Discovering Einstein

Sayantan Ghosh | Updated on: Sep 20, 2019

Actor Naseeruddin Shah’s nuanced portrayal of the scientist, based on a play written in 1949, gives us a man who is in conflict with the impact of his greatest achievement

“It is never a mistake to question, never... The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

Thus spoke actor Naseeruddin Shah’s Einstein, while relating an incident from his schooldays when he was thrown out of the class, but not because he had asked a question. The teacher in fact thought — going by the expression on the student’s face — that he was, as always, going to ask one. It’s a humorous moment — of which there are plenty — in the play staged recently at the Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi. But it’s quickly followed by the significant statement about the power and necessity of inquiry.

All great scientists have chanced upon things unimaginable to the human mind before them, simply because they allowed their curiosity to guide their actions. And that includes Albert Einstein’s groundbreaking theory of relativity, considered to be one of the pillars of modern physics.

And this is where Einstein , written by the Canadian born playwright and poet Gabriel Emanuel in 1987, and directed by Shah, succeeds. Like many of Shah’s major works on stage, Einstein too is a Motley production. Shah directs the play in English with a light touch and lets the actor in him do the heavy lifting. The play helps pique our curiosity and compels us to know and better understand the man behind that famous equation and the distinctive mop of white hair. We meet him in this 75-minute monologue at a time when he is revered and celebrated the world over and, yet, whose soul is constantly tormented by the fact that his life’s work played an integral role in the creation of the atomic bomb that destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki towards the end of World War II. A few months after the nuclear attack in 1945, Einstein was on the cover of Time magazine, and behind him was an explosion on which was emblazoned E=mc2. We witness a broken man haunted by his own creation.

Not surprisingly, the play rests on the writing — a blend of poignant, sharp and whimsical moments — and the performance of its lead actor. And once you get used to Shah’s heavy German accent and surrender to the fact that he demands utmost attention from each viewer, you forget that here’s an actor you have probably seen many times on your TV screen or on stage. You are, instead, transported to the Princeton study of one of the greatest minds in the field of science. Apart from his striking physical resemblance to Einstein, Shah’s extraordinary skills as an orator and a performer help lift a character from the annals of history and turn him into a man of flesh, blood and feelings.

Here’s a man who, despite his Brobdingnagian achievements, fails to take himself seriously, having peeked into the vastness of the universe and perceived how infinitesimally small human greatness is. The fourth wall is dismantled with considerable ease, as the scientist moves from pensive to witty to even behaving flirtatiously with a female audience member at one point. Shah’s voice rises and falls intermittently, reaching a crescendo and then leaving us in the quiet darkness of the auditorium to contemplate. He says: God may be subtle, but he is not malicious. Not yet at least. There’s a hint of nervousness in his speech, which, for an instance, may sound like Shah’s own voice — when he speaks up against atrocities against minorities (something the actor has done regularly in the last few years). Alarmingly he affirms, “The World War after the next one will be fought with rocks.” At a time when we are living around talks of a nuclear war with a neighbouring nation, Einstein should haunt us all. This is what makes Einstein — written in 1976 about a 70-year-old man in his study in 1949, speaking to us in 2019 — so relevant, and will continue to be so perhaps as long as humanity persists.

It reminded me of George Orwell’s timeless and seminal work 1984 — written in 1949 — still so relatable today and possibly more than ever before. History immerses in our present consciousness for the 75 minutes that we spend with this play, and for that we can only be grateful.

Sayantan Ghosh is a Delhi-based writer

Published on September 20, 2019
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