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The Prithvi Theatre Festival is back on the cultural radar after two years

Kunal Kapoor’s reign at Prithvi Theatre is the stuff of legend. One livewire moment occurred shortly after he started managing the theatre after his mother Jennifer Kendal’s death in 1984. On hearing that a beefy goon was demanding hafta at the theatre’s entrance, Kapoor squared off with him by simply saying, “We don’t make money out of this theatre, it is in memory of my grandfather and my mother. To me it is like a temple and I will not tolerate any of this nonsense here.” Twenty years after passing on the theatre’s reins to his younger sister Sanjna Kapoor, Kunal Kapoor is back in the director’s chair.

The recent switch between the siblings was not entirely unexpected. “Both of them have had the same mandate: how do we lift the level of performance,” said director Quasar Thakore Padamsee. “I think Kunal’s priority is the stage and the building; Sanjna’s priority is ‘I’m very interested in a group’s work and how do I promote it more,’ which is why other venues like Karnataka Sangha opened up. Starting [theatre company] Junoon allows her to pursue all of that without being tied to a stage.”

Prithvi Theatre was built in 1978 by film actor Shashi Kapoor, and managed by his actress-wife Kendal, to realise his father Prithviraj Kapoor’s dream of a permanent home for his touring repertory Prithvi Theatres. “At that time it was a radically different space,” recalled director Sunil Shanbag. “Most of us had never seen a thrust stage, so [she was] getting us to understand the dynamics of the space, helping the theatre to find its feet. To do [plays] six days a week was quite radical. Fortunately, Prithvi quite quickly established itself.” The first festival was launched by Kendal and director Feroz Abbas Khan in 1983 to connect theatre groups and the different audiences they brought to the venue.

Sanjna Kapoor’s most impactful decision was perhaps that Prithvi “needed to be more than just a passive space,” said Shanbag. “It needed to extend the definition of theatre beyond just plays and engage directly with the theatre community, involve young people through children’s festivals, and also open the space horizontally to films, to science. We developed, in a sense, a psychological stake in the theatre space itself. It became more than just sleeping over [in the foyer during a weekend run, in Kendal’s time] and treating it as a home, to really becoming a partner and sharing the vision to some extent, as long as we agreed. For a while, people are still going to expect that – and I also mean audiences.”

While Sanjna Kapoor had to shuttle between the city and her Delhi home, Kunal Kapoor’s base in Mumbai has meant better accessibility for the groups. He has remained a part of the decision-making process at Prithvi even while focussing on his company Adfilm-Valas, but the last nine months have seen a subtle flurry of changes. New events include monthly meetings of Urdu club Mehfil, theatre lighting classes, and tai chi sessions to help actors with movement. The staff punch in and out every day; a safety harness was bought for the lighting designer on the catwalk; a window installed in the sound console that allows the operators to see right up to the last row; the ground floor of Prithvi House is now used as an adda for theatrewallahs; and theatre groups were consulted for a nominal rental hike to help the theatre sustain its heavily subsidised facilities. Shanbag recalled an impromptu theatre lecture he’d recently booked by phoning Kunal Kapoor who was on an overseas trip, “It was an immediate ‘Yes, go right ahead.’” Thakore Padamsee agreed, adding, “He’s game to do a lot of ideas. I kind of enjoy the sparring because if you push back, he’s willing to have a conversation.”

Despite the still-bristling moustache, the leonine presence seems to have slightly mellowed: Kapoor turns up for the photo-shoot in a pink floral shirt and red pants. The 53-year-old director has been described as “brusque”, “fussy” and “intimidating”, and he seems to be surrounded by a fiercely loyal group that is on tenterhooks for the session to go smoothly. Teenage daughter Shaira Kapoor, who swaps her skirt for a sari at the annual Zakir Hussain memorial to Kendal (which Kapoor launched in 1985), sits quietly by. Elder son Zahan Kapoor, who freelances in film production, says, “Dad is Prithvi Theatre, not me,” when we ask him to pose, but as we shoot, he steps in to focus stage lights, pep up his father and chat about initiating a Ludo tournament trophy at the Summertime festival this year, and debuting social media publicity for the upcoming Prithvi Theatre Festival. Kunal Kapoor lets out an exasperated roar eventually, and the shoot gives over to the interview.

What are your plans for this year’s festival?
To have the festival. In 2010, we did the Complicite shows of A Disappearing Number, and because it was in August-September and was a huge production, it exhausted the sponsorship and us and everybody else. We were planning to have a festival in 2011, but then we knew the building is 35 years old, and we’d have to do repairs. We thought that it would be better to do it in November, in our time which is generally when we do the festival, rather than do it at a time when we take away dates from the performing groups, all the guys we’re supposed to be promoting and making it affordable and viable for. They don’t make any money in theatre but what little they do, it’s more profitable for them to perform here than anywhere else so they really do rely on the support. We have not finished all the repair work, but since we haven’t had a festival in two years, that takes first priority.

