They wear the makeup, go over their lines and stand in the aisle in a dark auditorium, waiting to perform. A new crop of actors is battling the aftermath of the economic downturn. In an uncertain medium, they are fighting the odds stacked against theatre in a city that doesn’t have the patience for auditorium etiquette, ticket sales or serious storylines.
What drives Delhi’s actors?
“Belief in theatre not fettered by language, form or genre,” says Bikram Ghosh, 26, of the Tadpole Repertory. “I want to do everything from a dark theme, a comedy, or an out-and-out realistic play.”
Part of a group that shares its ticket earnings with actors, Ghosh is often high on idealism and short on cash. Writing copy and conducting acting workshops by day to fund his passion, he rehearses for three hours every evening in a South Delhi basement.
In another part of the city, Shilpi Marwaha, 21, is catching an auto-rickshaw to reach a North Delhi basti to participate in a street play by the Asmita Theatre Group.
Six years ago, the acting bug bit her at a workshop by theatre guru Arvind Gaur. “Since then, I’ve done more than 12 proscenium productions and hundreds of street plays,” she says. “My role model is Kangana Ranaut, who cut her teeth at Asmita in Delhi, working in socially relevant plays, before going on to act in films.”
Marwaha will polish her histrionics in Delhi for another two years before she takes a shot at the movies. National School of Drama Repertory actor Daksha Sharma, 30, has more urgent plans. “After six years with the repertory, I can meet the demand for character roles in Bollywood. Besides, there is television,” says Sharma.
Most actors who come to Mumbai to make a living end up adding lather to the Indian soap factory. Tarun Sharma, 26, of the Tadpole Repertory, doesn’t want to do that.
“After seven years, I realised theatre does not pay. After a point, you begin to look at numbers. A spotboy in Mumbai can earn Rs 30,000 a month — equal to the monthly salary of a seasoned repertory actor in Delhi.”
TV serials pay more than Rs 10,000 a day. But they want the actor at their beck and call 24x7 and Sharma says he would rather do commercials and audition for movie roles.
Sharma may well follow the trajectory taken by his idol Manoj Bajpai, who taught theatre to special children in Delhi’s schools for 11 years before taking the Rajdhani to Mumbai.
“It was a bread and butter matter,” says Bajpai. “But even at Rs 2,000 a month, we managed beautifully. Theatre is an actor’s medium and one learns its nuances only on stage. Then you get married and realise that to pay the bills, you need to do movies.”
But the best retort about the futility of theatre comes from writer-composer-actor Piyush Mishra, anointed ‘Mandi House Ka Hamlet’ by critics in the 90s. Mishra, who once wrote Hamlet Kabhi Bombay Nahin Gaya, famously relented and went on to write the Socialist lyrics of Anurag Kashyap’s Gulaal. “At 22, everybody should be a Leftist and do theatre. Then the uncertainty wears actors out. I realised it late at the age of 40. But I don’t envy those who can manage otherwise.”