Consummate dancer and National Award-winning Indian actress Shobana, who performs in Dubai on October 22, marches to her own tunes and beats.
She’s one of those rare talents who’s willing to speak about her craft openly, but also wonders aloud if her passion for 'traditional' (she finds the term ‘classical’ limiting) Indian dance will translate and resonate with today’s hip digitally-driven generation.
At the time of this interview, the 52-year-old performer was recovering from a bout of flu, but that didn’t stop her from being an adorable sport as she goaded us to ask questions that teased her brains and are unconventional. She even lets us in on an anecdote when she fell off the stage because one of the tall dancers in her group struck her accidentally.
"I fell off the stage and I couldn't spring right back up either ... The lightman darkened the stage and the poor girl was crying ... But I have never had any wardrobe malfunctions," said Shobana with a laugh. Always dignified and graceful, it was interesting to see Shobana in a zany mood.
Apparently, she hates being asked why she doesn’t do more Malayalam films and whether the ‘Manichithrathazhu’ star likes acting more than dancing.
“By the time these two questions come my way, I am already bugged … It’s not that I don’t want to do more Malayalam films, but it has to work in terms of my time and space in life ... Whether I like dancing or acting is a question that confounds me,” said Shobana in an interview with Gulf News.
Shobana, who has acted in over 200 films and featured in dozens of blockbusters starring Mohanlal and Mammootty, is one of Kerala’s beloved stars and was honoured with the Padma Shri title for her contributions to cinema and dance.
So does her annoyance extend to being asked if she prefers Mohanlal over Mammootty – two legends from South Indian cinema who are often pitted against each other. If Shobana shone in her role as a disturbed woman in thriller ‘Manichitrathazhu’ with Mohanlal as her psychiatrist, then her turn in the romance ‘Mazhayethum Munpe’ with Mammootty was a scene-stealer.
“Oh, I am never annoyed by that question. Every time people ask me about these two doyens, I always answer because they have contributed so much to my life. We have done so many films together. We walked the same paths and we learned from these great actors … I have spent so much of my time with these maestros … Something has to work,” said Shobhana with all humility. She also lets us in on a Tamil proverb of how the thread binding a fragrant flower can also smell divine, similarly she blossomed in terms of acting watching these two powerhouse performers at work.
“So every time you asked me about these two legends, I’m only willing to share,” said Shobana.
Ahead of her performance ‘Shobana Live: Lotus Feet’ in Dubai’s The Theatre at Mall Of The Emirates on October 22, we spoke to the dynamic actress about her show, her process, and why she isn’t in any hurry to do multiple films …
What should we know about your show this weekend?
If you have an affinity for traditional dance and want to get back in touch with your roots, hear some great music, and hear stories that make you feel nostalgic, then this show is for you … It’s not a production per se but we have taken some of the entertaining elements in that genre. The mythological origin of traditional Indian dance was created to entertain. 5000 years ago, when there was nothing else in terms of entertainment, dance was our sole entertainment. But now we have everything else that comes under entertainment, but it still entertains … I won’t use the term classical dance for this show. I prefer to call it traditional dance because calling it classical means it’s for a certain niche audience. I don’t like to put human beings in a box. Labels like critics and laymen are just confounding because I find normal people a lot more sensitive to dance than those critics who are often unknowing grammatically … We are coming up with a highly accomplished team for ‘Lotus Feet'. We are showing how folk dance came about with this show and we are pushing the boundaries of traditional performances with the use of appealing songs. My favourite songs and my traditional pieces will be used. It’s going to be a lovely evening in Dubai because the UAE audience is discerning and are exposed to many forms of entertainment. You don’t even need to know about mythology, just enjoy the rhythm.
COVID-19 was a difficult time for everyone ... How did that phase make you re-assess your life as an artist and life performer?
I don’t react much because of my age and so it wasn’t totally shocking ... My student’s husband fell ill and they didn’t have any medicine, so I had to put on a Hazmat suit to get medicines and that’s something that many of us did ... Youngsters who had just made it might have felt anxiety because everything stopped suddenly or those who have been performing for ten years might have banked on their next two years of shows might have felt a vacuum ... But I am a little different. I was working and rehearsing every day. I was practicing dance alone for hours and I even lost 15 kilos during COVID-19. I didn’t lose any people in my family.
Many live performers are taking a self-imposed sabbatical in the midst of their tours and show to protect their mental health ... Have you ever felt the need to do so?
Trust me, I am just happy to go and land on everybody’s head. It’s been such a nice ride and I have practised enough alone. I had enough of reflecting on things too. I am pretty much in shape and I want to put all those hours that I practiced during COVID-19 into action now.
Your life has been a portrait of discipline and consistency... How difficult is it to remain committed to your craft and art?
I have these dreams where I oversleep due to jetlag and land up late for my show. I have these flickering dreams of the audience waiting and watching me walk through them with a bag. Everybody else’s seated and it’s a normal thing for most artists. These days, it’s common for artists to turn up late but I find that hugely embarrassing and unprofessional. I prefer to wait for my audience to take their seats. I love to peek from backstage to see if everyone has taken a seat. I like to see their excited faces ... For my shows in the US alone, people travel 300 miles after arranging a baby sitter for their children ... I find it really cool. I enjoy a bit of voyeurism.
With the advent of digital streaming platforms, several actresses have made spectacular comebacks and begun new innings with compelling series ... Have you thought about it?
I have seen all those innings, but my innings have been seamless. I have always put my time in a way that benefits me or somebody else. It’s not like I am not doing films anymore. Currently, I am doing a massive project but I can’t talk about it yet. It’s a massive production ... I did a Malayalam film before COVID-19 called ‘ Varane Avashyamund’ in 2020. Plus there was a big backlog of shows that were canceled and re-scheduled. The truth is that I have other things to do with my life. I am not a machine and I just can’t go and just perform. I have people in my life that I need to look after too. I prefer to focus on one or two things at a time and prosper in that equation. Recently, I visited several places like Badrinath and Kedarnath, not as a pilgrim. I don’t want to be taken in those places in a buggy if my knees give out. Remember dancers lose their elasticity of joints a little earlier because of the trauma we put on them. Even ballerinas face that ‘ballerina syndrome’. And before all that happens, I wanted to go to these places. Whenever I find spare time, I explore places and spaces. Plus, my child goes to school and she has exams. As I am talking to you, the pipe in my home has burst.
You have your own dance school in Chennai ... Is this your way of paying it forward?
The question should ideally be: ‘Why did I start it in the first place... It was never commercial when I decided to teach dance ...Remember, nobody took up teaching traditional dance because it didn’t pay well and they did it part-time. But with this school, I have a generation of students who have taken up teaching dance as a full-time job. I have never tried to monetise it. But I have launched a comfortable business module that's affordable. Bharatnatyam is an expensive art form with costumes, musicians, platforms, etc ... It’s an old-fashioned institute in that sense. But I am happy that I did this.
When: October 22
Where: The Theatre, Mall Of The Emirates
Time: 730pm (doors open 7pm)
Tickets: Dh100, Dh150,Dh250, and Dh350