In Moments of Truth, Roshan Taneja, one of the country’s most well- known acting coaches recalls an episode in which an enthusiastic Meena Kumari did improv
MID-DAY (May 7, 2017)

Meena-ji saw Manu Naik and me sitting apart from them, so she asked who the other two men, besides the office boys, were. Surendra Kaul told her about us, and about my background as an actor who has trained in New York. Meena-ji was quite intrigued with that piece of informtion – training as an actor and that too in New York! She was most eager to meet this man who had gone all the way to New York to train as an actor. After we were formally introduced, she said, ‘Hmm ... so actors undergo training too? This is the first time I’m hearing about this. We just memorise the dialogues, try to understand them properly and then deliver them. What else is there to do?’ I explained to her that just as all performing arts — whether dance, singing or music — need to be mastered by undergoing systematic training or riyaz, similarly actors too needed to hone their talents by practising certain exercises. She said, ‘Ok, but we always thought that actors are born …’ ‘Yes they are, and talent is a must, just like in singing and dancing, but it stays incomplete if one does not train with a master in the field. It takes a lot of time, too, to learn as you keep performing, and yet one can never truly master the art …’ Meena-ji saw some point in my arguments, and asked to see some exercise that the actor does while training.

I explained to her that it was difficult to show someone all about training so briefly, but Meena-ji insisted, ‘c’mon, show me something ...’ So I agreed. I turned to Surendra Bhai and asked him to do an improvisation exercise. He said he had never heard of it, forget about knowing how to do it. I told him that I’d explain how to go about the exercise, and having done some work as an actor, he’d be able to do it — just enough to illustrate to Meena-ji how improvisation works.

I explained to Surendra Bhai the five W’s — Purpose, Motivation, Place, Time, and Relationship, and then set him a situation. The scene was between two brothers who worked together in the family business. The younger brother felt he was under the thumb of the elder one, who had full control of the business. The younger wanted his space, and to be treated as an equal and be given equal importance. The dialogues were not given, and the actors would have to improvise the dialogue along the lines of real life conversations. The younger brother, played by me, was to start by stating his purpose, his wants and needs, and then the elder brother would respond to it, to which the younger would react, and so on. Acting really was just reacting to each other.

Meena-ji exclaimed, ‘How will you do it without knowing the dialogues beforehand?’ I told her to wait and watch. 'OK, let’s see,’ she said. And with that, we started. Surendra Bhai, playing the elder brother, was sitting in the office doing some work when I entered and sat down opposite him. I said, ‘I need to talk to you.’ ‘Can’t you see I’m busy?’ he snapped. I responded with, ‘But this is important!’ Slowly, it developed into a heated argument. Finally, I told him I couldn’t work with him and he shouted, saying ‘Who wants to work with you?’ I said, ‘I’ll go and tell Dad.’ He shouted, ‘Go then.’ ‘I will! I will!’ I shouted before leaving the room, banging the door loudly behind me.

Meena-ji was left surprised, and wondered how it had worked out so well without the help of given dialogues. I explained to her that this was an exercise for the actors to get involved in their act, and if they really did get involved in the give and take of the conflict, the emotions occur of their own accord. All the actors have to do then is to give full expression to their feelings. It was an exercise for emotional limbering which helps actors get involved in their characters, so that they don’t seem to act anymore, but feel like they are real people to the audience.

‘You’re right,’ Meena-ji said. ‘Can I try it?’ Seeing her enthusiasm, I began to think of a situation to suit Meena- ji. It occurred to me that a situation from Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, where she pleads with her husband (Rehman) to not go to the kotha that night, would suit her eminently, and it would be easy for her to do as well, given that she had already done it once. Even though the scene enacted itself through a song, she understood the purpose and motivation of it, and would easily be able to improvise it with dialogues. The song went like this: ‘Na jao saiyan chhuda ke baiyan, kasam tumhari main ro padoongi…’ I explained the situation to her and then asked Surendra Bhai to play her husband.

The scene began with Surendra Bhai, who started getting ready to go out. Meena-ji came from behind and put her arms around him. Surprised, he reacted, saying ‘What’s all this suddenly?’ ‘This is love,’ she said, ‘that you never see. This evening you stay with me ... I’ll drink with you and dance for you ...’ He laughed derisively, saying ‘You, who won’t let me drink, will drink? And dance! You …?’ Thus they carried on, the situation heating up and both of them getting so involved that they started to throw invectives at each other. Finally, he left and she shouted after him, ‘Go see if you get love from that tawaif of yours. You’ll never find love,’ she cursed, ‘never!’ After it was over, she sat down, stunned, and kept saying ‘... I was there! I was there! O god, I never thought I could have such cheap thoughts, I never thought I could argue so violently … How did this happen ...!’