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Mohammad Ali Baig: OTT's accidental advantage has been the pandemic

The well-known theatre personality, film actor makes his Telugu OTT debut with aha's In the Name of God

Srivathsan Nadadhur
Jun 25, 2021
 
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A young Mohammad Ali Baig, well aware of the royal lineage that his family enjoyed, grew up in a haveli in the outskirts of Hyderabad, listening to dinner conversations about theatre greats like Bernard Shaw or a Vijay Tendulkar or a Shakespeare, all thanks to his late father and renowned theatre veteran Qadir Ali Baig. The stage was more like a playground for the youngster and it didn't take long for him to own upto his legacy, taking over from where his father had left in the world of theatre. 

But there's a twist. He briefly took to making advertisements and corporate films before he realised his true calling. There was no looking back later. His theatre productions, be it Taramati- The Legend of an Artist, Quli: Dilon ka Shahzaada or 1857: Turrebaz Khan, are often larger than life and are a perfect marriage of grandeur and poignant storytelling. The actor, director is testing new waters with his OTT debut in aha's latest show, In the Name of God, where he plays a mean antagonist Rossi. OTTplay takes you through the 'grand' story of the theatre/film personality.

Excerpts from an interview

Despite being awed by theatre and your father Qadir Ali Baig's vast body of work on the stage, you opted to make advertisements and corporate films in the early part of your career. Was that stint of any help when you returned to the theatre?

Oh yes! The biggest learning there was to tell a story within 30 seconds or 1 minute at best with all the embellishments, unlike a feature filmmaker or a theatre person who may have the luxury of 2-3 hours to do the same. The objective with ad-filmmaking isn't only to tell the story but also to communicate the message with a certain objective effectively. With films and theatre productions, a spectator has the choice to watch something in a genre of their choice, though that's not the case with advertisements. 

The job here is much beyond catching eyeballs as many proclaim; it's also important that they have a recall value. If you've mastered that, you can tell your stories on stage, in films, or in web series with greater focus. Throughout my advertising stint, my legacy in theatre came in handy and it worked vice-versa too. It has given my theatre works saleability, class and a proper structure. Even the pandemic couldn't stop me from organising my annual theatre festival, which I've been doing for 15 years now. 

Not many know that your father made his film debut with Shyam Benegal's Ankur. Do you have any memories of being on his film sets?

My biggest respect for my father is that he was never swayed by the calling of Bollywood. He and Habib Tanvir were someone many filmmakers hold in high esteem because they could bring in audiences to their shows without banking on a career in Bollywood or television. Dad did Ankur because Shyam Benegal (uncle) had requested him to do it. Apart from Benegal himself, it was a film that launched many careers - Shabana Azmi, Anant Nag, Vanraj Bhatia, Govind Nihalani, Priya Tendulkar. He wanted dad to play the quintessential zamindar, knowing his royal roots. I was very little when it was released and even remember watching it at a theatre in Hyderabad. He got many Bollywood offers later but stuck to theatre. 

In fact, I was part of Sagar Sarhadi's Bazaar where I debuted as a child actor playing the role of a young rebel. They wanted to shoot in a nawab's haveli that we lived in (and still live in) and made regular visits to our house. The whole unit was at our house, they shot the film with a shoestring budget and dad took complete care of their hospitality. Even the costumes that Smita Patil wore were my mother's. The Tamil film Aruvi was my first film as an adult.

Despite spending a major part of your life in Hyderabad, it's surprising that your feature film debut happened in Tamil.

I did the film because the team knew my wife Noor (also a theatre actor, writer) and wanted me to play the part. I didn't know anyone from the team and just went with my gut instinct. It was a genuine, sincere team and I, frankly, wasn't so surprised when the film did so well in theatres. Every scene that we had shot for in the script was there in the final cut; that explains their meticulousness. When we completed the film, we couldn't find a release for two years but it enjoyed a great run at the festival circuit. 

I almost forgot that I did something like Aruvi for a while and suddenly get a call that the film has managed a theatrical release. When we went for the premiere in Chennai, we see the theatre owners weren't ready to give the prime slots because of the absence of recognisable faces/names. The buzz multiplied right after the press show and there was no looking back. It got a 120 screen release in TN and Karnataka and Aruvi is now called a trendsetter. I got many calls from reputed production houses to play a cop later, but I didn't want to get stereotyped and let the film be a pleasant memory.

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Many people compare the advent of OTTs to the early years of the television industry where they offered a new alternative to audiences beyond mainstream cinema. What do you have to say about it?

I think OTT's accidental advantage has been the pandemic. OTT has been there much before 2020, but it gained precedence and almost became an essential service during the lockdown. I didn't even subscribe to Netflix or Amazon Prime Video before that. People like me who hadn't even heard of OTT before ran through multiple seasons of content week after week. Unknown actors, writers, filmmakers became stars overnight, which is quite good. I'm glad that it gave a platform for talent, who may not have had luck with feature films, to flourish. Content-wise, I think there's a herd mentality and streamers rely on successful formulas, trends. Why don't they try to stand out from the pack? How much blood-splattering, mindless violence can you watch time and again?

While you are used to playing full-fledged roles in your theatre productions, what is it like to essay small roles in films and shows that may or may not have a context or even a backstory?

If you go by my role Shakeel Wahab in Aruvi, he's neither a protagonist nor an antagonist. I was just being a character actor. If you look at Rossi in In the Name of God, he is a cool player and a charmer. The role may not last through the entire screen time, but it's a character that'll remain in your memory regardless of the length. It'll warrant the attention of the audience. The impact is more important when you play brief roles. I internalised Rossi and have given the role a different dimension through my performance. He's a runaway from Israel, makes a living in Rajahmundry and speaks the language of the locals. There's a certain gait, body language to the character. 

We worked on the look and made sure he didn't look like a stereotypical villain. Noor helped me with the look, especially the blonde streaks, ear studs, nose rings and stubble. Suresh Krissna sir and I had wanted to work for the longest time but he didn't know where to fit me in films. When Vidysaagar narrated the story to me, he was particular that I bring something from my table to the role too. By the end of the shoot, he told me that a part of me is indeed like Rossi. I didn't know if it was a compliment or anything else (laughs). I also play a key role in Vikram's next Cobra, where I'm mathematician guru to the lead character, a character who genuinely believes that everything in life is related to a number except emotion. He never wants the lead character to fall prey to emotion.

And you make your Telugu debut in an OTT show and not a feature film. Wasn't Kalinga supposed to be your first Telugu release?

Kalinga's final schedule is yet to take off owing to the pandemic. I play an anthropologist from Kerala who moves to Hyderabad in search of his missing daughter. I thought the film could have been the right launchpad in Telugu. Thanks to aha, now I do that with a Telugu web show. It's a delight to be working for a Suresh Krissna production. I have a wider audience to reach out to, I'm not complaining!

Are you tempted to adapt any of your plays for an OTT show on a grand canvas? There's no better time than now...

I haven't thought about it but a few have told me that stories made on iconic historic characters could make for great shows, be it the Qutub Shahi or Asaf Shahi period. Going by that, we may even have seven seasons. There's love, deceit, culture, dance, poetry, art and everything an audience would desire from a great show. However, people look at these things from a business point of view. OTT is a different platform and the dynamics are different from theatre. I don't know if I could tell stories as convincingly as I do in theatre. There may be compromises. You can't take too many fictional liberties and it's important to be accurate with the references and details. The portrayal of history lately has become one-dimensional - you either love or hate them. Everything is in binaries these days. Let's see what happens!

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