Television is in the pits at the moment: Ratna Pathak Shah

In Netflix’s web series, Selection Day, Ratna Pathak Shah plays a school principal who helps the boys balance their dreams with the relentless pressure they are under

By Karishma Upadhyay
  • Published 3.01.19, 8:05 PM
  • Updated 3.01.19, 8:05 PM
  • 5 mins read
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Ratna Pathak Shah with Akshay Oberoi in Selection Day. A still from the web series, Selection Day.

Netflix’s new desi web series Selection Day revolves around two brothers who are pushed by their father to become the two best cricketers in the world. Veteran actress Ratna Pathak Shah plays a school principal who helps the boys balance their dreams with the relentless pressure they are under. This is the 55-year-old’s second outing on the streaming service after the romcom Love Per Square Foot last year. t2 chatted with Pathak atJW Marriott in Mumbai recently.

Karishma Upadhyay:

What was it about Selection Day that made you want to be a part of it?

Ratna Pathak Shah:

The part, most certainly, and I think it’s an extremely intelligent, smartly written script. My part is delicious; I love it. The character I play, Nelly, is a person I know very, very well and I was delighted to get an opportunity to play someone like her. I’ve seen many Nellys throughout my life and have derived great benefit and solace from my associations with them. 

Karishma Upadhyay:

Would you tell us about some of these ‘Nellys’?

Ratna Pathak Shah:

There was an absolutely extraordinary person called Elisabeth Gauba, who lived in Delhi for many years. I must have been five or six, and my mother (actress Dina Pathak) was a very close friend of hers, so we would visit Aunty Elisabeth all the time. She could set a room on fire just by walking into it. She was married to an Indian Kashmiri and ran a Montessori, one of the first of its kind in Delhi. It was an extraordinary space, and all kinds of terrific people would come and interact with the kids. My mom was one of them — she would take classes in acting, dance and drama, whatever she felt like.

Professor Yash Pal, who was a struggling scientist back then, would come and do science experiments with the children. Indrani Rahman would come and dance with them. Musicians and every other kind of artistes floating around in Delhi would be co-opted by Aunty Elisabeth into her school. It was a completely open and beautiful space; there would be peacocks dancing on her terrace as the kids played and studied. It was the kind of space I would have loved to be a part of, but of course we came to Bombay and I went to Shishu Vihar with all its utter misery (laughs).

My own aunt, Shanta Gandhi, my mother’s older sister, was another such person. She was married to a Scotsman, both were educationists and wonderful people and led extraordinary lives. Their marriage didn’t work but their love and interactions for education lasted a lifetime. 

Karishma Upadhyay:

You’ve also been connected with education through the NGOs you support. 

Ratna Pathak Shah:

Yes. For the last 30 years, I have worked with an NGO where we produce teaching and learning material for schools. Most of this material is used in municipal schools in Bombay, and this is curriculum-related work. So, I’ve been involved with schools, curricula and policy-making for quite a while now. It’s a field that I feel extremely strongly about. When I got a chance to play a part that fits with all my personal beliefs, I was delighted.

Karishma Upadhyay:

Selection Day is such a Bombay story, and it’s a story about nurturing and all of that. But it’s also written and directed by people who don’t live here. Did that make a difference to how they looked at the city through the show?

Ratna Pathak Shah:

I haven’t seen the show, so I can’t answer that question from any definite point of view. But going by the script, I didn’t get a sense of it being written by somebody who doesn’t know the situation. Yes, some of the dialogues and the English, for example, are rather idiomatic in a way that isn’t used in Bombay so much. But I speak English like that, I speak all kinds of English depending on who I’m speaking to. And that’s one of the nice things about being Indian, isn’t it? That you can become so many different people and speak in so many different languages... that’s the pleasure of being Indian. The fact that it’s being made in India and has been worked on by people who are deeply connected here should mean that there wouldn’t be any problems. 

Karishma Upadhyay:

It’s also a story of a ‘tiger parent’. Is that something you identify with in your personal life?

Ratna Pathak Shah:

I’m not terribly clear about what I feel in this matter. I can tell you my own experience. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that young people do require guidance. It’s much nicer to have a set of rules that are laid down and stuck to consistently. But to enforce rules is a difficult proposition, and an unnecessary one beyond a certain age. By that age, if a child has not developed any sense of personal judgement, then that child is in trouble in any case.

It’s the job of the parent to create that sense of self-belief, self-worth and awareness of the world in the child. It is this responsibility as parents that we abdicate almost entirely. We hand our kids over to school and say, ‘You teach my kid’.We hand our kids over to the Internet and say, ‘You teach my kid’. We hand our kids over to grandparents and say, ‘You teach my kid values’. This is all bad news, because you’re not going to get what you want out of a society if this is the attitude. It would be a good idea for India to stop having children for a bit. Until we get our act right, we don’t deserve to have children. We’re bringing up miserable individuals and these miserable individuals will make miserable societies.

Karishma Upadhyay:

You made your first series way back in 1985 for Doordarshan. How have you seen the medium change over the years?

Ratna Pathak Shah:

How many hours do we have for me to answer this question? (Laughs) Look, television is in the pits at the moment, in every way. And it’s not only to do with the kind of fiction programming that’s happening. What’s happening with the news is appalling. There’s not a sane voice on television in anything, and I don’t watch it. I know many like me who have completely tuned out.

We blew a wonderful chance. When television first came around, I thought here’s a chance. We could go the BBC route, where we actually use the potential of the medium to reach out to people who aren’t hearing different stories. And it’s such an easy, cheap way to get across to people. But because it’s cheap, it got co-opted by Bollywood. And as an audience, we’re left with dregs and I’m so upset about it with everyone, particularly the makers of those projects, the policy design of that entire Prasar Bharati and Doordarshan and the mess we made with opening out the airwaves to foreign channels. Every step of the way, we’ve made mistakes, I feel. And now, we have this potent tool sitting in the middle of society, capable of doing incredible damage and incredible good, and nobody knows how to use it. At the moment, we’re in a state of complete idiocy. 

Karishma Upadhyay:

How do you then look at streaming services that have been added to the mix? 

Ratna Pathak Shah:

It’s going to be a game changer. What kind of change, I’m not going to make any predictions as yet. What I feel happy and confident about is that today, there is an audience which is better educated. You are not speaking to a single, homogenous audience, which is what the Hindi film industry thought it was doing.

We’ve finally grown up, but I don’t know how much we’ve grown up. Maybe we’re still adolescents, so we’ll make stupid mistakes and have lots of things in which young people will give lots of gaalis and take off their clothes as often as possible. And then, people will get fed up of that. Young people are also intelligent, why they’d sell themselves so cheap I’ll never understand. The audiences will become more demanding, God willing. But there seems to be a buzz of freshness and home, I’d like to hold on to that for a bit before the cynicism strikes (smiles)

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