A week before I was to meet Sanjna Kapoor, director of Mumbai’s legendary Prithvi Theatre and daughter of legendary actor Shashi Kapoor for an interview over lunch, I got an SMS from her. Here’s what it said: ‘Can eat protein with no oil. So steam, grill or tandoor. No salad, veg, fruit or sweets! Very boring! Had grilled fish recently. Maybe tandoori chicken? Can have salads and veggies on Tuesdays. Maybe the Olive Beach could have something edible for me?’ So the Olive Beach in Delhi’s leafy Chanakyapuri area it was.
Kapoor, who lives in Delhi with her husband, tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar, and their son Hamir, is in the second phase of the Dukan diet. "It’s a terribly complicated high protein diet and I’m only doing it to lose weight," she says. "But you don’t look like you need to," I mumble. "Oh, I’ve already lost eight kilos," she smiles. "I can’t have the wine," she groans as the waiter hands her a menu. There’s an exchange of conversation before she finally settles for a grilled fish (again!) with lemon ("No vegetables, no oil," she admonishes the waiter) and a ginger-lime mocktail. Then, she rubs her palms together. "Let’s begin."
You keep a fairly low profile. What are you up to these days?
See how manipulative I am? I’m so selfish that I only speak to the media when I have to (laughs loudly). That said, this is a very exciting time for all of us at Prithvi because of the Summertime With Prithvi Theatre event that’s happening currently. It was my brainchild and it’s been going on for 21 years…that makes me feel so old!
Two years ago, I met a set of parents who told me that they had attended Summertime as kids! The idea is to have a series of creative workshops and plays for children between 6 and 16 in Bombay. We’ve got about 40 of them going right now. It goes beyond theatre – there’s stuff like pottery, story-telling dancing sessions, all just to open the windows of creativity for children. It all started as a one-point agenda: we wanted the next generation to fall in love with arts and theatre.
Sounds like one heck of a coordination exercise! How do you juggle Delhi and Mumbai though?
Oh, there’s a fantastic team of people I have there who see to it that things are done. I don’t really have to pull my hair out. I go to Bombay every month for a week. But being in Delhi just allows me to focus and get my nose out of the way. If I’m there, I end up interfering too much!
Is it a fashionable thing these days to enroll your child in ‘summer theatre’?
I don’t think most parents come to us with that point of view. We are very mean to parents who take us lightly. It’s not a come-and-be-happy-and-we’ll-hug-you-all world. It’s come, have a great time, enjoy yourself but in a really rigorous, disciplined environment. Because underlying everything you do is a desperate need to add value to theatre and children. We do it because we are passionate about it. It’s not an elitist thing like some people claim.
You pretty much run the show at Prithvi single-handedly. Isn’t Prithvi eclectic? How do you choose which theatre groups get to perform?
That’s the toughest job. We don’t want to encourage fly-by-night kind of groups. If it is a new group, I try to meet them if possible, maybe see their play. But a lot of it is just gut feeling. The other thing is (and this is something we don’t really talk about) that run into losses year after year. We subsidise our rents for theatre groups. We have 550 shows a year and nobody can just come and rent Prithvi for any production they’re putting up.
But that’s terrible! It’s such an iconic place…
They government thinks it’s rich. They think the family is rich as well. I mean, so what if the family is rich, we’re not like the Rockefellers or something! We’re setting up a donations program for Prithvi where you can donate a minimum of two thousand rupees. Even if a thousand people do that, we can sustain ourselves.
Speaking of the family, everyone’s always curious about the Kapoors. Are your brothers, Kunal and Karan, involved in running Prithvi as well?
Kunal, my elder brother is. He’s a trustee of Prithvi. The middle brother, Karan, is a commercial ad photographer based in London, he’s not really involved with the theatre.
He’s been involved in all the major decisions about Prithvi because it’s his baby, really. You know, my aunt (English actress Felicity Kendal) once found an old letter from my mom (Jennifer Kapoor) in which my mom had written, "Shashi’s gone mad! He wants to build a theatre!"
He lives bang opposite Prithvi now, so he does come and watch plays when he can. But it’s a little difficult these days as his health is not too well.
You know, Prithvi’s been around for 33 years now, but there hasn’t been any place quite like it till today…
Believe me, it’s my greatest sadness. I once read an article about making Bombay a world class city and I was horrified at how it mentioned nothing about the role of art and culture! How can a world class city not engage with art as importantly as drainage and parking and roads and sea links? The thing is, Bombay actually has the passion, the talent and the places. All that we need to do is activate them. That’s one of my goals for the next year, actually.
Let’s talk about films. The last film that anyone saw you in was Hero Hiralal…
Oh yikes! I think I need tea or coffee.
…and that was in 1988.
Was it? My goodness, I don’t even remember! It feels like the last century!
So you never felt like getting back into Bollywood?
See, it was not Bollywood, haan, it was the Hindi film industry. But no, at that point, I was very confused. I knew I wanted to act but didn’t know where, how, theatre or films. But I hated myself in Hero Hiralal. Then, I went to drama school in New York and LOVED it. That gave me clarity that it was theatre, not cinema that I loved. Also, I preferred parallel cinema to commercial films.
You could have produced a movie yourself.
Oh, no no no. That wasn’t my interest at all. I would have been a hopeless producer. My father was one too, he put his money all over the place and always lost it. It’s not really an area I’m excited about.
Oh come on! You could rope in your nieces Karisma and Kareena and newphew Ranbir now!
(laughs) I don’t know! I haven’t met them in years!
- From HT Brunch, May 1
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