Theatre: Looking back
It’s time to say ciao to the old year and do a quick flashback: Faroouque Shaikh’s sudden passing away was a shock and a big loss to theatre. He acted in Tumhari Amrita for 21 years, and created such an endearing character, that theatre will always remember him as Zulfi. Mumbai theatre will also miss Sudhir Bhat, Vinay Apte and GP Deshpande.
Two lovely young women and talented actresses one returned to theatre, the other entered films on wings of glory. Kalki Koechlin was first seen on Mumbai’s stage in a devised piece called Hair.
Post Dev D and Bollywood stardom, she returned to the stage with a play The Skeleton Woman, which she also co-wrote and, this year, she again co-wrote and acted in a rather difficult and layered play on Tagore, called Colour Blind (directed by Manav Kaul). After the success of Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani, she could have signed up dozens of films, but she chose to do something that used up her mental faculties too. After her movie stardom, her presence on stage is in crowds for a play that is not a conventional entertainer.
On the other hand, Nimrat Kaur, started her career with theatre, worked with directors like Sunil Shanbag, Manav Kaul, Akarsh Khurana and then her appearance in The Lunchbox made her a star. Now, if she ever returns to the theatre, she will be a crowd-puller. Sonali Kulkarni is another actress who is devoted to theatre she is doing a revival of White Lily Ani Night Rider and travelling all over the state with it, drawing full houses.
Apart from Naseeruddin Shah, Paresh Rawal, Shabana Azmi, occasionally Anupam Kher and now Nandita Das, no major film star is consistently giving back to theatre, when so many of them owe their careers to the start the stage gave them, even Shah Rukh Khan. Unfortunately, more and more audiences are looking at the theatre as a means of entertainment a kind of substitute to cinema which makes it tough for theatre companies to do experimental work, or properly encourage the work of new writers. There are so few venues for experimental work, even if people were to attempt it. So, like it is with cinema, a play has an easier time at the box-office if it has a known name in it, or it is a comedy.
That brings one to two fast growing trends the exponential rise of the comedy industry, with stand-up and improv shows happening all over the place and getting packed with people looking for a fun time. It’s good to know that at least urban India is learning to laugh at itself. A sense of humour can just never be underrated. The other is the opening up of many more non-traditional venues for performances, from school halls to pop-up spaces. The idea of a community sharing an experience is what makes an evening enjoyable. Festivals like Kala Ghoda and Celebrate Bandra and Sanjna Kapoor’s Junoon team are trying to do that. Now if only the bureaucracy also opened its mind and relaxed some rules...
Women’s sexuality came out of the closet once again, with two productions talking of the desires of the urban woman, without apology. Chahat (Manasi Parekh) of Sunil Shanbag’s Club Desire, is coolly brazen. She makes overtures towards a man she finds interesting, balks at the idea of marrying him just because she gets pregnant, and when she tires of his possessiveness, moves onto another more attractive man. In Bizet’s 19th Carmen from which this play takes its inspiration, an unbridled woman deserved to die, in the 21st century she deserves some admiration.
In the Faezeh Jalali-directed Ladies Special, a series of women pick their thrills as and when they choose a journalist who enjoys a one-night stand with an industrialist, and much to his surprise, does not want anything in return, not even another tryst; the tribal domestic worker being pursued by her employer, matter-of-factly climbs into his bed, and knows that she has been handed a kind of power; and most amusingly a street walker who pays a customer who satisfies her. At a time when crimes against women are pushing women into an unwilling victim mode, stories of women who don’t want to be part of the conservative herd also need to be told.
The international trend of filmed theatre for the cinemas has finally caught on here. Some regional language plays do bring out DVDs of their productions, but these are low-budget and tackily done. Inspired by National Theatre Live, Subodh Maskara has launched Cineplay, and some of the productions that he has assigned to be shot with professional finesse, will be ready to be screened early next year. Nobody can say that a play on the screen can be a substitute for the live experience, but technology can help as appetiser and eventually, build an archive, so that some of the best productions are not lost to time...
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. She can be followed on Twitter @deepagahlot