Thought Box



by Vinta Nanda February 27 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 8 mins, 6 secs

Nadira Zaheer Babbar inhabits the same universe where I met her in 1984. Today, she is as intense and powerful as a thousand times more, and it’s magical to watch her at work, writes Vinta Nanda.

She has received recognition and awards for her contributions to Indian theatre. Some of the notable honours she has won include the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, one of the highest awards given for contributions to the performing arts in India. Her theatre productions under Ekjute, a theatre group established by her in 1981, have been recognized multiple times at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) awards, which celebrate excellence in Indian theatre.

Born on January 20, 1948, Nadira Zaheer Babbar’s journey in the world of performing arts began at a young age. She pursued her dreams by joining the National School of Drama (NSD) in New Delhi. Her father Sayyed Sajjad Zaheer was one of the founders of the Progressive Writers Association and the Afro Asian Writers Association. He was one of the founding members of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). Later he was the founding member of the Communist Party of India. He was also a renowned Urdu writer. Her mother, Razia Sajjad Zaheer, was an Urdu writer and teacher at Lucknow University, Uttar Pradesh.

After completing her stint at the NSD, she received a Government of India scholarship to study theatre at the Berliner Ensemble – the Brechtian theatre founded by Bertolt Brecht. She also won a scholarship for further studies at the National Theatre of Wiemer in East Germany where she worked with great theatre personalities like Fritz Benevitz, Grotto Vosky, Wolfgang Heinz, Ursula Kchimskye and Henry Harward.

She is not only an accomplished actress but also a prolific playwright and director. The first two plays she performed with her group Ekjute at Prithvi Theatre were Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths and Agha Hashar Kashmiri’s Yahudi Ki Ladki. She was seen in Gurinder Chadha’s film Bride and Prejudice (2004) and MF Hussain’s Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities (2004). She was also seen in the films Jai Ho and Ghayal Once Again, and the web series ‘The Married Woman’, directed by Sahir Raza.

Over the years, Ekjute has given Indian theatre sixty plays including Sandhya Chhaya, Look Back in Anger, Ballabhpur Ki RoopKatha, Baat Laat Ki Halaat, Shabash Anarkali, Begum Jaan, Dayashankar Ki Diary, Sakku Bai, Suman Aur Sana and Ji Jaisi Aapki Marzi. Among the well-known actors, theatre personalities, writers who’ve worked with her are BM Vyas, Anup Soni, Juhi Babbar Soni (her daughter), Sumit Vyas, Kirron Kher, Sushmita Mukherjee, Raja Bundela, Richa Chadha, Satish Kaushik, and the list is endless.

When I look back in time, I realise how important a few powerful women have been in my life. I came to Bombay at the age of twenty, and my aunt Saroj Satija, running the Bajaj Art Gallery at the time, introduced me to the giant of an artist Prafulla Dahanukar. Prafulla Dahanukar introduced me to the producer of some of the most iconic Indian television serials, including ‘Hum Log’, Shobha Doctor. I was hired by her, subsequently, as a production assistant on a television series, Titliyaan, which was directed by Nadira Zaheer Babbar, we call her Baaji.

It was a dream come true for me to work with her. But the condition laid down by Shobha Doctor was that only if Baaji gives me a nod of approval at the end of the first working month, will I get a pay check and confirmation of employment.

It was my first time on a film set and I was clueless. Everybody was at work and I was hanging around, nervous and excited. Trying not to be in the way, I watched from a corner of the room where the shot was being set up. When everything was ready, the actors were rehearsed, and the camera was about to roll, Baaji said, “Kamra khali lag raha hai, ismein jaan nahi hai (the room is looking empty, there’s no life in it)”. Everything came to a grinding halt.

I slipped out and hailed an auto rickshaw. I went to a small flower market, in Juhu, which I had noticed on my way to the shooting that morning. I bought flowers and returned. Discussions were on, and the assistants were running helter-skelter looking for pictures, books, artifacts, whatever they could lay their hands on, to place as props in the room. Quietly, I placed the flowers in the vases. Baaji was watching me. She shouted, “Ready! Chalo kaam karna shuru karo (let’s start working)”. Within seconds everybody was back in position. After the shot was taken, Baaji said to me, “Very good, shooting ke dino mein tum roz phool lekar aana (bring flowers with you on all the days of shooting)”.

Soon I was her shadow. And, for anything she needed, she would call me. A month later, when the boss asked her if I was good to go, Baaji approved my employment. I had a job in Bombay, at a salary of 850 rupees per month.

After we finished shooting for Titliyaan six months later, Baaji returned to her theatre - she was producing and directing a musical, Jasma Odhan. I, of course, followed her, abandoning the job I had with the production company, to absorb more and more of her creativity. I joined Ekjute, her theatre group, and watched her at work - always ready to do as she wanted. I soaked in the process and immersed myself in it, learning by leaps and bounds. Watching her work was an arresting experience, breathing in the suggestions she made to actors, the motivations she gave them to discover more about themselves, and the characters they were playing, was spellbinding.

