A quartet of talented directors rebuild Delhi's reputation as a theatre hub. They wear the make-up, go over their lines and stand in aisles in darkened theatre, waiting for applause. A new generation of Delhi actors and directors is leading the revival of theatre in a city not known to have the patience for auditorium etiquette, ticket sales or serious storylines.
Suddenly Delhiites, notorious for for popularising the 'free pass' culture, are starting to queue up for ticketed shows.
As the frequency of plays becomes higher, newer venues such as Mukta Dhara in Gole Market and Epicentre in Gurgaon have emerged. It's a throwback to the heady '70s when Delhi first created its reputation as a theatre hub, says leading director Sohaila Kapur. "There was a wave of serious theatre in Delhi in the 1970s. In the '80s and the '90s in the heyday of television, it died down a little. Now there is a resurgence of Delhi theatre that's manifesting itself on the campus, in schools and among young professionals from the corporate sector who want to do weekend theatre."
There are greater employment opportunities for actors today than 10 years ago, affirms Arvind Gaur, whose group Asmita is one of the foremost exponents of street theatre in the city. "The social acceptance of theatre has grown, particularly in the Hindi belt, since it has become linked with employment. There is a good taal-mel between theatre, TV and cinema."
Earlier, doing more than five shows of a production was not economically viable, says M Sayeed Alam of Pierrot's, among the most successful commercial groups in Delhi. "Now, I do eight to nine shows a month. We've started doing ticketed shows in Mumbai and Bangalore as well." The emergence of Delhi as a hotbed of talent is beginning to impress filmmakers as well. "Bollywood's actors want to do theatre workshops to sharpen skills like characterisation," adds Gaur.
Actress and stylista Sonam Kapoor, known for her sartorial flair, recently visited Delhi to brush up on her acting skills along with the crew of Raanjhnaa. She did that to get inside the skin of a JNU student, the character that she is playing in the film. "I did the workshop to understand the idealism that drives street play artists." Working with Asmita, says Sonam, was a fantastic experience. "Their actors have a dogged determination that's hard to match."
One thespian glad with the new trend is Pankaj Kapur, who learnt his craft at Delhi's NSD and did serious theatre for 15 years before packing his bags for Mumbai. "It is great that directors in Bollywood are recognising the worth of actors trained in Delhi. In the '70s, many of us were thinking of leaving Delhi because the economics were not working out," says the actor who recently essayed the role of a drunkard landlord in the black comedy Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola.
The curator of committed actors
Who: Arvind Gaur, a pioneer of socially relevant theatre in the city, is often perceived as a catalyst for young creative talent. Since its inception in 1993, Gaur's Asmita Theatre Group has lent an edge to thousands of students, including actor Kangna Ranaut and writer-actor Piyush Mishra. Actors Sonam Kapoor, Dhanush and the crew of Raanjhnaa recently attended an Asmita workshop to understand the nuances of street theatre.
Best known for: Ambedkar Aur Gandhi, nominated for the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards, Swadesh Deepak's Court Martial (more than 450 shows), Dharamveer Bharti's Andha Yug, Mahesh Dattani's Final Solutions and thousands of street plays on contemporary subjects ranging from child abuse to communalism and corruption.
Directorspeak: "The chunk of our actors are young and come from colleges, bastis and neighbourhoods from all walks of life. Our actor is not necessarily smooth at the edges, good looking or pretty. We train them rigorously for three to seven years. The sheer frequency of our nukkad nataks is so much that the actor's socio-political understanding becomes really deep and he develops resources he can draw upon later to understand characters. If your resources are strong, you can always become a good actor."
Lessons in histrionics
Who: Kuljit Singh, a professor of English at Delhi University's Khalsa College, is the brain behind Atelier, which organises the largest campus theatre festival in the country. Five years back, when Atelier was launched, there were just five or six established campus groups such as The Players at Kirori Mal College, Shunya at Ramjas and the Shakespeare Society at St Stephen's who performed regularly. Theatre was almost perceived as an elitist activity. The last few years have seen offcampus colleges such as Shivaji, Dayal Singh, Moti Lal Nehru and Shahid Bhagat Singh doing good productions. Delhi University today has close to 30 theatre groups from 18 colleges. The 2012 version of ACT, the festival Singh organises, saw 25,000 people turn up to watch 45 performances. Students came from colleges in Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata, Mumbai, Pune, Lucknow and Jaipur.