How did you pick the line-up?
It’s getting more and more difficult to raise monies by sponsorship, so this year we decided very consciously to concentrate on our regular groups. The surprise one is going to be a revival of Makrand [Deshpande]’s classic Sir Sir Sarla with a new cast, but otherwise it’s just really celebrating our fraternity. [UK’s] Globe theatre had an international Shakespeare festival, and it’s an element of pride that the two companies that went from India are both companies that regularly perform at Prithvi – whether Sunil Shanbag’s or Atul Kumar’s – so I definitely wanted to have them in our festival. For the Carnival, we’ve talked to all the regular directors, actors, writers, and asked them to do a 10-minute piece of their favourite thing, and we’ve put three shows back to back. Though our priority is theatre, the acoustics and the intimacy of the place are so good particularly for music. Hopefully [the Sunday Jam] will become a monthly event, it’s just pure acoustic music of all types on the stage, but it’s raw and it’s real.

Are the challenges of heading Prithvi different now?
No. In ’85 we had more applications for dates in a month than there are number of days; it’s there now.  In ’85, our average audience capacity was about 74 or 75 per cent, in the last year it’s been about 80-81 per cent. Finances – there’s never enough, seriously. It was tough then, it’s tough now. It was just as easy to do what some of the press at that point said, [that] we’re selling the theatre and it was being converted into a shoe shop, commercialise the space; the same argument is there today. There’s much more fruitful ways to make money, but it’s not why Dad bought this place, why he built it. So to maintain that purity, to maintain that honest aim, is just as tough.

In ’84, the theatre was five years old. The theatre being built on a shoestring budget, one of the first things I’d had to do was re-wire the entire theatre. We got a new dimmer, we did work on the building. We’re in the same situation, the difference is that maybe that quantum of work on the building is more. You’ve still got the same solidarity, the same support from the theatre groups, from your audience, the same kind of reactions – to every 10 positive reactions you get, you’ll get one wolf howling, but you cope with it.

Om Katare and Makrand Deshpande have described themselves as Prithvi Theatre creations. Is giving feedback part of your aim as director?
They are not Prithvi Theatre creations. They created themselves and Prithvi was an available platform which gave them the opportunity to create themselves, and it’s not only them, it’s so many other people. But what is interesting about Om and Mak, is that 25-30 years later, they’re still at it and they’re still regularly doing plays without a break. That is tremendous. I do see plays, it’s impossible to see everything. I don’t go and meet actors and people backstage after the show as a rule, because I think backstage is private, it’s an actor’s space. But if I loved it, then I will let them know later on.

Sanjna has been talked about as the face of Prithvi Theatre for two decades.
Yeah, we never agreed with it, that’s the press. The face of Prithvi Theatre is the groups, so it’s Om [Katare], it’s Mak [Deshpande], it is Akarsh [Khurana], it is Yatri, IPTA. I’m not the face of Prithvi Theatre, I’m just the poor, unlucky sod that has the responsibility of trying to keep it going.

Do you still discuss what’s happening at Prithvi Theatre with Sanjna and your father?
We still do, we bounce ideas across, we’re very clear-cut. I know what you’re digging at, the press would love to say “Oh there’s war, there’s a problem, there’s a Mahabharata happening.” I find it ridiculous. In our family we have five generations of everyone in the same business. You have RK Studios, you have Film-Valas, you have actors. Are they competition, are they trying to fight and destroy each other? No, bollocks, it doesn’t happen. There’s so much room, there’s so much that can happen, but the one thing that we do which is wonderful is nobody interferes with anybody, with their work, everyone gives everyone a space and you respect their space.

Dad in the last seven years has spent far more time at Prithvi Theatre than he has in the 20 years before that. That’s because he physically lives here and he also is physically not so busy any more so he’d come and watch shows as long as his health allows him, and even otherwise, he’d come and sit in the cafe and have his coffee. Today, I just showed him the posters, and he said, “Yeah okay, fine.” He’s old now, but [we discuss] if there are serious things that we have to do, when we had to do repairs and close down.

One of the first things Feroz Abbas Khan and you did was to ban sex comedies and self-indulgent arty theatre. Is there a certain kind of theatre that you’re hoping to encourage right now?
At that point, it had become a little more epidemic so we did have to react a bit on that. We talked to the groups and they took it in their stride and they worked around it. The theatre groups at Prithvi are predominantly what we call professional, they’re trying to make a living out of it. I was witness to a talk recently that we had [at Prithvi], a historian of theatre was talking about certain productions and saying with pride that they’d done a 100 shows. But I think we should be ashamed of that, I think we should be very sad. From Tuesday to Sunday, there should be nine shows a week, that’s how it happens in other places in the world.