I worked with Baaji for a few years and moved on. That was roughly thirty four years ago. A life in filmmaking, writing and production of television serials beckoned. But I saw all her plays when they opened, and went backstage each time to congratulate her.

It’s been some time since I’ve been telling Baaji that I want to interview her for The Daily Eye. She’s been willing but looking for an appropriate time to meet. Recently, we finally struck on a time. I sat in her office, and memories flooded my mind. I jogged back the many years, and instead of nostalgia, strangely, I felt anemoia, as though I was in an axiomatically familiar place, which I had never physically been to before. This wasn’t déjà vu, it was something else, unfamiliar, completely unknown to me.

“How can I interview Baaji when I already know her so well”, I asked myself.

“You’ve lost touch with her”, the inner voice answered.

“How can I ask her questions, when I know everything about her”, I asked myself again.

“You don’t know anything about her”, responded the voice.

In that bizarre state of mind I looked at Baaji who was seated in front of me, she was brimming with questions too, and said, “Can I join Ekjute again?”

She answered, “Why not? We are rehearsing a new play, it’s called Farida, you’re welcome to come from tomorrow”.

Ghar Wapsi happened! And ever since I have been a regular (almost), working behind-the-scenes for her new play ‘Farida’, which opens on the 3rd March 2024 at Prithvi Theatre.

The show timings are 5pm and 8pm. Tickets are available at Prithvi Theatre and

In the picturesque landscape of Kashmir, amidst pine forests and apple orchards, lies the poignant tale of Farida and Haider. Farida, abandoned by her husband Sadiq for a life in Dubai, finds companionship in her brother-in-law Gul Mohammad, while they work together in their orchards. Haider, a wounded soldier, becomes enchanted by Farida and gradually falls for her. As their bond deepens, Gul Mohammad, empathetic towards Farida's plight, tries to help her escape her despairing situation to be with Haider.

Starring Manav Pande, Ashaay Mishra, Yudhvir Dahiya, Debasree Ghosh, Hanif Patni, and Aroosa Khan as Farida, this simple story effortlessly written and directed by Nadira Zaheer Babbar promises to be an experience you cannot miss.

I would not have been able to write this piece about Baaji and her new play, Farida, if I hadn’t drenched myself in the experience of working with her for a second time. It’s her process, which propelled me ahead once upon a time, paved a path, which I ran on. And, to reunite with that truth, which gave me the wings to fly thirty four years ago, it was important for me to go right back and knock on the doors of her authenticity again.

Baaji inhabits the place where I met her for the first time in 1984 - evolved, intense and powerful, now multiplied by a thousand times. It’s magical to watch her at work. This time, of course, with another bunch of young actors.

She’s tireless, she suggests, motivates and gives impulse to movement, to pace, she expands the pitch and the profound, she measures the depths and pushes deeper, and if the tension in the room rises, she breaks into a song, either written by her, or one that is familiar, a melody from the past, from the present, she harmonises the environment with her voice, which liberally merges with everybody else’s in the room.  

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.

Nadira Zaheer Babbar Vinta Nanda Recognition Awards Contributions Indian Theatre Sangeet Natak Akademi Award Performing Arts India Theatre Ekjute Theatre Group Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards META Awards National School of Drama NSD New Delhi Sayyed Sajjad Zaheer Progressive Writers Association Afro Asian Writers Association Indian People’s Theatre Association IPTA Communist Party of India Urdu Writer Razia Sajjad Zaheer Lucknow University Uttar Pradesh Teacher Government of India Scholarship Berliner Ensemble Brechtian Theatre Bertolt Brecht National Theatre of Wiemer East Germany Fritz Benevitz Grotto Vosky Wolfgang Heinz Ursula Kchimskye Henry Harward Actor Actress Playwright Director Prithvi Theatre Maxim Gorky The Lower DepthsAgha Hashar Kashmiri Yahudi Ki Ladki Gurinder Chadha Film Bride and Prejudice (2004) MF Hussain Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities (2004) Jai Ho Ghayal Once Again Web Series The Married Woman Sahir Raza Plays Stagecraft Sandhya Chhaya Look Back in Anger Ballabhpur Ki RoopKatha Baat Laat Ki Halaat Shabash Anarkali Begum Jaan Dayashankar Ki Diary Sakku Bai Suman Aur Sana Ji Jaisi Aapki Marzi BM Vyas Anup Soni Juhi Babbar Soni Sumit Vyas Kirron Kher Sushmita Mukherjee Raja Bundela Richa Chadha Satish Kaushik Saroj Satija Bombay Bajaj Art Gallery Artist Art Prafulla Dahanukar Indian Television TV SerialHum Log Shobha Doctor Iconic Titliyaan Baaji Flower Market Juhu Books Props Artefacts Pictures Auto Rickshaw Jasma Odhan Backstage Filmmaking The Daily Eye Interview Memories Nostalgia Anemoia Déjà vu Inner Voice Farida The Play Book My Show Picturesque Kashmir Pine Forests Apple Orchards Dubai Manav Pande Ashaay Mishra Yudhvir Dahiya Debasree Ghosh Hanif Patni Aroosa Khan Motivation Song Music Lyrics