Best known for: Cerebral themes and nuanced performances. Take the Badal Sircar Performing series that featured Baaki Itihas, an
absurdist play that oscillates
between meaningless and hope, and Saari Raat, in which the playwright questions if both pleasure and
marital peace can co-exist.
Directorspeak: "My MPhil research focused on the history of campus theatre from 1924, beginning with St Stephen's Shakespeare Society to its pinnacle in the last few years. Over the last four years, a lot of cinema work is being initiated in Delhi and this is a big departure from the past. When Imtiaz Ali came to shoot here for Rock Star for instance, he cast actors from Delhi. Even I did a cameo. Many more Delhi University students are getting these opportunities. The three years of training on the campus are very rigorous. It is not all fun and games. It stands them in good stead when they try their luck in television and movies. The character of Manu Sharma in No One Killed Jessica was played by Zeeshan Ayub Khan, who has performed in the Atelier Campus Theatre festival.
From Amitabh Bachchan and Manoj Bajpai, to Piyush Mishra, Anurag Kashyap, Imtiaz Ali and Saurabh Shukla (who studied at Khalsa College), Delhi University has given the cream of acting and filmmaking talent to Mumbai's film industry. It is about time people recognised the calibre of actors trained in the city."
Entertainment without apologies
Who: A former professor of political science at the Aligarh Muslim University, M Sayeed Alam is known to script original commercial comedies, musicals and historical productions. Since the early '90s, Alam's group Pierrot's has consciously broken away from the herd mentality of adapting a Western stage success or an Indian play - stuff that was the mainstay of other troupes. Alam's sense of comic timing and penchant for naming the plays interestingly (think Ghalib in New Delhi and Cut, Cut, Cut) has ensured the audiences turned up in great numbers.
Best known for: Ghalib in New Delhi, featuring the predicament of the bard set in modern-day Delhi; Sons of Babur, written by Salman Khurshid featuring Tom Alter in the lead role and 1947, about the trauma of Partition, close to the hearts of many Delhiites. The musical KL Saigal, based on the legendary singer's life, is another play that gets repeat audiences.
Directorspeak: "What is wrong in commercialising? Even if you put out a housefull commercial play you earn just Rs 35,000. If you pay Rs 3,000 apiece to the 12 actors who've worked on the play, it is very little for a production rehearsed for at least a week. I don't believe in humour without wit. I try and experiment with comedy through conversation. I don't want anybody slipping on a banana peel. In Ghalib in New Delhi for instance, the indiscretions unleashed on the poet are his personal tragedy that leads to comic situations."
Seasoned, sensitive and sensible
Who: Sohaila Kapur, who directs off-beat English productions and hard-hitting Hindi plays that appeal to the theatre connoisseur and the comedy aficionado alike. Kapur's Katyayani Theatre Group, founded in 1994,
routinely attracts young urban professionals, some of whom balance long hours in their day jobs but never miss their rehearsals.
Best known for: Adapting Swedish playwright August Strindberg's Miss Julie, Catherine Hayes' Skirmishes about sibling rivalry featuring Zohra Sehgal; Mahim Junction, a musical tribute to Bollywood and The One
Percent Agency, a comedy about wedding tourism written by Man Asian Award nominee Tabish Khair.
Directorspeak: "People want to do weekend theatre because it is cathartic. The world is spinning faster but they do theatre to relax. The applause in theatre is far more satisfying than any other medium because in television and movies there is always a cut. You don't have to be a great actor to do well there. The reason why veterans such as like Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah don't leave theatre is the intoxication of the direct connect and the challenge of convincing a live audience," says Kapur.
From HT Brunch, January 27
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