuck his hair in and asks another to adjust a screen.

Clearly, it’s not a subject she wants to talk about. After all, it’s not easy to dredge up a time when her husband moved in with actress Smita Patil, though he was still married to Nadira. “You know what, I don’t want to talk about what happened in my family and by recalling the whole stuff, I don’t want to give pain to myself and also to many others by saying something or the other and opening old wounds,” she says. Her voice is soft — but firm.

But did she think twice before accepting her husband back in her life? “I accepted him with open arms. I was called a doormat by feminists and others, but I didn’t care,” she says. And then she explains why. “It is so easy to disintegrate. I could have gone my way and married someone else and become a flag bearer for women without worrying about my children. Do you think if somebody puts a gold medal around my neck and calls me the woman of the decade, it would solve my problem,” she asks.

And she is glad that everything has turned out the way it has. While daughter Juhi Babbar is now dedicated to theatre after a brief stint in cinema, son Aarya Babbar is active on stage and in films. “I am very close to Prateik Babbar too,” she says. Prateik is Raj Babbar and Patil’s son, now coming up as an actor. She is comfortable with Raj Babbar’s political stint too. He is now a Congress member of Parliament.

“Ultimately it was the victory of my patience. What helped is that I don’t have an ego,” she says.

No, she doesn’t have an ego. And not surprisingly, 40 years on, Nadira Babbar is still going strong.