I don’t mind doing a film like My Brother…Nikhil (2005) or Housefull (2010). I’m liberated from all that baggage because I come from the theatre,” says Lillete Dubey. The “baggage” she is referring to is a Bollywood star’s demand to essay roles that are given more screen time.
Dubey, however, is game for, say, even a two-scene role in a movie, be it a commercial or an indie one. But, while she isn’t picky about her film projects, she is assiduously particular about the kinds of plays she stages under the banner of her 25-year-old theatre company.
As her latest production, which is based on singer Gauhar Jaan, who was the first Indian musician to record her work on the gramophone, is staged for the 20th time on April 23, the actor speaks to us about theatre in India, how youngsters perceive plays and why Shakespeare continues to be a world-renowned playwright.
You have worked in Bollywood and Hollywood. How are the industries different from each other?
In Hollywood, there will always be the large, commercial blockbusters like the Terminator series, the Mission Impossible series and the Star Wars series. But all commercial and non-commercial films survive in tandem. That’s happening in India also. But, our demographic is so different. Abroad, it’s fairly homogenous. Here, you have people who are absolutely uneducated and others who are highly educated. So, the spectrum is wide. How can one thing appeal to anybody? One thing is certainly different — the awareness of being a star, and the manner in which actors conduct themselves, has a great humbleness to it [in the west].
Have you ever been challenged by any film role?
Be it in India or abroad, cinema has never stretched me at all. It’s (film acting) been, frankly, damn easy. I feel very embarrassed when people say, “You were so good in that.” Because I know that after doing theatre, this (film acting) is nothing. Of course, I do it seriously, because that’s my nature. I have enjoyed doing films thoroughly. But I was a late bloomer in the film industry. I call myself an accidental film actress.
Your new play, Gauhar, is doing really well. Are you surprised with the response it has been getting?
I am. Firstly, I am very restless, both as an actor and director. I find it boring to do the same thing. It (a play) has to be different. Coming from that, when you choose plays that are new, you have no idea how people are going to respond, because these are not tried-and-tested plays. I’ve done plays like Nine Parts Of Desire and August: Osage County, and you are sure they’re going to work because they’ve won Pulitzers and hundreds of awards. But whenever we do a new play, we always have a sense of excitement and apprehension about how people are going to react to it. When I decided to do Gauhar, the people who sponsor theatre and music heavily, said, “Who is interested in a story about an old thumri singer? Young people wouldn’t be interested in that, etc.” I wasn’t demoralised; frankly, I do exactly what I want. But I was disappointed with the sponsors’ feedback.
Why were you disappointed?
I was disappointed because [that group of sponsors made me realise that] many of us have no sense of history. It’s only in the recent past that we have developed a sense of heritage and culture, and how it shapes our future. We’re part of a civilization that is 5000 years old, and we just take it for granted. We’re not interested in research and archiving. That’s one of the lacunas in our country. Lots of people don’t know Gauhar Jaan’s music; you’ll be shocked to hear how familiar and haunting it is. There are so many aspects to her that anyone can relate to even today as a woman or a man. And each and every show has got a standing ovation. Now that’s something you can’t buy from an audience. So, I feel validated, because I chose something that people were so iffy about.
What do you think needs to change in this industry?
We see certain kinds of plays, and we assume that that is all that the audience wants to see. The young are the most adventurous and fearless lot. They are most willing to try new things. I’ve met so many young people who have loved Gauhar. So, it’s as if we have presumed that we know our audience; that we have to dumb them down and show them only plays on love, friendship, and monologues on urban landscapes. Those stories are interesting as well. But there are other themes also, and we can’t assume that people are not interested in these themes.
How is theatre in the west different?
When I do a play by Vijay Tendulkar or Mohan Rakesh here, people say, “Arre, these are so old.” But, there is a new generation, so we should do these plays once a decade, at least for those who haven’t seen them. In the west, they keep doing the classics again and again. It’s the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare, and boy, does everyone know that. I’m not saying that he wasn’t a great writer, but come on… a lot of people don’t know someone like Tendulkar [globally] because his work has not gone out. That was my other reason to start a company — to take Indian plays across the world.
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