King Lear as… a Sufi? Shakespeare’s Epic Tragedy Translated into Urdu for the Stage
The heart wrenching devastation of Lear encompasses more than one man’s trajectory of power. It’s an affecting, unyielding chronicle of a family as it disintegrates around the mental illness of its patriarch.
Translator & playing the role of King Lear
The words of Shakespeare usually translate to several meanings. What has the process of translating been like for you?
This is one of the three plays of Shakespeare that I have translated, the others being A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Measure for Measure. You are right, Shakespeare is very difficult to translate. Some of the English that he writes is not spoken today. The big task is to actually try and understand the meaning of each and every line.
“It takes about seven to eight months to translate one play. You take a phrase and think over it again and again” ~ Khalid Ahmed
Translation is a slow, painstaking, tedious process. It takes about seven to eight months to translate one play. You take a phrase and think over it again and again. I really enjoy that process and it taxes my mind which is a good thing at my age because it probably keeps dementia away.
In numerous instances, you can’t do a literal translation so you have to think of alternative expressions in Urdu. In that case a lot of the writing becomes original but not really – the idea is the same and you have to think up a phrase for that idea.
“Translation taxes my mind more than anything which is a good thing at my age because it probably keeps dementia away” ~ Khalid Ahmed
Sometimes you get stuck at something apparently very simple. “I’m a man more sinned against than sinning” – now to do it in Urdu. The literal translation of it won’t work – I kept at it and then finally came up with “Main ghunay gar kam, ghunaygazida ziada hoon”. Gunehgazida means bitten by gunnah (sin).
You’ve been in the field of theatre for years now, can you talk about its evolution?
I won’t say that I have seen it grow, it hasn’t grown unfortunately, it is still at a very minimal level. We have a capacity for 200 and we do plays for 10 days but most of the time we can’t even fill up the hall which means that in this city of 200 million you can’t even get an audience of 2000. It doesn’t say much about theater.
“In this city of 200 million you can’t even get an audience of 2000. It doesn’t say much about theater” ~ Khalid Ahmed
A certain kind of theatre has started and prospered to some extent. One is the sort of copies of Broadway musicals and then there’s the type of play that works with “Jugatbaazi”– repartee between two people – theater which thrives on funny one liners.
What was your experience like performing the role of King Lear?
King Lear is a tough role, it is said to be the most demanding role of Shakespeare in terms of energy – both physical and emotional. It is said when you are old enough to do King Lear you do not have the strength to do it (King Lear was 85).
“It is said when you are old enough to do King Lear you do not have the strength to do it” ~ Khalid Ahmed
Just like it is said of Hamlet, that when you are young enough to do Hamlet you are not mature enough to understand it (Hamlet was 21). In that sense it is a difficult play but I’m lucky to be given such a part, for an actor it is the epitome of one’s career. Let’s see what I do with it.
Out of all the plays written by Shakespeare, do you have a favourite?
Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet and King Lear.
Was there a particular scene/act you found challenging?
Each and every scene but I think the scene where he goes mad and the last scene when his daughter dies.
What has your experience been like working with Zia sahib?
Oh, I’ve worked with him before and Zia sahib knows his Shakespeare like no one else in this country, so he’s the best suited person to direct Shakespeare. He has his own school of direction which is the British classical school, which lays a lot of emphasis on speech and how you say something. That is his style of direction and I enjoyed it.
Did you learn something new about King Lear during the process?
When I started to work on the role itself, what I noticed was that dementia and old age is a very important aspect of Shakespeare. From the very beginning, [Lear] is afraid of going mad. He keeps saying again and again “oh god, do not let me be mad, keep me in temper” so maybe when he was distributing the kingdom between his three daughters, he could see that coming, and he was very scared. So the fear of going mad is a recurring theme in King Lear.
Eventually he does lose his mind but when he does it is also a discovery of freedom – he’s freed from his ego, from his narcissism, and when he’s roaming around the forest you can tell from his body language that he’s enjoying himself. It is like a journey from a narcissist King with a bloated ego – the most powerful of all – to a… perhaps a better word would be a Sufi – he’s now in touch with himself.
“It is like a journey from a narcissist King with a bloated ego – the most powerful of all – to a… perhaps a better word would be a Sufi – he’s now in touch with himself” ~ Khalid Ahmed
It’s very interesting that after the storm scene when he’s beginning to lose his mind, we do not see the fool anymore and the reason is that the presence of a fool is like the internal voice of the king himself. What the fool says makes the king human, because the fool talks about his follies, his pride, so when he’s in touch with himself he does not need the fool to tell him anything, so the fool disappears from that point onwards. He’s then beyond kingdoms and rule, he doesn’t care about it anymore. So that journey for me is the most interesting thing.
