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Hanging with Shakey

Published : Jun 3, 2016, 12:26 am IST
Updated : Jun 3, 2016, 12:26 am IST

Almost 10 years ago, I watched Sir Ian Mckellen rip his clothes off as he went mad in a powerful production of King Lear.

English actor Sir Ian McKellen with Aamir Khan at a programme in Mumbai
 English actor Sir Ian McKellen with Aamir Khan at a programme in Mumbai

Almost 10 years ago, I watched Sir Ian Mckellen rip his clothes off as he went mad in a powerful production of King Lear. I was entranced by the grace and dignity that he brought to a character, even in such a wretched state. I remember feeling something similar when as a teenager I happened upon a recording of his mesmerising Iago. A few days after the afore-mentioned Lear performance, I saw him at an RSC party, standing not fifteen feet from me, but I was too star-struck to go up and say hello. This was a ‘great actor’ after all. And one who played intimidating villains at that. Surely he would be annoyed if I went up.

Therefore our relationship was limited to me watching him on the big screen, memorably in The Apt Pupil and then in all the parts of Lord of the Rings and X-Men.

That was until last week.

By some miracle, The British Council managed to bring the knighted Gandalf for a week of activities in Bombay. So I did what any self respecting theatre buff would do I stalked him.

During his first event which was in conversation with Aamir Khan, it immediately became apparent that Sir Ian’s theatre experience has helped in making him one of the finest actors of his generation. His insight into Shakespeare, his command over language and the articulation of his thoughts was a master class in itself. However what stood out was his generosity as an actor. When working in film, he believes his task is to simply give the director options to choose from. His pre-show ritual before a stage performance is to greet and chat with each of the cast members, so that the first time they meet that day is not on stage.

The next night, he gave an introduction to his film Richard III. This was the ‘official’ reason Sir Ian was in town – to celebrate Shakespeare on Film as part of the British Film Institute’s commemoration of the Bard’s 400th death anniversary. In the Q&A that followed the screening, he was animated, honest and funny. Not something you expect from Magneto. He had the spark of a child. His eyes lit up when he recanted anecdotes, and his understanding about how Richard III and Macbeth are similar plays, where the main difference is each characters conscience and when does it trouble them. A feature he attributed to the maturity of the writer when he wrote the plays.

It’s not a secret that Sir Ian is an outspoken crusader for equality and LGBTQ rights, so it was almost apt that he was the guest of honour at the opening of the largest queer film festival in Asia, Kashish. Again he took time to have meetings with gay rights activists, but when he came on stage, we saw him at his ‘camp’ best. He wore a t shirt that said “Some people are gay. Get over it.” And swayed and danced to the introduction music. When he spoke, it was about love and equality. This was not at all the image that had left me tongue tied in the RSC bar.

At a school event the next day, he hugged the boy doing the introductions because they both had played Malvolio at the age of twelve. The four hundred children who chanted “Magneto” as he entered, were not aware of his large Shakespeare or theatre background, but during the session, he enthralled them about the power of the live arts.

His final night in Bombay was a British High Commission dinner for the Queen’s birthday. I managed to meet him just before he went up on stage for the speeches. I mumbled about having loved his King Lear, to which he replied, “Well we did get better after Stratford”. His speech that night poked fun at the establishment, at the Queen (in a most respectful way), and once again talked about equality for all sexes and genders. And then he was gone, leaving us in the warm glow of having been in his presence.

If the great Bard were still around, I think he would be proud that Sir Ian has the moniker “Shakespearean Actor” attached to his name. And I think the actor has gained a lot from the great writer. Simple things like looking you directly in the eye when talking to you, or an in depth understanding of human nature thanks to the Bards plots, and being able to not only recognise but also capture beauty in life, thanks to Shakespeare’s poetry. The week was the closest I will ever get to ‘hanging’ with Shakey, and I wouldn’t trade it in for anything in the world.