Actor Firdous Bamji spoke with Education Dramaturg Ted Sod about his role in Indian Ink.
Ted Sod: Tell us about yourself: Where were you born and educated? When and why did you decide to become an actor?
Firdous Bamji: I was born in Bombay, though my family didn’t live there at the time. We lived on an island in the Persian Gulf called Bahrain where my father was the regional representative for Norwich Union Life Insurance Society. My mother chose to return to her own native city to have all three of us. My first school was called St. Christopher’s, a British day school. Some years I was the only non-Brit in my class. My parents then sent us all, my two brothers and me, to an American boarding school in South India, called Kodaikanal International. It was (and is) 7,000 feet up in the Palani hills. It took us two planes, two overnight trains, and a very long bus ride to get there. I started there in the 6th grade when I was ten, and graduated six years later with the largest senior class ever, a grand total of 40. It was co-educational, with no uniforms, and an amazing amount of freedom, though I didn’t appreciate it at the time. When you got to the tenth grade you were allowed to get a pass on the weekends, and you and your friends could hike into the hills with no chaperone, as long as you were back by Sunday night.
Kodai is where I started acting. The sixth grade play was called Virtue and Justice Triumph Again. I was given a bit part, but, due to reasons I can’t recall or perhaps never knew, the kid who was playing the lead villain, a character whose name was Snidely Whiplash (I kid you not) begged off or got fired. I was then thrust into the limelight and gathered it up eagerly with both of my very small hands. I can still remember my first two lines. Then in 11th grade, some friends and I did Waiting for Godot. It wasn’t part of the usual theatre program. It was seriously indie, by Kodai standards. The school was established by American Christian missionaries for their own kids, and, though it was “international” by the time I got there and had children from something like 40 different countries attending, it was still strongly Christian. Our production caused a scandal. Kids were suddenly flinging themselves into apostasy and begging-off church. We had to have a student/teacher gathering in the gym to discuss it. Religion was parsed and everyone felt quite free to speak up and say exactly what he or she thought. There was a bit of radical chic at work, no doubt, but it was still very affecting. It made me understand that doing theatre wasn’t just enjoyable, but also dangerous. And useful.
TS: You have a history with this play. You played Anish Das, the son of Nirad Das, in an earlier production of Indian Ink. How will the experience of playing Anish affect your approach to the role of Nirad?
FB: I don’t know. I’m not sure that it will affect it. I’m about to find out.
TS: What kind of research or preparation do you have to do in order to play Nirad, who is an Indian artist in 1930 during British colonization? Can you give us some insight into your process as an actor?
FB: I’ve been learning from and painting with two brilliant portrait artists who live in my village. And I’ve been reading The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirad C. Chaudhuri. Also, The Hindus, An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger. And another useful book, Rajput Painting, by Rhoda Ahluwalia. I’ve also been learning about the Pre-Raphaelites. Many of the pieces at the Tate here in London have gone off to Turin for a spell. That’s okay, though. Nirad wouldn’t have been able to see the real thing himself any way.
TS: What do you make of the relationship between Nirad and Flora? What do you think Flora means when she says to Nirad: “Why do you like everything English?” Do you see Nirad as an Anglophile? And, if you do, is it a means of survival in colonial India, or his curiosity, or both?
FB: I don’t know what their relationship is; I haven’t experienced it yet. But I think Flora makes a very common mistake. She thinks that what she feels is the truth. We all do this constantly. She sees Nirad as someone who is denying his own roots. She doesn’t allow for true inspiration to be his motivating factor. If Nirad is simply dismissed as an Anglophile, then the whole northern European neo-classical tradition can be dismissed as ‘Grecophilia’ or ‘Romano-philia’ or whatever the condition is called when you’re obsessed with the Romans. I think he is truly inspired and awakened by these artists. Also, whenever a person from what is considered to be the dominated culture finds inspiration in the arts of what is considered to be the dominant culture, that is seen as somehow base, predictable, and banal. Whereas if it happens the other way around, that is seen as open-minded, refreshingly unique, and even intrepid. What’s going on here?
TS: What do you feel Indian Ink is about? The concept of Rasa plays an important part in the play thematically. How would you define Rasa?
FB: Indian Ink, I think, is about relationships, and how we get each other wrong. “Only connect,” E. M. Forster wrote. We hardly ever do. Properly. Perhaps we can’t. Too exhausting. Easier to stay in our own little bubbles.
As far as I’m able to understand it, Rasa is what Nirad Das says it is: “The emotion conjured up by what we see, read, hear, taste or feel.” If something has Rasa, it elicits both a spiritual and an intellectual response.
TS: Does acting in a play written by Tom Stoppard present any specific challenges?
FB: The answer is yes and no. Yes, because each play is a specific challenge. But Tom’s, as far as I'm concerned, and I’ve just done two, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Indian Ink, are easier and less challenging because they're good. It's like the difference between trying to ride a well-made bicycle and something with only one pedal.
TS: What do you look for in a director?
FB: Someone who is constantly exploring, curious, and likes a good laugh. Intelligence is vital. Boundless energy. Openness. In other words, Carey Perloff. Someone who can keep the whole picture in her mind, while not feeling like she has to shrink away from being fascinated by the smaller details. I also think a good director is like a good writer (or a good reader for that matter), in that she must fall in love with every one of the characters and judge none of them.
TS: What keeps you inspired as an artist? Do you see the work of other actors? Go to museums? Travel? Take classes?
FB: Good books, good plays, good jokes, good movies. Baseball. Travelling certainly. People in general, life in all its varied aspects. History and current events. But mainly good books. In my experience, a museum only really amuses after I’ve read a good book about what I’m going to be looking at.
TS: What advice would you give to a young person who wants to pursue an acting career?
FB: There’s this guy in an old Greek story by the name of Procrustes. He’s a blacksmith, but also a murderer and a highwayman. He abducts his victims, or lures them in with illusions of succor, and then forces them to fit into an iron bed he’s hammered together himself. If they’re too tall he chops them up. If they’re too short he stretches them out. That’s what the acting business can try to do to you, and I mean “the business” and not the art form. It helps to know exactly who you are before you go in, and who you’re perceived to be. Then decide who you want to be. You may not be allowed to decide that for yourself. And if those two things don’t jive, then you have three choices: change your mind, change their minds, or walk away and do your own thing.
Indian Ink begins previews on September 4 at the Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold & Miriam Steinberg Centre for Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
2014-2015 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Indian Ink, Upstage