For Spandan Misra's Last Minute Productions, staging a private show of its first full-length Hindi play, Jeene Bhi Do Yaaro, at a Navy hospital on Sunday was an achievement.
Like all amateur theatre groups struggling on a meagre budget, they held auditions in coffee shops, used their homes for rehearsals and had just a few hours in the auditorium for a quick technical rehearsal before show time.
But, like other amateur groups, they believe it was worth it — somewhere, sometime, they could get spotted and finally get a real break in Mumbai's growing theatre scene.
"Mumbai has more takers for theatre than any other city. It is the only Indian city where you can think of making money through plays," said Misra (26), who started his group as a management student in Ahmedabad.
Misra echoed what most theatre personalities observe about a city with a long tradition of drama.
This, in the words of Prithvi Theatre head Sanjana Kapoor, is the "extraordinarily exciting development of a younger generation of writers, directors, actors and technicians in theatre of all languages in the past five years".
In Hindi theatre, for instance, Kapoor finds that adaptations of Western plays are giving way to original scripts, with groups such as Aranya and Arpana growing more active. The plots and themes are bolder, out of the box — Arpana's S*x, M*rality and Cens*rship is a critique of moral policing, while Jeene Bhi Do Yaaro is about two terminally ill patients discovering life through story-telling.
Marathi experimental theatre saw a revival earlier this month, with six new plays performed at National Centre for Performing Arts' (NCPA's) Pratibimb festival. Gujarati theatre too is set for a milestone this month, as Manhar Gadhia's Saat Tari Ekvees - Part 2 will bring 14 monologues to the Gujarati stage for the first time at NCPA.
And in English, the annual youth festival Thespo has gone a long way in pumping out new talent.
But with so many groups vying for visibility, standing out depends heavily on finances available. As Misra said: "There is almost no support through government or private initiatives."
Production costs for a full-length play in Marathi, Hindi and Gujarati can range from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 3 lakh. Since ticket sales don't cover costs, profits are usually missing.
All-out commercial plays have bigger budgets, spending Rs 5 lakh to Rs 8 lakh on a production. "English plays stage the least number of shows, but rank highest in terms of expenditure because of the class of audience and the venues they pick," said playwright Ramu Ramanathan, who estimated a spend of Rs 10 lakh to Rs 20 lakh per production.
Although theatre groups prefer not to divulge details about earnings, they agree that commercial, mass-appeal plays make the most profits.
"Venues are difficult enough to get, but even the rent for rehearsal spaces is too high," said Sunil Shanbag, co-founder and director at Arpana who pays more than Rs 700 a day during the months of practice before the show.
The financial crunch, said Shanbag, pushes artistes to prefer plays that have mass appeal.
"If there are 1,500 plays in Mumbai in a year, chances are that 700 will be Marathi commercial plays and 300 would be Gujarati commercial ones," said playwright Ramu Ramanathan, who is glad Mumbai has the advantage of at least two dozen auditoriums and an audience that likes theatre.
For the most part, however, these venues are static, providing little else than a stage. They don't help make the production easier or more accessible, or promote theatre on the whole.
"There are few theatre-only venues. The ones available, such as Prithvi and NCPA, need to be better utilised," said Shaili Sathyu, head of the Indian People's Theatre Association, which has been producing issue-based plays in Hindi since the 1940s.
Despite the odds, Mumbai continues to attract those dedicated to producing theatre of all kinds because the audiences keep coming. Gujarati playwright Gadhia believes it's because the city can afford to patronise theatre. "After a hard day's work, everyone likes some entertainment, and Mumbai audiences are financially more capable of keeping the industry growing," he said.
For Kapoor, this is all the more reason why it's time to pay more attention to the mass of aspiring talent. "If we don't give them space and infrastructure, we might lose them to other professions," she said.