Theatre in this city has evolved immensely. There are far more plays being produced now. That’s one thing that Mumbai is proud of — that you have a choice of 20 plays on any night of the week. Be it in Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi or English, and sometimes even in Kannada, there are all kinds of plays being staged. It is a different thing that not all of them are very good. But if you go to Delhi, there’s not a single play on, ever. The National School of Drama (NSD) stages plays now and then. Kolkata has a similar story. Chennai and Bangalore are more active in the theatre scene though.
The maximum development in theatre has definitely taken place in Mumbai, and this is due to the rich Marathi culture. The tremendous background that the language has, and the history that theatre in Maharashtra has, has resulted in this growth.
There are so many young people involved in theatre. For a long time, we had only two or three big guns in every city that produced spectacular plays. Those legends have now disappeared, and they have been replaced by a whole lot of young people, who are not only trying to prove that they are great theatricians, but they are also staging pieces on subjects that matter to them. There’s a lovely play called White Lily And Night Rider, which is about two people who communicate online. When they actually meet, they have nothing to say to each other. Issues like these are being picked up by young people.
There are also many new alternative spaces in the city now. Prithvi Theatre (Juhu) and NCPA (Nariman Point) have become like establishments. It is difficult for a newcomer to get an opening there. Alternative spaces are encouraging people to write material that is conducive to be performed in these spaces. When youngsters reach out to me for advice, I always tell them not to get too ambitious. Don’t dream of doing a Jesus Christ Superstar (opera). Do what is within your abilities. If you wait for the best auditorium and the best opportunity, then it may never happen.
I have continued with theatre because it keeps me stimulated and I am constantly being exposed to great writing. In theatre, you can engage with the greatest written works created over the past 200 years. Theatre will always be a niche activity. The trend that has now emerged is of young people writing plays in a living language. These plays are written in the same way that we speak, and that’s the language of any city now. No one in a city speaks pure Hindi or Bengali or Marathi anymore.
Interestingly, it is not the older generation that is interested in famous plays and great playwrights. Most of the people who work on my Bernand Shaw play are from the younger generation. When I did Ismat Aapa Ke Naam in 2002, I thought we would do five to 10 shows at the most, with only the Urdu-speaking audience and old-timers watching it. But we have done 300 shows so far in the past 14 years. We’ve performed it all around the world. Theatre has its own language, which transcends the spoken word. That’s what is so thrilling; we are still able to attract youngsters. Great writing has the power to communicate. When you watch a great film in German, Italian or Japanese, if you are paying attention to the movie, you don’t need subtitles.
On another note, it’s too early to celebrate the revival of theatre and say that it is doing well, because honestly, it is not. People who are in theatre have a tough task ahead of them. I am always asked why theatre is not as popular as cinema. You can only put up a play at one place at one time, but a movie can be seen by 10 million people at the same time.
Even if we start doing plays that are like Hindi films, theatre will still not be as popular. People have tried doing that. Take the example of Bombay Dreams, which was staged like a Broadway production. Now they are trying to do the same with Monsoon Wedding (2001).
But movies have a different language and we don’t do plays like that. I would do a movie like Welcome Back (2015), but never a play of that level.