Vijaya Mehta, czarina of the arts, discusses the stage, the screen and the state of the NCPA.. in an interview with.. our culture princess
Recently, the 74-year-old, doyenne of Indian theatre was honoured in Pune with the prestigious Pu La Smriti Sanman-an award dedicated to the memory of PL Deshpande.
Here’s meeting up with Vijaya Mehta at the sprawling NCPA campus, on a bright weekday afternoon:
In retrospect, how would you summarise the years spent in theatre?
(Smiles) One has to tailor one’s life. I have all that I cherish — family, friends and of course, theatre. If I had been a passionate, exclusively theatre person like Satyadev Dubey, it would have been another story.
You have acted in countless plays but seem to have avoided films.
I started off very late. Besides, I was very content with theatre. I was Durga Khote’s student and then her daughter-in-law. So there was no yearning for glitz and glamour, it was a part of their world. Then on watching the cinema of Shyam (Benegal) and Govind (Nihalani) during the 1970s, I wondered, "Why can’t I act in films? Why can’t I make films?" Shyam’s Manthan had left me spellbound. I even asked V Shantaram, "Would my theatre experience be of any use to cinema?" He said films often mirrored theatre techniques — like dissolves, mid-shots and wipes. I felt encouraged.
Why did you give up directing films after just Raosaheb and Pestonjee?
I would end up spending a year and a half in creating something without knowing its fate. I made Raosaheb with Anupam (Kher) and Tanvi (Azmi), which only made it to the international film festivals. Pestonjee was released at the Regal..it ran for about three weeks.. and then it became a closed chapter.
What are your views on the stage scene today?
It would be very unfair for me to sit back and say, "We would do it this way and that way." I’m aware that today’s generation has a different world to cope with.
Who have been the strongest influences on your life?
Influence is several people, it’s the environment. When I was 13, giants like Gandhi and Nehru surrounded me. I was born at a time when women’s emancipation, widow remarriage, sati..the progressive movement had started.
How did the theatre group come to be?
Vijay Tendulkar, Arvind (Deshpande), Dr Shreeram Lagoo and I worked towards creating our own audience. We were given a small room to perform..at the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute. But my god, we were a rage while we were there.
Didn’t the disintegration of Rangayan in the late 1960s mean a huge blow to the Indian theatre scene?
(Dramatically cuts in) It mean’t a huge blow to us! An ensemble theatre can collapse but a movement like that can never end. When it came apart, I felt as if my baby had died. I felt responsible, guilty and lost.
If I may ask, what happened?
Rangayan dissolved because Rangayan’s soul died. It was close to our hearts and tremendously intimate. Anything in the world that’s so passionate reaches a plateau and then dies. It has to die.
But key members like Vijay Tendulkar, Arvind Deshpande and Shreeram Lagoo moved away to form the group Awishkar. Rangayan lasted for almost 12 years. In the creative arts, there’s always a graph of 12-14 years. Awishkar was an offshoot of Rangayan but there was a very basic difference. Rangayan was ‘our’ work, ‘our’ labour of love. There was never an ‘I’.
Although this is your 15th year at the NCPA, it doesn’t host a sufficient number of Marathi plays.
Yes, but remember people came to see PL Deshpande’s work or my plays like Hayavadana and Wada Chirebandi here. We did try a lot to get more Marathi plays..but what some individual directors expected from us was staggering. Dadar’s Shivaji Mandir is carved out for them. It’s a question of finance. Even Sanjna (Kapoor) feels the same. When I came to NCPA, I gave the Experimental Theatre to them for their performances. We would share 50 per cent of the box office sales and even gave them transport money. Yet, we sensed indifference in their attitude! That was unfair to NCPA. This is a centre, not a performance space.
What are your views on the corporatisation of theatre?
Do we have a choice? Culture always needs to be supported. If you want to survive only by box office sales, you end up doing commercial plays. Today, when Lakme rents our auditorium for their Fashion Week, it helps us to pay our staff. Each space that we give to theatre; we’re pushed from all sides because it’s given at totally subsidised rates. Experimental Theatre costs us almost Rs 16,000 per show but we charge our theatre friends only Rs 6,000. Quite often we don’t recover the money spent.
There was also acrimony among the theatre community when the NCPA lawns were given for commercial activities and parties.
(In a subdued tone) Where does the money come from? There are several hidden costs. Like paying the sweepers, the gatekeepers.. the gardeners. Since the NCPA is located opposite the sea, every corner has to be air-conditioned, so the additional costs. That’s where corporate companies come in.. and they need their pound of flesh too.
Which of your plays are closest to you?
Vijay Tendulkar wrote the most defining one-act plays for me. I felt, I even scored in two of Jaywant Dalvi’s — Barrister and Sandhya Chaya, Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Wada Chirebandi and Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana. These were groundbreaking for me. I was accepted not as a rebellious person of Rangayan.. but as the nani of theatre.
And what keeps you going?