For most actors it would be time to hire a shark of an agent and shop for a duplex with a view of Central Park. But being hailed by New York theater critics as “commanding,” “utterly convincing” and “supreme” hasn’t seduced Roshan Seth. “I have no illusions about this business,” says the 43-year-old Indian actor, who is currently starring off-Broadway in David Hare‘s clever and daring comedy, A Map of the World. “They forget me all the time. And I don’t want them to remember me.”
Though he enjoys New York—a city he finds peaceful compared to the chaos and cacophony of New Delhi, his home—the big time is not for him. “If I became a busy actor, being talked and written about, the pressure on me would be so much I would crack and the work would suffer,” he says. “In India everything is such a struggle and so disorganized that you can never get away from the now, and the future seems not only remote but downright unlikely. Good reviews don’t mean a damn thing to anybody. I find that very reassuring.”
They do mean something in New York, where audiences have flocked to the Public Theater to see Seth rule the stage as Victor Mehta, a celebrated and arrogant Indian novelist whose every utterance is a lash guaranteed to make bleeding hearts hemorrhage. Mehta’s sardonic wit skewers Mao (who “ruined his credibility by marrying an actress”), Castro (“who won all his battles by speaking whole villages to death”) and the United Nations(“the wastepaper basket [is] the only instrument of sanity in an otherwise insane organization”). Set in Bombay at a UNESCO conference on poverty, the play revolves around dazzling debates between Mehta and an idealistic British journalist (Željko Ivanek). “Instead of sending the Third World doctors and mechanics,” Mehta argues, “we now send them…ecologists and wandering fake Zen Buddhist students…What hypocrisy!”
Every night Seth nearly staggers out of the theater, drained by Mehta’s intellectual high-wire act. “It’s a killer,” he says. But the effort never shows. “Roshan can make ideas sound crystal clear,” marvels Hare, the author of Plenty, who has directed Seth in three productions of Map. “He has the intellectual vibrancy to find the life in an argument. You do believe Roshan himself could write really good novels.”
According to Hare, Seth’s “freedom and fearlessness” onstage stem largely from a momentous, mid-life decision the actor made in 1977—to abandon acting and leave England, where he had been working with middling success for 15 years. “I thought if I was really talented surely I’d be getting more work,” recalls Seth. But his dissatisfaction wasn’t entirely with his skills. Like other Indian actors, he was often called on to play a stereotype—”a quaint and amusing bumbler,” says Seth. “Peter Sellers was the absolute master of that character.” In the rare instance when a director wanted something other than a Peter Sellers sahib, “the tragedy was that one didn’t know what else to do. Living abroad you’d forget what it’s like to be an Indian.” In 1977 he also ended a nine-year relationship with British actress Lynette Davies. “We were emotionally incompatible,” he says. “Ultimately, we discovered that we would not make each other good company.” Consequently, Seth headed home.
The ties to Western culture, however, are too deep to sever. Seth’s maternal grandmother was an Englishwoman who married into a landowning Muslim family. His mother was educated in London before marrying Seth’s father, a biochemistry professor and a Hindu. In the town of Patna they raised four sons, of which Roshan was the firstborn. All the children were educated at English-style boarding schools in the Himalayas. Seth says, “The same values my parents brought us up with were perpetuated there—very tolerant, very secular.” Though he earned a master’s in history from the University of Delhi, Seth loved acting, “which I discovered I could do with a certain effortless panache. It elated me.”
Returning to New Delhi after leaving England, Seth took a job editing a scholarly journal of Third World affairs. “I didn’t miss acting at all. I was deliriously happy.” At the behest of director Richard Attenborough, he took a few months off to play Nehru in Gandhi, then returned to his desk. One day in 1981 David Hare turned up looking to cast the lead in his new play. At the actor’s home, says Hare, the water wasn’t running, the lights were out, the servants were quarreling and “the taxis were crashing outside. Roshan simply shrugged and said, ‘What can you do? This is India.’ He had the right kind of patrician arrogance for Victor Mehta.” To Seth, Mehta was a chance “to play an Indian part the way I have always wished to, showing things other people wouldn’t because they would think it impolite. Educated Indians have this way of being rude, disdainful. They come from an old civilization; nobody can tell them anything.”
Like the country that claims him, Seth is an anomaly. “He’s a strange mixture of East and West,” says Hare. “When we first rehearsed the play, Roshan would go to the side of the room when he wasn’t on and sit on his mat and contemplate and even fall asleep. When we needed him again, I would touch him on the shoulder and he would wake right up. in London he is incredibly generous with his money, but in Delhi he gets insanely excited over the idea that the taxi drivers are robbing him of one or two rupees. I tell him, ‘When you go to India, you become very Indian.’ ”
Therein lies his idiosyncratic perspective—and his sanity. In New Delhi, where “people just drop in or want to take you somewhere,” the bachelor doesn’t have time to be lonely. His house is 25 years old and beginning to show its age. Seth doesn’t mind. “When I’m working with my hands,” he says, “I’m alone with my thoughts. I’m free to dream.” If years should pass before the next director drops in, they will seem to Seth like minutes.