How did you manage to remain authentic?
There are ways of connecting the role, the incidents and the character to your inner self so that as much as possible you’re not just saying the lines, you are thinking them, feeling them also. As actors we devise different ways within ourselves, we don’t have to tell the director or audience.
When Cordelia dies and Lear is just before dying himself, Cordelia’s corpse is there, so his last words are “look at her lips, look at her lips”. So I imagined that maybe when she was born and he picked her up for the first time this is what he may have said “look at her lips”.
That sounds very emotional.
It rubs off on you. I keep thinking and saying that it’s not fun all the time, it’s painful also to go through the pain and when you think of it, no art is fun. Pain fuels art.
Any advice to aspiring artists?
My first advice is that it is a craft and art, it has to be learnt and practiced like any other craft. It needs as much devotion and labour and time as any other form of human activity so it may seem like it’s all fun and games but it isn’t. You have to go through the grind and work at it.
Playing the role of Goneril
How did you land the role?
I really wanted to work with Zia sahib. He was kind enough to audition me for several roles. He gave me the incredible role of Goneril – she’s the eldest, so it’s a much bigger and meatier role than Cordelia, which is the one he originally auditioned me for.
“It’s been the most compressed, intense experience of a lifetime working with Zia sahib because he is so particular” ~ Mira Sethi
It’s been – and I don’t exaggerate when I say this – the most compressed, intense experience of a lifetime working with Zia sahib because he is so particular and he is such an institution in and of himself. He’s also obsessed with the craft of his work and he carries that intensity with him but he also expects that homework and that commitment from his students, so he doesn’t let anything go.
What has the process been like?
It was great. So first I had to work on my ‘kaaf’ and ‘kaf’. It was a very steep learning curve because everybody else had been under his instruction for three years and I barely had two months with him. I had to discard a lot of habits that I had picked up from television. Then I had to re-learn Urdu and I had to drop the slight Punjabi accent that I carry in my Urdu because Zia sahib would point it out over and over again.
“I had to drop the slight Punjabi accent that I carry in my Urdu because Zia sahib would point it out over and over again” ~ Mira Sethi
So we did readings for a whole month, so that I could get the Urdu right and the pronunciation and the flow of voice. The sentences are long and written in classical Urdu and to say them in one breath – so we did breath work also. Zia Sahib would tell me, “This is a good moment to take a quick little breath and then you have to press on.” Then we started rehearsing, that’s when a whole other dimension opened up of physical acting. It’s been really incredible. It’s been difficult but it’s been rejuvenating and exhilarating.
So the role itself is of a villain.
The role itself is of a daughter who is kind of sungdil, hard and harsh, but she’s also having to deal with her father’s madness or ego, even more than madness. She doesn’t give in to his ego because she has a bit of her own. I really enjoyed working with Shabana Hasan, who’s playing Regan, my younger sister. She’s a very talented and confident actor. Actors play off of the energy of each other and I’ve developed a great camaraderie with her.
Then of course there’s Lear and there’s Edmund [played by Paras Masroor] with whom I have an affair. It’s hidden romance and that’s been really good because Paras and I also just worked in ‘Yeh Dil Mera’ for Hum TV so I had that comfort level with him and he’s also an incredible actor.
“When you do a vamp or a villain, it’s always ‘anger, anger, conniving, conniving’ but when you get to show another aspect of your personality then suddenly it invigorates the actor” ~ Mira Sethi
In fact, that’s probably my most favourite scene because in that scene I get to do romance, I get to make fun of my own husband in a way that’s both villainous but also sort of chaalaak and masalaydaar. I get to explore many shades of a character because you know, when you do a vamp or a villain, it’s always ‘anger, anger, conniving, conniving’ but when you get to show another aspect of your personality then suddenly it invigorates the actor also and you’re like, “Ooh, how do I play this?”
What do you have to say to aspiring performers?
Attend plays because once you learn theatre you are completely opened up as an actor whereas if you do television first, then you’ll have to unlearn all the things that you have learnt for television. You will probably have to be a little more conservative because emotions are much louder onscreen; so you’ll have to just contain them.
“Theatre basically makes you undaunted and that is very valuable for an actor” ~ Mira Sethi
A minimalist approach in television works better and theater’s maximalist. There’s that transition but theatre basically makes you undaunted and that is very valuable for an actor.