Mohammad Ali Baig: I hate the ‘sir sir’ culture in cinema
The actor opens about his transition from theatre to cinema, the apprehensions, the reflections, and most importantly, the learning and unlearning
Popular American actor Terrence Mann once said, “Movies will make you famous, television will make you rich, but theatre will make you good.” Padma Shri Mohammad Ali Baig is an actor who created a lasting legacy in front of live audiences in theatre before stepping in front of the camera for movies and OTT. “At the risk of sounding immodest, I believe cinema is a cakewalk for seasoned theatre actors who are used to the meticulousness of the stage. But I do understand that unlike theatre, which is an actor’s medium, cinema is a director’s medium. How our characters are shaped up in the final output is not in our hands. Having adapted to the medium, I am just having a ball now,” says Mohammad Ali Baig, who is currently busy with the 17th edition of the Qadir Ali Baig annual theatre festival, which is conducted in honour of his illustrious father.
Excerpts from a conversation
It wouldn’t have been easy to make that shift from theatres to films…
Being born into theatre, and groomed under my legendary dad, I had a good launching pad. I had the confidence to go gung-ho in any form of media. After my debut film, Aruvi, became a blockbuster, one film lead to another and I did Cobra and Sardar on the big screen, and In the Name of God and She on OTT.
The difference between theatre and cinema was more offscreen. We were shooting for SHE during the second lockdown, and it was nice to see a 7 am shift start at 7.04 tops. However, while shooting for films, I was asked to be ready by 10 am and the first shot was canned only after lunch. We have to be ready to face the changing dynamics.
Were there moments where you felt the transition wasn’t something suited for you?
It did take time to get used to the hangups of the film industry. You are called at a certain time and made to sit in the vanity van for hours together. Initially, it was difficult, and I found myself questioning if I really needed to do this. Having already made a place in theatre, and seeing parents walk up to me and say they wanted their children to become like me, I wasn’t sure if I needed to be in cinema. But then, I realised that this is the system, and everyone was doing it. I was just new to all of this, but by now, I think I’ve got used to it.
Are there things that cinema would be better off without?
I absolutely hate the ‘sir sir’ culture in cinema. I have grown up seeing the biggest of stars standing up to greet a director. It pains me to see directors go behind stars and say 'sir sir.' Earlier, there used to be pin-drop silence when the director walked into the set. Now, the decorum has changed. I come from a family and upbringing where there are strict protocols, so I was a bit apprehensive about the cinema culture.
Were you apprehensive about how the stars in cinema would receive you…
Initially, there was a sense of consternation about this. However, the ones who came to me with roles knew about my work. They wanted to bring a different dimension to the character. From PK Abraham in Sardar to the eccentric Maths teacher in Cobra, they wanted an actor who could hold his ground in front of the other actors. I haven’t given an audition or screen test for the roles I’ve done till now. I also shared an excellent working rapport with actors like Vikram and Karthi who are not just a powerhouse of talent but extremely warm people too. In fact, I observed a sense of hesitancy from directors who were my friends because they weren’t sure if I would listen to them on the sets. But come on! We are professionals. In cricket, a star bowler or a batsman plays under a captain. That is where mutual respect comes into play.
What have the responses to your performances been like from your peers?
The confidence to play a variety of roles came from my theatre grooming. My roles in Aruvi and SHE were of strict police officers and yet I could bring a difference to these characters. In the recent Zee5 series, Aha Naa Pellanta, I play a rather crazy character. It was such a fascinating experience. With my role in SHE, people told me that they checked the credits to see if it was indeed me who was playing the role. They thought it was an actual police officer. My peers actually pointed out how they realised the changes in my body language, tone, etc… Since directors know of my work, all they give me is a brief, and want me to bring my own personality to the table. I internalise my characters, and I want my audience to think twice if it is indeed me that they are seeing in the film. That is the real applause.
Finally, do you see your cinema sojourn opening up a new audience to your theatre…
I would be delighted if they come to see me as an actor on stage, and not as a film actor doing stage plays. That will be highly contentious for a thoroughbred theatre actor like me. We see cinema actors in the West wanting to get on stage, however, it is the reverse in India, which is unfortunate. But selling more tickets, and having more people see theatre is a good thing. I wish to see the ‘struggling theatre artist’ trope end soon, and it becomes a financially strong medium that more people wish to be part of.