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Home Personality Interviews Mohammad Ali Baig

Mohammad Ali Baig

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Man who nurtures Theatre in Hyderabad

 

Mohammed Ali Baig“Theatre was for the oxidized jewels, bold bindi woman”


Mohammad Ali Baig is an ad and corporate filmmaker by profession with over 300 works in visual media to his credit, for an international clientele including Aditya Birla Group, Hewlett-Packard, Gillette, the United Nations, World Bank  and many Fortune500 companies. As a documentary filmmaker, his work has been showcased at BBC, CNN, Doordarshan and Discovery. He has over 30 national and international awards to his credit and has been the youngest Director on board public limited company Odyssey Video. He heads the company CineWorks India (estd. 1999) and is the President of Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation (estd. 2005) aimed at reviving theatre in Hyderabad.

Q: You don many hats: ad-filmmaker, documentary producer, theatre personality… around which medium does life gyrate for you?
A: I am an ad and corporate filmmaker by profession and my orientation is moving images. I enjoy the challenge of telling a story in 30 second that would otherwise take three hours to narrate. What I do for theatre is as a tribute to my father, Qadir Ali Baig. Theatre is stifling to me because of the high benchmarks that have been set by my father and my brother Moin Baig who is into serious theatre. In ads, I can have a ball! I am a free man and more footloose. I don’t have to live up to an image and I have scope to fiddle around with the medium. If I do mess up an ad, God forbid, it will be because of Mohammad Ali Baig and no one else. But what I do to promote theatre is for dad and I do it with sanctity in mind.

Q: Do you think there is a theatre culture in our country to make theatre a viable professional choice beyond the confines of the social elite?
A: There are enough opportunities in India if one seriously wants to make a living out of it. Viable theatre is there in Mumbai, Kolkata, Manipur and even other places whether or not we know of them. There are people making their bread and butter solely out of theatre. What is needed is a serious pursuit of the art. If theatre is used as a stepping stone to television or films and people shy away from putting in serious commitment then don’t blame theatre. Don’t sacrifice it by having pretences of wanting to pursue theatre when the ultimate aim is to be a silver screen icon.

Q: Through initiatives like ‘Heritage Theatre’ and the ‘Celebrating Theatre’ series, what is your final vision for the art in the city?
A: The final objective is to make theatre an acceptable form of meaningful entertainment. To have no target audience either elitist or the new generation, but a cross-section of the society. For everyone from 16 to 40 above to enjoy theatre it is necessary that it is presented in a format that is palatable. I use the term because not all audience is intellectual or an initiated one. I say this because my brother’s theatre, I dare say, is over the top – very intellectual. (smiles) There are times even I can’t fully appreciate it. I am aiming at what dad did: a rightful mix of art and commerce.

Q: And how has the response been to this revivalist movement?
A: Three years ago, theatre was discarded as a dead medium. Our first show, Aparajita had 350 audience strength, up to 800 on our last show on a weekday. Earlier people would give theatre a miss because it was their niece’s birthday or driver’s wedding; theatre was only for the oxidized jewellery, bold bindi and Kalamkari sari woman: highbrow and intense. Hum Log scored over a night at a drama. Today, we perform to a fullhouse for five shows in a row for Taramati, His Exalted Highness saw a turnout of over 1,100. And we are not selling on star-power or free mocktails alone. Everyone comes because they can relate. When every type of entertainment is available at a feather touch of a remote, people come and spend two or three hours of their lives with us: professional theatre is being appreciated.

Q: It is said, for a medium to find full expression, it requires an equally mature audience. With films like Water entering the Academy awards as a Canadian entry and Parzania facing blanket or selective ban, while pelvic thrusts are celebrated; where are we heading as a creative industry?
A: (smiles) We have a cultural problem. We must understand the ethos of our peoples. In a country of one billion, there are enough per centages of audience for every kind of film. It is easy to blame the audience for the mediocrity of one’s own work. Not that the audience asks for a vulgar item number in every movie. The question is: can I sell my conscience for an extra buck? It is not to say that there must be no popular appeal to good art. The populist element is a must to make an art form popular, but not at the cost of the integrity of the art form.

Q: Do you think there is a government apathy or political unwill to promote theatre and arts in India?
A: The government has done a lot; can do a lot more. One auditorium in a city in the name of Tagore does not spell promoting culture. The Department of Culture grants us Rs.10,000 for a production and one day at the auditorium to perform. Which is to say that all the artists have to be there on that day. 10,000 doesn’t even cover their travel costs. The Department of Tourism has given us encouraging patronage though: Taramati and Raat Phoolon Ki were done in partnership with the tourism department who sanctioned them. It all depends on who is sitting at the helm of the department. If it is someone who has an orientation toward culture, he/she would do a fine job. If it’s just another babu…
We need collaboration between the government organs and private institutes. The Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation recently tied up with the National School of Drama for a three-week summer workshop which was a huge success. Such symbioses help.

Q: Is visual media industry solely talent-driven, or does a casting couch or godfather helps?
A: When I entered, I had no godfather in the industry. Maybe it’s partly true. There may be a casting couch; but you never know. If it exists, it exists in every field, not just the media. Times have changed. Women in the industry are educated and intellectually independent enough not to need a male shoulder to rise. Moreover, a producer or a director works on his/her reputation. No one wants it marred because of some stray casting couch incident. Coming to godfathers, you see the biggest names in any field; they are all there without godfathers. Hard work paid. Work equations have drastically changed and there are more people pulling you down than giving you a hitch. The ones closest are the most dangerous.

Q: ‘Rockumentary’ won you two international accolades: the Golden Asters at the Osaka Film Festival in Japan. What is it about?
A: It is about the natural rockscapes in and around Hyderabad. Narendra Luther, former chief secretary of the tourism department did the background research and made the proposal. Such rockscapes are found only on two places on earth: Australia and the Deccan plateau. Mr. Luther co-produced the film. It has no human actor; just rocks. The then Sunday Times called it: ‘Sheer Poetry on Celluloid’.

Q: Finally, whom would you rate as your favourite documentary and ad filmmaker?
A: It may surprise you, but I hardly watch documentaries or even television for that matter. I generally appreciate all National Geographic documentaries without looking at the credits, for the fear of being biased. Some of them are debutants and each one outdoes the one before. Also, I have never assisted anyone in ad filmmaking; I usually call the shots for directors twice my age whose experience is more than my age! It has been an accusation of the media that I’ve worked only with stalwarts. But, it is so because either that we share a great professional relationship or that they are friends of my father’s. No one would work with me for the love of my face. It has been a disadvantage having worked with such greats as Shyam Benegal, Girish Karnad, MS Sathyu and Mani Ratnam, because then I can’t hire any cast and crew of a lower caliber! I work with people who have set for themselves certain professional benchmarks. Some call it egotism or arrogance; but I have to share a mutually respectful professional and personal relationship with the people I work with.

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