Amma Bi holds on tight to her tabeez as strange sounds at night terrify this lone elderly occupant of a grand Lucknow haveli. She becomes tearful when her son calls from the US to say he will not be visiting this year. Her efforts to coax, bribe and even threaten her part-time help, Juman, to stay back for company, meet with little success. She finally takes in a lodger, a working woman, Sabiha, but her ordeal is far from over.
His novella, Dopehri, in hand, Pankaj Kapur strides across the stage, reading aloud and breathing life into each of these characters with his voice and the ingenious use of light and sound. As the audience hangs on to each word, laughing at the antics of the dim-witted Juman, admiring Sabiha’s spirit and feeling Amma Bi’s anguish as she sits in her sun-soaked verandah killing time with memories of a happier past, it hardly seems like the veteran actor has been away from the stage for two decades.
It was at Delhi’s National School of Drama (NSD) in 1996 that its famous alumnus had staged the first, albeit informal, performance of Dopehri. He returned to the Delhi stage recently for a dramatic narration of the play at the 18th Bharat Rang Mahotsav. The iconic actor, who has worked in 74 plays, had more than 10 years of theatre behind him when he started work in films. Kanak Di Balli, Albert’s Bridge and Panchvan Savaar are some of the plays that he directed.
Written, directed and performed in Hindi by Kapur, Dopehri is a heartwarming story of an elderly woman who finds purpose in life again by discovering a hidden talent.
Excerpts from an interview with Kapur:
What kept you away from the stage for so long?
It is difficult to define that but I think I got busy producing, directing, writing for TV, some film scripts, and then directing a film. It was also due to some unpleasant experiences I had when I moved to Mumbai and tried to do theatre.
How have you seen theatre change between now and then?
I have seen only a few plays in the last couple of years, but I salute people who have been able to do it consistently for quite a few years and create an audience for themselves. There is a lot to learn from them. Today there is an audience for theatre. There were not so many people watching plays when we were doing theatre 20-25 years back. Also, there are some new conditions that I will have to learn to adapt to. For instance, you get the theatre space to rehearse for only four hours or you pay for the whole day. The training we have had is that you do the rehearsals in the same theatre in which you open the show.
You and your wife, Supriya, recently started a new theatre group Theatron. What does it plan to bring to contemporary theatre?
I don’t want to make any tall claims. I just want to do theatre. I have reached an age and a point in my life where I just want to enjoy myself and share with my audiences what I like, and see if it suits their palate or not. The idea is to use the experience of the experienced ones and put the energies, thoughts and wisdom of the youth into it and take it forward. We are just making a beginning right now, but in course of time, we feel that we should be able to do the kind of productions that I have always wanted to do as a theatreperson.
Theatron’s maiden production Dopehri is a dramatic reading of a novella that you wrote 20 years ago. What inspired it?
I thought of writing about a lonely woman and the afternoon that she has to spend. The title symbolises the age of the woman. She is in the late afternoon of her life. I feel a certain brightness precedes a sunset and that is what I have dealt with in terms of storytelling – how Amma Bi realises her own worth even in her mid-sixties. The idea was also to write a story which is entertaining and belongs to our culture, so that a reader anywhere in the world is able to relate it to their respective mothers and grandmothers and their loneliness in their respective cities where they have left them. I wanted to talk about the elderly who have lost their identity in the web of relationships, and the names that the relationships have given them, and how they can retain their identity through their own work.
Your children, Sanah and Ruhaan, were actively involved in the production of the play. Will we get to see them onstage in future productions?
I would love to cast them in my plays, but today’s youngsters have their own way of looking at things. I am a father who never pushes or forces his children into anything. Theatron is their company. They are most welcome to be a part of any play that they would want to be part of. Certainly, at some point I think they would want to be onstage as they are trained actors. My daughter has already debuted in a film and my younger son, Ruhaan, has trained at the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art.
You worked with Shahid and Sanah in Shandaar and earlier directed Shahid in Mausam. When working with family, how do you separate the personal and professional?
In case of the film that I directed, the entire family was too involved. When it comes to working together as actors, well, it is part of the job. When you are in front of the camera, you’re a professional and off-camera you are family. You sit and eat together, but on-camera you’re just the character you’re playing.
Have you eased into the role of a father-in-law in real life?
Frankly, my daughter-in-law is more like a daughter to me. She is such a lovely person and it seems like she was always a part of the family.
You’ve done just one film a year since you returned to the big screen with Matru ki Bijli ka Mandola (2013) after a gap of five years. Was that deliberate?
There was a gap because I was directing Mausam that took about three-and-a-half to four years of my life. I was directing my first film, so I wanted to devote myself completely to it. That’s when I did not accept any role, which was a mistake. When you ask me why I do one film a year, it is not my fault. I’ve chosen what I liked from whatever work came my way.
What are you working on next?
I have finalised a few projects, but it is too early to talk about them.
You’ve played several iconic characters on TV, be it detective Karamchand, Mussaddi Lal or Mohan Bharti from Zabaan Sambhal Ke. Which of them do you identify with most?
Mussaddi Lal. I came from a middle-class family, so I could relate to the problems of this character. But I wouldn’t say this is the only character I’ve loved playing. I have loved playing every character that I essayed. I loved playing Budhai Ram [a bonded labourer] from another series that I did called Neem ka Ped. I equally enjoyed doing Philips Top 10 with Satish Kaushik.
Indian TV has been crying out loud for some original content for long now. Do you plan to make a comeback on the small screen too?
The way Indian TV is today, unless someone comes and says we want to do work that is more close to life and literature and is a true reflection of society, it will be very difficult for someone like me to take up work on TV. Also, these days every show is a daily soap. To creatively devote 25 days a month to producing or directing or acting in something like that is beyond me. Creativity should be balanced with commercial interests.
But this is like a manufacturing unit. Every day, the producer, the director and the channel is worried whether they have been able to create content for the next five days or not. If that is the emphasis, then obviously everybody is pushed to do mediocre work.
Unless directors are allowed to be directors and not managers, and channels stop deciding the right way to tell a story, the scenario will stay the same. In that I find myself a misfit. So as of now, it seems unlikely.
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From HT Brunch, March 13, 2016
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