Kunal Kapoor, trustee of Prithvi Theatre and Sanjna Kapoor, co-founder of Junoon, an initiative that promotes theatre by building new platforms, are generation 3 of the Kapoor family in theatre. Their parents, actors Jennifer and Shashi Kapoor, were the masterminds behind Prithvi Theatre, which has today become the heart of Mumbai’s thriving theatre scene. While they also belong to the first family of Hindi cinema, the Kapoors, from their father’s side, their mother had grown up in a theatre company. Her father, Geoffrey Kendal, had a travelling theatre company called Shakespearana that introduced two generations of school children to the works of Shakespeare (including young Naseeruddin Shah who calls himself Kendal’s Eklavya). And Jennifer’s mother, Laura Liddell, was a renowned actress.
But theatre was also in the blood of the Kapoor side of the family. “Not many people know that Prithviraj Kapoor, at the height of his film career (in 1944), finally realised his dream with the birth of his own travelling theatre company Prithvi Theatres,” points out Sanjna. He toured India for 16 years with this professional theatre company, performing plays about burning issues of the time: the prediction of partition, the farmers’ plight, the impact of capitalism, the role of artists in modern times and so much more.
The motto of Prithvi Theatres was Kala Desh ki Seva Mein (Art in the Service of the Nation). “Prithviraj strongly believed that the only way he could reach out and touch the people of India was through theatre. Not cinema!” says Sanjna. However, Sanjna’s idol and hero has always been Geoffrey Kendal, whose audacious and indomitable spirit for adventure and deep love for theatre and Shakespeare fascinated her.
Sanjna and Kunal’s childhoods were speckled with stories that brought alive the vivid world of a travelling theatre company. “Being part of the family I belong to and growing up with theatre oozing out of the walls and furniture at home… there was very little chance of my escaping it!” Sanjna guffaws.
She believes the conversations between her grandparents and parents subconsciously entered her being and provided fodder for a great deal of her approach and attitude towards theatre. “So much so that I have been driven by instinct rather than reason on many occasions, where I have had to struggle to explain myself to my colleagues,” she recalls.
Sanjna, who started working at Prithvi Theatre at 23, vividly remembers it under construction. She was nine then, and visited the site every Saturday with Jennifer, running barefoot through the scaffolding with her dog. “I’d be peering over the architectural plans as my mother and Ved Segan, the architect, discussed changes and possibilities,” reminisces Sanjna. She was 10 years old when she watched her first play at Prithvi. “The shows were always past my bedtime. I always sat in the very last row and within a few moments of the play starting, I’d lie down and fall fast asleep with the comfort of voices in the background. It was almost like crawling back into the security of a womb!”
Kunal, meanwhile, says he has no memory of his first play watching experience. “Maybe it’s because, as a baby, I was kept in a basket backstage and my mother breastfed me in the wings between her entries!” he laughs.
Sanjna’s first stage experience came when she was 12, performing with her grandparents as Shakespeareana toured Ireland’s schools. Both she and Kunal wanted to work full time as theatre actors, but Mumbai’s theatre lifestyle, which consisted of working at an office all day, and then rehearsing a performance all night, did not allow them to follow their ambitions. “It’s simply not possible to give it your all when you are exhausted. It was this culture that I did not want to be part of,” says Sanjna.
So she moved backstage, and today she believes that managing actors is part of her DNA. “Don’t forget that both my grandfathers, Geoffrey Kendal and Prithviraj Kapoor, were actor managers of their own itinerant theatre companies. I love dreaming up ideas, building possibilities and seeing them realised. As Shyam Benegal said about me at a recent function, I am a ‘theatre entrepreneur’. And I love every minute of it!”
Kunal says much the same. After a brief stint in films, he realised he was more interested in the technical aspects of cinema and drifted behind the camera. “As for theatre, I have a moral and inherited commitment to make sure what my parents set out to do with Prithvi Theatre continues. I am doomed to have been born, live, and hopefully die surrounded by the lights and smells of theatre,” he says.
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