Consequently, because of the lack of performing spaces, there are a few venues that are opening up but they’re mostly very misguided both in their management and in their design. One of the most successful ones is The Comedy Store which is designed and built for a stand-up comic. And they’ve plonked themselves in a place where the real estate they have to compete with is Louis Vuitton and Boss and Canali – I don’t know how they’re going to make the economics work. So they start to try and put on plays there as well. There is an audience in that area, but the theatre is not designed for it. But groups want to do it, so they find a way to actually do smaller productions, or do monologues, so even if one actor’s not available, you get someone else. That is becoming an epidemic, and that is not a play. That is stand-up comedy. We’re going to discourage it in the date applications because suddenly I see a whole spurt through a month of the plays at Prithvi, and they were all one person standing on stage and talking for 10 minutes and another person coming and talking for 10 minutes and they were just designed to make you laugh so it was really just becoming stand up comedy. Stand up comedy is great, it’s an art and done well, it’s fantastic. I’ve had a couple of great evenings at The Comedy Store, I think it’s a nice design, it’s a nice space, but to try and put them both in the same place is a bit of a disaster. We’ve discussed that with groups to say, “Design things for The Comedy Store and do it there. Design things for the theatre that you can do at Prithvi.”

In the past couple of years, there’s a lot of younger lot that are involved in theatre, and who are very passionate, who are very keen and they’re not looking at it as a hobby. That’s a change; 25 years ago, there was a bigger gap between actors who wanted to just act and [those whose] ultimate aim was to go to Bollywood to be Aamir Khan, be a Salman. I guess it’s also [because] the so-called parallel cinema has really shot up, so there are many more avenues, so that’s an encouraging light at the end of the tunnel.

Is there more youth involvement at Prithvi?
At one of the earlier meetings we had deciding the festival, a lot of the younger Thespo group came forward with ideas, talking about the Internet and Facebook and Youtube and doing viral [video]s and I said, “We’ll do it, I’ll give you the space. If it works, we’ll use it, if it doesn’t you’re on your arse but that’s part of what it’s all about.”

The role model for Prithvi, even for my parents, were places like the National Theatre in London –  there’s restaurants, cafes, bookshops, platform performances, there’s three theatres with regular shows, so you spend time there and that’s what we’ve always wanted here. At our little cafe even this morning, you’ll find college kids hanging here and studying and flirting, and it’s healthy. They can’t smoke, they’re not drinking, they’re doing their work, they’re peaceful, they’re not being a disturbance to people. If out of the 20 of them, if one of them picks up a Prithvi pamphlet, or looks at one of the posters and they come in and see that... Theatres need to break down [the myth of being] some forbidden dangerous place.

What I wanted to do for some years now with the festival, is to have a corner where all the participants can regularly meet every day and just hang. It’s not a public place, we’ve just informally told people [about the adda at Prithvi House], and it’s great, you often see guys sitting over there rehearsing. The only thing is that [staff members] Tiwari and Bahadur are very possessive about the cushions, so if I’m not there, they [say] “Sit on the stairs!” If I’m there, they bring the cushions out.

Your first major decision was perhaps the call you made asking Om Katare to go ahead with the show on the day Jennifer Kendal died. What has been the toughest decision you’ve made at Prithvi?
That wasn’t a decision at all. That was a defense mechanism to stop somebody being stupid and closing the theatre down. Giving dates is the most difficult job and the most hated job. After a while I used to make Feroz do it, then Feroz used to make me do it, then I would make Sanjna do it. Try and juggle languages – is Hindi a priority, then you also want a certain amount of Gujarati drama. The Marathi audience is very insular, they don’t come but we keep doing a bit of Marathi. There’s not a very big Maharashtrian population in the vicinity. Classically, for theatre, the Marathi audience doesn’t travel. It’s much easier to just give the final [say] but to actually put it together out of the 60-odd applications, then balance it out with [the schedule] two months before, is a nightmare.

Does Prithvi still run at a loss of Rs 2.5 lakh per month?
We still run at a loss, not as much as that right now; that’s when we had to increase the rates a little bit. But it will become that again, it’s a constant cycle because I can’t keep increasing the rates on a monthly basis. We changed it early this year – no upheaval, no riots, unlike some other venues we know. That’s the difference in how we work, so for three months, we did all kinds of calculations and informal discussions with our regular groups [about] what is workable. People are surprised, even neighbours – they see people always coming and going and there’s always activity happening and everyone knows Prithvi Theatre. The economics are not bent towards [profit] at all and the minute I do that, I will sacrifice the very basis of what we’re about, and that is to promote theatre.

Is it important that the next generation of the Kapoors steps up?
It’s entirely up to them, we were brought up that way. You don’t have to come in and do this, but whatever you want to do, you have to earn it, whether it’s my kids or Karan’s kids or Sanjna’s kids. Zahan has always been more interested in cinema, he shot films on his own in school and scripted stuff. He has absolutely no exposure to theatre. What became a big influence is he just wangled his way into Naseer[uddin Shah] rehearsing. And he’d go and watch Naseer rehearsing every day and that just blew his mind. First of all, nobody really wants to get involved because it’s a huge fucking liability. The amount of time and effort it takes to keep it going, and you don’t get any money out of it, and you’ve also got to make a living. So it’s tough, but whether you come in to this profession or not has to be from the individual. The tremendous amount of respect that each one has his own space is very, very important; that's why we haven't had a Mahabharata yet.

By Saumya Ancheri on October 25 2012

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