In his first expansive interview since he took over Juhu’s iconic Prithvi theatre three months ago from sister Sanjna Kapoor, Kunal Kapoor, 53, says he wants the theatre to cut losses, as far as is possible. Kunal wants to achieve this without compromising on the theatre’s commitment to experimentation.
Kunal, who is a co-trustee of Prithvi, used to run the theatre back in the 1980s. Since the early 1990s, he was involved in the major administrative decisions and focused on his ad filmmaking career, leaving Sanjna to manage Prithvi’s day-to-day affairs.
He says his priority is to continue where his sister left off, paying special attention to the maintenance and repair work the theatre building needs. “The building is nearly 35 years old,” he says. “It needs serious time and attention.”
However, despite an average audience occupancy of 82%, Prithvi does not — and cannot — make a profit. Kunal says, “We run at an average loss of Rs2.5 lakh a month.
The corpus we had — which came via donations from philanthropists in corporate houses, friends and family — has already been spent on the first phase of repairs, which took place in November last year.”
Last week, he consulted selected theatre group owners to discuss a possible rise in rental rates and ticket prices. While he remains tight-lipped about when it would come into effect, theatre groups insist that the rise will be reasonable. “Instead of dictating terms to us, Kunal actually asked us what we thought would be reasonable,” says theatre director Rahul Da Cunha. “This could only have happened at Prithvi.”
Kunal Kapoor, 53, stands outside Prithvi theatre in Juhu’s Janki Kutir, speaking on the phone while puffing on a Marlboro cigarette. It is about four o’clock in the evening and an event named Mehfil — a monthly sit-down discussion on all things related to Urdu literature and ghazals — is about to get under way. This is its first edition.
There’s a fair amount of commotion around as men prepare to set up a projection screen and gaddas for the event.
“Why haven’t you set this up yet?” asks Kapoor, in an irritated tone. A second later, though, he breaks into a grin — a jovial, boyish one that reminds one of his father, Shashi Kapoor, as well as his uncle, Raj Kapoor — and the mood lightens immediately.
The easy camaraderie among everyone who works here reflects the loyalty of the staff, some of whom have been associated with the theatre for years. For instance, Lalit Sathe, a familiar face in Prithvi who used to man the booking office, is the son of Prithviraj Chauhan’s driver and, currently, the theatre’s manager. According to Kunal and everyone else who comes to Prithvi, he is family.
In a way, it’s all come full circle as Kunal, who has been getting back into the groove of running Prithvi after his sister Sanjna decided to move on to another project, was the one who originally took charge after his mother, who had been running it since its inception in 1978, passed away in 1984. At the time, he was about 25 years old and the oldest amongst the children.
However, Kunal, a prolific ad-filmmaker, insists that this isn’t so much of a return as it is picking up from where Sanjna, who ran it since the early ‘90s, left off. “I’ve always been around for the major decisions. However, in the past six years, I’ve moved back to Juhu from Malabar Hill. That, I must admit, has made the transition easier,” he says, as he takes a sip of black coffee. Sanjna, who will be busy with her new endeavour, Junoon, is continuing her efforts to spread theatre on a nation-wide level. “The only difference for me is that, now, I am handling the operations on a daily basis.”
“While Sanjna is looking at spreading theatre at a pan-India level, I’m looking at venues we can partner with for the Prithvi festival as well as other events,” says Kunal. He’s open to looking at venues across the city as long as they meet the specifications of being easy to access and providing a good viewing experience for the theatre-goer.
His main priority, at the moment, is to carry out repair and maintenance work on the premises. “The building is now nearly 35 years old. We carried out the first phase last year in November, during which we repaired and rebuilt the rear wall as well as water and electrical lines. Now, we plan to do the same to the front side, which includes the café,” he says. Prithvi had to be shut down for a month during the last phase, and Kunal expects they’ll have to do the same this year again. “Perhaps we’ll try and keep the ball rolling by holding shows at an alternative venue, because the momentum right now is incredible.”
Indeed, the theatre is running as smoothly as ever, with an average occupancy of 82%. However, given its philosophy of offering theatre space at subsidised rates, Prithvi does not and cannot support itself. “We run at an average loss of Rs 2.5 lakh a month. The corpus we had has already been spent on the first phase of repairs.” This is one of the reasons Prithvi theatre is looking to raise its rates after more than two years, although Kunal and theatre group owners insist the rise will be extremely reasonable (see ‘Great expectations’).
He is also open to corporate funding, which it has had twice in the past for a combined period of 16 years, but within limits. “We don’t want to lose our identity in the face of corporate branding. Prithvi should never be renamed to ‘Company name’ Prithvi theatre,” he says with a laugh.
As the starting time for the event Mehfil nears, Kunal looks approvingly at the progress that the workers have made. “Prithvi is about more than plays — it’s about utilising all this space we have for the performing arts. I have plans that I can’t discuss until they’re concrete, but short of turning this place into a dance bar, I’m open to trying out everything.” He lights up another Marlboro and, eyes twinkling as he laughs, “Actually, wait. That may just be the best way to make a profit right now.”