The just concluded Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Award (META) and Festival 2020 brought a mixture of judges, nominees and awardees in an online virtual award experience. The highlight of the three-week event was the presentation of four awards to the play ‘The Old Man’ – Sahidul Haque for Best Director and Best Choreography, Niranjan Nath for Best Actor in a Lead Role (Male), and Tapan Kr Baruah for Best Light Design.
‘The Old Man’ is a play centred on the life of a fisherman, Vodai, considered to be the definition of ‘misfortune’ telling his life story to his much younger apprentice named Rongmon. Rongmon has been advised by his parents to stop working with Vodai and sail with other fishermen who are more successful. The brilliance with which this play was choreographed and directed makes Haque deserving of the META Awards. We recently had a conversation with Haque, and it was fun getting to know him.
Haque is a staunch native of the beautiful land of Assam. Born in Dhepajan Morikolong village, in Nagaon district, Haque also grew up there and has fond memories of his childhood. He had always loved folk theatre, and actively practised it till it was time to go off to college. This passion for theatre also influenced his decision in choosing a school, and he studied at Himachal Cultural Research Forum and Theatre Academy, located in Himachal Pradesh.
Haque, a multifaceted director, practices theatre in theatre-in-education concept and has experience in set and ambience design. When asked about this, he says, “I extend this experience to village children, NGO, village widows, special children, teachers and sex workers, too. I also have experience of ambience design and worked in Kingdom of Dreams, Gurgaon, as a set designer in a theatre production. I am the visiting faculty of National School of Drama (NSD) TIE Co, Delhi; Shriram Centre, Delhi; and SBS World School and Doon School, Dehradoon. Now I am working as artistic director with Orchid Theatre.”
The experience Haque has garnered so far from school and theatre shines in his directing skills. As at the time we chatted with Haque, he had directed more than 35 plays in different languages including English, Hindi, Assamese, non-verbal, Rabha, and Tiwa. His play ‘Nawor’ is the first play ever in Tiwa language.
It is quite easy to downplay acting and directing plays and movies. Some might wrap it up as “Acting involves just reading a script and interpreting it as best as you can”, while others say “Directing plays involves knowing how to cast actors, and taking note of when scenes get too long so that the director can sound the clapperboard and shout ‘Cut!’” However, this is not the case. Directing involves a lot more than casting actors for a play. In fact, Haque confirms this.
“I don’t believe that directing is 90% casting. Direction is a big responsibility in making a production, but casting is a very small part of that. I believe in a good team work, healthy environment in team, its positivity and dedication towards work. Director creates a platform and puts an idea (concept, style, form, content, etc.) in front of team including off stage artist. Then everyone has to work towards that one direction and the director leads that.”
Haque is a force to reckon with in the world of theatre, and this is not just because of the number of plays he has directed. He has participated in a lot of national and international festivals such as Poorvottar Natya Samaroh, Natasuriya Theatre Festival and Bharat Rang Mahotsav. Apart from these remarkable achievements, Haque is an amazing actor. This versatility he exhibits is not a skill everybody has. There is a fine line between acting and directing, but it takes a lot of skill to separate each job even though they are closely related.
There might also be a tendency to be overtly critical when directing a play as an actor and vice versa. Haque comments on this aspect of his work as both an actor and a director. He highlights the differences between preparing for rehearsals and being an actor/director. “I believe in freedom of each artist during art practice. Most of my work is devised by actors. In device play, all the artists, including back stage, provide their inputs in exploring and developing the play. Here the director’s responsibility is to guide and lead the content and take the final decision.”
A director has his/her own perspective, point of view about the subject-issues of the play. And Haque has achieved the goal or objective of the play through rehearsals and by exploring better scope of work with co-workers. When asked to highlight the difference between his personal experiences as actor and director, he says the intensity of responsibility is the main difference between actor and director. “Both are equally responsible towards work but as a director, you have to look over all the areas,” he adds.
Haque enjoys everything about rehearsing for a play, from pre-production to post-production and it is easy to see the passion he has from the way he answers questions about theatre. In his words, “I feel alive when I do a theatre production”. No wonder ‘The Old Man’ carted 4 awards at this 15th edition of the META Awards. ‘The Old Man’ is an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ which he had read over 15 years ago, and finally made a production of in July 2019.
Haque has always felt connected to this novel, as he could picture his childhood and its memories from the situations and characters in ‘The Old Man’. He says that his father is almost a real-life version of the old man in the novel in terms of mannerisms, behaviour, thought towards life and work ethics. He also believes that everyone can connect with the themes portrayed in the novel. “The old man is not only a character; it is about life, life circle, emotions, philosophy. Audience of all ages can connect themselves to the old man character. It is beyond language, region and culture,” he says.
Haque wanted to portray this novel in a different way from other directors, and so in his make of the play, the stage had an incomplete image/picture as he wanted the audience to complete the picture in their imagination. Choosing actors to interpret this must have been challenging, but he says, “I choose an actor on basis of his/her attitude towards work, sincerity, analytical nature, and obviously good tuning. It helps to make a good production.” His experience with NSD TIE also helped him create the visual art that the actor-light-music-text-material infused together with the environment to create a magical atmosphere that brought the play to life.
‘The Old Man’ is not the only work of Haque that is highly appreciated. ‘Bubble in the River’ and ‘Nawor’ also received admiration from audiences. However, ‘The Old Man’ is much-loved because of the atmosphere created by the actor, and the way the stage draws the audience in to complete the story according to their imagination. Perhaps, this magic gave Haque the optimism that he would win awards at META. When asked what his first reaction was when he heard the results, he says he was excited and happy.
As appreciated as Haque’s work is, he owes it to the people who inspire him. “My father always inspired me. In any conflicts I always thought what my father would do if he were to be in this conflict. And another person I always followed is Late Pranab Baruah (well-known painter),” he says. He is not about to relent though, as he has upcoming projects under his sleeve. “Recently we completed pre-production work of a new production called ‘Tea Stall’. The production is about migration and discrimination.”
“Isn’t there more to Haque?” you might ask. There is more; as Haque does not joke with his free time. He loves making food and hanging out with his friends. During his breaks, he also spends time gardening in his plantation.
You can be versatile in your passions and talents yet understand that excellence can be achieved in all that you do! If you need proof, take a look at Sahidul Haque!