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META 2023 | Actor Sushma Seth: ‘TV and films are directors’ medium, while the stage is where the story unfolds’

The veteran actor, who became a household name with the TV serial 'Hum Log', and spent a life in theatre, is this year’s recipient of the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards' (META) Lifetime Achievement Award.

March 25, 2023 / 02:48 PM IST
Sushma Seth, the veteran actor, who's the recipient of the 2023 Mahindra Lifetime Achievement Award, has spent a lifetime on the stage since the 1950s.

Sushma Seth, the veteran actor, who's the recipient of the 2023 Mahindra Lifetime Achievement Award, has spent a lifetime on the stage since the 1950s.

Sushma Seth began her acting career on the stage in the 1950s and went on to be one of the founder-members of the Delhi-based theatre group Yatrik in 1964. She has straddled the world of stage, television (Hum Log, 1984; Dekh Bhai Dekh, 1993; etc.) and films (debuted with Shyam Benegal's Junoon, 1978) with equal aplomb in the years that followed. In a career spanning nearly seven decades, she has received several honours, including Bharat Nirman Award and Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. This year, Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) is conferring her with the Lifetime Achievement Award on March 29, which also happens to be just two days after World Theatre Day. In a candid conversation, Seth, 86, recalled her initial days in theatre and how she has continued her association with the stage since. Edited excerpts:

Sushma Seth became a household name playing Dadi in the popular Doordarshan serial 'Hum Log' (1984). Sushma Seth became a household name playing Dadi in the popular Doordarshan serial 'Hum Log' (1984).

How does it feel to be conferred the Lifetime Achievement Award from META?

I’m deeply honoured to be receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from META. I have been associated with them from the beginning. META has acknowledged and given an opportunity to theatre groups across the country and a much-needed platform to showcase their plays, talent and commitment. And given us — theatre audiences — excellent productions.

You started your acting career on the stage in the 1950s and continued to perform in theatre till the 1990s. What are some of your earliest memories of theatre?

I returned from the US in 1960 (where she studied drama). I was extremely fortunate that all the roles every actress yearns for in their lifetime were offered to me such as Gurdafrid, the warrior princess in a superb production of Rustom Sohrab. Then followed Sabrina in Sabrina Fair, Rano in Ek Chadar Maili Si, Kate in Taming of the Shrew, Champa in Sakharam Binder, Shen Te in The Good Woman of Setzuan, Fatima in Ali Baba, and over 50 more plays in Hindi, Urdu, and English. We were also working on costumes, props, sets, music and every aspect of play production, including selling advertisements in the brochure and tickets.

You have been working with the NGO Arpana since the early 2000s and have directed a number of plays with the last one, Sitaron Ke Paas, in 2014. Can you tell us something about the work you do there and the joy it brings to you?

I studied directing as a subject at Briarcliff College (New York). I founded Children’s Creative Theatre during the summer holidays when my three children, Kavi, Divya and Priya were 9, 8, and 7 years old, respectively. Their friends and neighbourhood children would participate and it was a marvellous and exciting four weeks, ending with a performance of a half-hour play. The children implored me to do more of these workshops. That was the beginning for annual summer and winter drama workshops. I was invited to a function at the Basti Vikas Kendra of Arpana Trust, where the children come for tuition support. I found the students talented, enthusiastic and eager to perform. They were gifted in dance, singing, painting, and acting but not appreciated. I agreed immediately to do drama activity with them.

The workshops were structured to help the children gain confidence, become disciplined, learn group adjustment and was also an opportunity to show their talent. The larger aim of creative drama was towards preparing a play through which universal values could be given. We rehearsed and performed eight full length dance-dramas with casts of 70-80 students for schools, colleges, orphanages, Bal Bhawan and Shriram Centre (in New Delhi) in 20 years. I saw the confidence, the happiness and improvement in their grades with the appreciation they received. The last play on Kalpana Chawla was written by us with the material, footage and information given by her family. The first performance was staged in Karnal, Kalpana’s hometown, with her family, teachers and friends in an audience of 3,000 students. Kalpana was a familiar icon for the students, worth emulating for her excellent qualities of courage, humane values, dedication, compassion towards animals, birds, and a love for plants and flowers.

You have worked quite a lot in films and television but the stage was where you began. What are your thoughts on that?

Television and films are a director’s medium, an actor has little control over the end result, and has to master the technique of pitching and emoting to absent stimuli. For the stage, the study and analysis of the story and the characters, the progression as the story unfolds on stage is a cathartic and marvellous experience. The feedback with a live audience is instantaneous and elating.

One of the most memorable roles you have essayed was in the Hindi serial Hum Log (1984) on Doordarshan. What memories do you associate with that show and the people involved in it?

Dadi of Hum Log is a brilliant character created by Shri Manohar Shyam Joshi, as were all the characters of the series. They and their problems exist in those strata of society. It was a mirror that also revealed the solutions and outcome of the situations. I received so much love and sackfuls of mail, which I personally answered. At 40, I became the universal Dadi!

Your last acting project was Mehram in 2018. Are you still interested in acting if a good role comes your way, especially with OTT platforms offering good stories and roles?

Offers for television and films have been coming to me but I haven’t accepted due to the pandemic.

Deepali Singh is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist who writes on movies, shows, music, art, and food. Twitter: @DeepaliSingh05