Prithvi Theatre marks 40 years with a retelling of Prithviraj Kapoor’s plays
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Prithvi Theatre marks 40 years with a retelling of Prithviraj Kapoor’s plays

The festival will open with Sunil Shanbag’s reinterpretation of Kapoor’s Deewar, written in 1945.

art and culture Updated: Nov 04, 2018 13:59 IST
Sanjukta Sharma
Sanjukta Sharma
Hindustan Times
Since it first opened, Prithvi has been a favourite haunt for some of India’s most talented actors. In this archival image, a young Amrish Puri lounges on its steps. (Photo courtesy Prithvi Theatre Archive)

It’s never a colony without free will. Among the diverse strands of nationalism that the plays Prithviraj Kapoor produced before Independence and Partition — and soon after — is the idea of the wilfully subjugated, and how nationalism can be hijacked. Deewar (1945) is about a colonised family of two brothers, owners of lands and guardians of tradition. A British couple enters their door and succeeds in making them exercise their will to be colonised. It is an obvious allegory of the nation in 1945, anticipating Partition, but the play also celebrates the need for harmony between the brothers — and by extension, a united nation.

A new adaptation of Deewar by one of Mumbai’s most prolific and politically engaged theatre directors, Sunil Shanbag, makes the idea of colonisation relevant to this day, while staying true to its socialistic roots that Hindi cinema would cement through the 1950s. It is one of seven plays and the Partition quartet that Prithvi Theatre’s director Kunal Kapoor has commissioned for adaptation to celebrate its 40th year.

The 40th annual Prithvi Theatre Festival will open with Deewar on November 4, at the Royal Opera House, Mumbai. “I read about six of Prithviraj Kapoor’s plays. Deewar was my instant choice,” Shanbag says. “What was most interesting about it is that it is an allegory using a family in Uttar Pradesh, in a land of milk and honey, under the law of jagirdari (a system of grants used out of public revenue) and how it all falls apart. How do you look at something that happened in 1945, when Partition was being talked about? The play is his plea for maintaining a united India. We have tried to draw connections with what we are seeing today.”

‘I was in my 20s when Shashi [Prithviraj’s son] and Jennifer [Shashi’s wife] came up with the idea of Prithvi,’ says Sunil Shanbag. ‘Jennifer was very clear she wanted a space with the best acoustics and infrastructure. There was a comfort to being so equipped.’ (Aalok Soni / HT Photo)

It is a sweet irony that Shanbag is rehearsing his play with actors, Sudhir Pande, Trishla Patel, Kalyanee Mulay, Raghav Dutt and others, at a performance space in Aaram Nagar, one of Mumbai’s oldest neighbourhoods, where refugees from Partition were settled after Independence. His adaptation adds new narrative devices and includes English, besides the original’s Hindi-Urdu and dialogue-driven storytelling.

Shanbag’s plays have chronicled the city through the 1990s and 2000s, which include Cotton 56, Polyester 84, about its rapidly industrialised mill district. He has brought invisible histories to the stage. His experiments with theatre spaces throughout his career have led him to start the relatively new Tamaasha, also at Aaram Nagar. He continues his passion with political and social debates about post-globalisation India, and last directed, Words Have Been Uttered, a multi-artform piece that includes music, poetry and performance, and weaves Galileo and Ambedkar into one thread about dissent.

Prithvi Theatre has been one of his cradles, Shanbag was mentored by playwright Satyadev Dubey in the Chhabildas Theatre Movement in central Mumbai in the 1970s. “I was in my 20s when Jennifer and Shashi (Kapoor) came up with the idea of Prithvi,” he recalls. “They used to come to Chhabildas Theatre often and when they decided to set up Prithvi, Jennifer was very clear she wanted a space with the best acoustics and the best infrastructure. For the first time we thought beyond the proscenium and there was a comfort to being so equipped. I think Prithvi is still relevant to young theatre talent today because of that. You already have the best of support when you come here. Usually theatre artists are struggling all the time.”

The theatre is still the crucible for emerging theatre artists in Mumbai. Jay Shah, head of cultural outreach with the Mahindra Group, which organises the annual META Awards for Excellence in Theatre, says, “Prithvi is more than an experimental space. It is an institution. The stage, the arena seating, the curation and the café, each of these elements come together to form Prithvi. The Café serves as an extraordinary space for artists to network and collaborate, essential for creativity to thrive.”

The adaptations of Prithviraj Kapoor originals, apart from Shanbag’s Deewar, which will be performed through the year are Pathan, a play about the eponymous community that goes beyond the stereotypes of loan sharks and gatekeepers; Ghaddar, about Indian Muslims who were labelled Pakistani traitors in the 1950s; Ahooti, about the stigma of rape among female refugees; Kalakar, Kapoor’s take on the idea of the “concrete jungle”; Paisa, about corruption; and Kisan, about farmers, which will be adapted by Abhishek Majumdar in 2019.

First Published: Nov 03, 2018 18:35 IST