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Theatre artist Mohammad Ali Baig switches off stage lights for camera, makes OTT debut today

Hyderabad-based theatre artist Mohammad Ali Baig has taken on roles for several shows that are being released on OTT platforms, including one that hits the internet this Sunday.

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Hyderabad: A grand stage, a beautifully lit background and a live audience of 1,500 people — this is what veteran theatre artiste Mohammad Ali Baig was used to during a performance. Now, it’s a camera, and Baig is competing for an audience that has a plethora of digital content to choose from on OTT platforms.

Baig, who acted in his first play when he was just 10 years old, is making his OTT debut this weekend on the show In the Name of God. Coming from a legacy of theatre — his father Qadir Ali Baig was a theatre icon — the show is a move to a different media that works by a different set of rules.

“We are used to performing at historical monuments, courtyards etc … to a committed audience. They know the show timing, they make an effort to come there and they know what kind of art form they are going to look at. They dedicate one hour of their time to the play,” Baig tells ThePrint.

“But, OTT is different. The viewer attention span is literally minutes and it is not a totally committed audience. People multi-task and watch content on OTT, sometimes it is running in the background etc. So the main challenge for an artiste like me would be to hold the attention of the viewer through my performance,” he says, talking about the challenges he faces now.

Baig has had many ‘hits’. But among his most popular plays is Quli: Dilon ka Shahzaada — the love story of Quli Qutub Shah, founder of Hyderabad, and his danseuse Bhagmati. An internationally-celebrated play, it has been performed across the world, including a fest in Edinburg and at the Oxford University. In Hyderabad, it is usually showcased at the Golconda Fort. 

“In this play, my entry is usually on a horse (stallion) and there are about 1,500 people when we perform,” Baig says.

His wife Noor Baig is also a theatre artiste. She co-wrote ‘Quli’ and plays the female lead Bhagmati.

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A new role

A Padma Shri awardee, Baig’s OTT debut is on the Telugu platform ‘AHA’, which has close to a million subscribers. In the thriller, he plays Rossi, a charming, psycho drug peddler who traps people.

For his role, Baig says he added a slight accent to the Telugu dialogues as the character is someone of Israeli origin who has settled down in Andhra Pradesh’s Rajahmundry.

“Although an artiste can perform under any circumstances, the shift from theatre to OTT could be challenging and (is) stepping out of (my) comfort zone,” says Baig. He adds that creativity and originality could take a backseat in OTT considering that teams have to work in accordance with the platform’s requirements.

“Even on OTT, there are repetitive subjects, repetitive acting …. so how does one stand out? These platforms also encourage a lot of young talent, which is good, but the environment is very different from that of a mainstream production where the director, script writer and actor collaboratively develop a character because they decide on something. In OTT, the platform will also be involved … so working according to them also matters,” the 48-year-old said.

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Not a camera novice 

While this is Baig’s foray into OTT content, this isn’t his first time in front of the camera. In 2016, he starred in the Tamil movie Aruvi. His other work includes parts in the upcoming Baahubali web series being produced by S.S. Rajamouli, and season two of Imtiaz Ali’s She. Both shows are under production for Netflix.

The Hyderabadi, who has a command over Urdu, also runs the Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation. The foundation was started in 2005 by the family and the erstwhile united Andhra government in tribute to Qadir Ali Baig. When Mohammad Ali collected his Padma Shri in 2019, he dedicated it to his father Qadir Ali, saying he was just a mere messenger taking the award home to Hyderabad.

A Father’s Day gift

In the Name of God releases on AHA this Sunday, coinciding with this year’s Father’s day. Baig called it a ‘gift’ to his father.

The show is directed by Vidyasaagar Muthukumar and produced by Suresh Krishna, who is also associated with major projects such as Rajnikanth’s Baasha and Kamal Haasan’s Abhay. It was shot in phases in the Marudemili forest and Amalapuram in Andhra, besides Chennai and Hyderabad over the last year.

Baig is also awaiting the release of two of his Tamil movies, Cobra and Sardar. Noting how the pandemic hit theatre badly, he said, “Even Broadway stopped plays. Naturally, it hit theatre very badly and we don’t know how long this will continue. Despite that, our theatre foundation made sure that we take precautions and host plays whenever possible.”

(Edited by Manasa Mohan)

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