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Powerhouse Performer
Text by Meher Marfatia
Published: Volume 17, Issue 5, May, 2009

Armed with a formidable gene pool, Anahita Uberoi grew up in a home that routinely hosted rehearsals while people walked around learning lines all day long. And yet, she has earned her own stripes in the world of theatre. Meher Marfatia catches up with the actor-director

Some discoveries are best made early in life. Like the moment Anahita Uberoi found out she had zero stage fright.

She, of the powerhouse perform-ances in plays like The Glass Menagerie, Rupert’s Birthday, The Dining Room and The Typists, realised this as a bold five-year-old breezing blithely through the ‘Ding dong bell’ nursery ditty at her first Cathedral School assembly morning, she recalls, with her trademark deep-throated laugh.

The daughter of thespians Vijaya and Farrokh Mehta had a more unusual childhood than most. Not for her the regular summer vacations kids enjoy. Young Anahita had it dramatically different for over 12 years. Lulled to sleep in an orchestra pit, waking to watch plays endlessly practised, the buzz of sound and lighting men all around. Helping pack sets after two shows a day, before her mother’s troupe boarded the bus to the next town to perform at in Maharashtra.

That was only the holidays. Back in Mumbai, she remembers a home which routinely hosted rehearsals amid stacks of scripts strewn casually. “It was exciting to see people walk around learning lines all day. Everyone in the family did this, from my father and mother to my grandmother (doyenne Durga Khote). I couldn’t have enjoyed a more privileged growing up,” declares the 41-year-old, currently leading lady of the Rahul da Cunha-directed literary love story Chaos Theory and among the ensemble cast of Raell Padamsee’s production of Michael Frayn’s farcical Noises Off. She has also just joined the gang of da Cunha’s Class of ’84 on stage.

The formidable gene pool armed her well. Anahita imbibed quite distinct lessons from each parent – her Parsi father from his years with the cult Theatre Group, her mother a grand dame actress-director in Marathi theatre circles. “Dad was clear one should have a blast on stage, although working with complete dedication and no money expected. My mother’s training was tougher. In her hardcore disciplined Marathi drama world, the stage was a sacred space. To act was to get tightly under the characters’ skin after loads of research. I inherited this quality, questioning to the point of being too cerebral.” Interestingly, even her name is a fusion of both ancestral cultures. Anahita in Sanskrit translates as ‘one who wishes no evil’ and is the Persian goddess of fertility as well.

While reading psychology and sociology at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, she was pulled into perfecting her lithe-toed side by dance gurus Shiamak Davar and Farida Peddar. Doing Best of Broadway, Last Tango and The Wiz with them and Cabaret with Alyque Padamsee, she taught Davar’s pupils to help fund her study the performing arts in the US.

In 1990, New York’s Herbert Berghof Studio beckoned, to soak in the finer points of direction, acting, singing and dance. Following an internship with Julia Miles’ The Women’s Project and Productions (which only performed plays written by women), Anahita was assistant director to the talented Gloria Muzio, “who became like a sister to me in that country”.

The rush of earning her stripes as assistant director on 15 productions on and off Broadway, with Oscar and Tony Award winners, was heady. But she had left India as much to learn her craft in New York, as she had to follow her heart. And join school sweetheart Samir Uberoi, working on an undergrad finance degree there.

Bursts of that easy laughter ring out robustly again. That would be Anahita describing the imaginative, if gender-reversed style; she proposed to him. “All het up about not formally being asked”, she got a factory to bake pretzels in letters shaped to spell, “Will you marry me?” She lined these romantically across the dining table before stepping out to work. Returning, she saw alphabets rearranged in a manly-staccato affirmative: ‘Will’. The couple extended this word play to frame their own vows, marrying before 15 friends gathered in the apartment they’d shared for four years.

Back in Mumbai two defining personal experiences thawed her ultra cerebral resolve: the birth of her children and a near-fatal accident. They replaced her confessed “insistence on thinking far beyond what’s necessary” with a finer nuanced Ana, as the theatre frat knows her.

It was no coincidence the ‘melt away’ began with the arrival of daughters, Anisa and Aliya, now 9 and 5. “There was an unrealistic image in my head,” Anahita admits, “of heading back to work three months after delivery. This can’t happen if you want to give 100 per cent to babies. I had a very important phase of my life going for me. Strange, I was never some baby lover – more a dog lover really – but had no idea these little beings would draw me into motherhood so completely! They’ve rounded me, helped me to re-look at everything in a gentler way, brought back a great deal of innocence in my life.”

She still somehow stole days to act in the stunning Going Solo monologue series in tandem with da Cunha and Vikram Kapadia. Besides three films for Pooja Bhatt, Vinta Nanda’s White Noise, Rahul Bose’s Everybody Says I’m Fine and Ram Madhvani’s Let’s Talk. Kapadia votes Anahita a director’s delight. Teaming up for Going Solo, he describes her as refreshingly no-nonsense and egoless. “She creates a secure professional space for everyone. We share the same sense of humour. And Ana instinctively understands what’s to be done. I don’t have to spell things out, nor does she need to ask many questions.”

A five-year gap after Aliya was born in 2003 made her achingly restless – “It’s a pull that can’t be explained.” Hungering for a comeback, the magic realism-laced script of Bombay Black by award-winning author Anosh Irani of Toronto hooked the director in her and she started rehearsing. “I prefer to keep a calm environment for actors. I love to love my team, without being a very social director, unlike someone like Rahul (da Cunha) who can readily party after rehearsing with his cast,” she says.

But before Bombay Black could finally open in September 2007, a car accident rocked her world menacingly in January, right outside her Churchgate home.

That proved the poignant second turning-point. It left her concussed for five months, reeling with vertigo for another five and nursing nightmarish memory lapses till recently. How she would retain script lines was one of her initial worst fears. The family expectedly rallied around: parents, ‘supertrooper husband’ Samir and brothers Ravi and Deven, with whom she has always been extremely close.

“What happened was actually a blessing. It was terrifying, but challenging, and taught me to overcome my biggest hurdle. To let go, to show emotion freely, most importantly to tell people what they honestly mean to you. Till this threatening episode I overly relied on my thought processes, trying so hard to be controlled and strong. Life made incredibly more sense.”

It also made her plump for roles of the Chaos Theory kind. Here, she essays Sunita Sen, a college professor waltzing on the edge of an attraction with a fellow academic for long years, unable to admit her true feelings as he is in turn.

Resilient. Compassionate. Happy. Three words she chooses when cornered into summing up how she sees herself today. Yes, Anahita Uberoi is one fulfilled woman. Juggling, but neatly balancing, all the balls thrown at her. Comes a true-to-form cinematic analogy – “I often feel it’s like ‘Run, Ana, run’… my days are madly full!” she says. With that lovely laugh bubbling up once more.

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