On a day when most people have a holiday and are gearing up to bid adieu to Lord Ganpati, actor-director Manav Kaul and his group of actors are getting ready for another day of rehearsal of their forthcoming play Colour Blind. It is the 18th and on 25th of this month, the play that takes a look at Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s relationship with his muse Victoria Ocampo, opens in Kolkata followed by a show in Shantiniketan on the 27th. No wonder then, that Kaul barely manages to speak to us over the phone to fix up a meeting. We need not have worried about not knowning the flat number when we reach the eighth floor of the building in Lokhandwala, Andheri, where Kaul has called us for a behind-the-curtains look at the play -- we can hear the loud voices of the actors rehearsing as soon as the lift doors open. All we have to do is follow the voices.
The rehearsal is in full swing, and we quietly sneak in to see all the 10 actors in the production, sitting on the floor with their eyes closed, mouthing their dialogues and sometimes, breaking into a Bengali song. We’re intrigued by what’s going on, until Kaul takes us aside to tell us that this is a theatre exercise. “The actors close their eyes and see the entire piece through sound. It helps them concentrate,” he explains. Kaul got the idea of the play a few months back, when an organisation in Kolkata asked him to do a piece on Tagore. “I’ve seen so much of Tagore on stage. I wanted to do something where I understand Tagore as a friend, in a very human way,” he says. Five months of research and writing saw him develop Colour Blind -- with the premise of the story being Tagore’s relationship with Argentenian writer Victoria Ocampo, when he was 63 years old. “It’s also about his youth when he was forever searching for a song, and his childhood, when he was alone and had nobody to play with. These are some of the images I have worked with,” Kaul says of the play that flits between past and present, and is in Hindi, English, Bengali and a bit of French with some of Tagore’s songs thrown in for good measure.
Colour Blind has also been in the news for some time because of actor Kalki Koechlin’s presence in it. Koechlin plays Ocampo, but what’s also interesting to note is that she, along with Kaul, has penned the script. Kaul is full of praise for Koechlin, as well as for the rest of his cast, that includes Satyajeet Sharma who plays Tagore and Swanand Kirkire who plays death. “Kalki fit in perfectly because I wanted somebody who could also speak French. She is a theatre person, knows the language of theatre and is one of the most honest actors I’ve worked with,” he says. Kaul is glad that Sharma and Kirkire play pivotal roles in the production as casting the right actors is a key factor in theatre. “Sharma is an amazing actor, while Kirkire has taken care of the musical aspect,” he adds.
By the time we’re done talking, the theatre exercise is over and the actors immediately start discussing the portions they need to polish, with Kaul asking them to take their voices a notch higher-up. “It’s because of the room that your voices areechoing but that’s not going to be on stage,” he tells them, “Iwant everyone’s voices to go up, and if somebody’s still lagging, I will speak to them individually.” With the warning resounding in their ears, the actors take their 10-minute tea break. Koechlin helps herself to some chai and biscuit and admits with a laugh that she feels a desperate need to scratch her nose after a rehearsal. “That’s the one thing I can’t do while I’m on stage for a hour or so,” she laughs. With no chairs around, we settle down on the floor for a chat. “See this is how glamorous this profession is,” she jokes. On a serious note, the actor says she simply loves doing theatre. “Theatre is really an actor’s medium. I get to learn so much. In films, you have to be spontaneous, while months of rehearsal go into one play. It’s another kind of discipline and I thoroughly enjoy it. But yes, you can’t survive on theatre alone; there are no fixed salaries. But you do get a lot of chai and biscuits!” she giggles.
Koechlin plays two characters in the play -- that of Ocampo and another of a girl in contemporary India, who’s writing a play on Tagore. Extensive research on Ocampo has turned the svelte actor into something of a scholar on the writer’s life. “As soon as I got to know I’m doing this production, I bought seven books on Ocampo and her writings,” she says. But more than that, it was the Bengali portions in Colour Blind that are playing on her mind. “I’ve been practising with one of the Bengali girls in the group to get the right accent and pronunciation. The real test will be in Kolkata though. If the audience starts laughing, I’ll know I’ve gone wrong somewhere,” she smiles. Juggling her acting assignments with the play was a bit of a task for her, as it was for actor Satyajeet Sharma, who joins us little later. Sharma, who’s a known face on the telly with Balika Vadhu, is glad that the production house hadbeen accommodating. “I had worked with Manav a couple ofyears back on his play Peele Scooter Wala Aadmi. When hecalled me for Colour Blind, I was really excited, to say the least,” is what he’s able to tell us, before he’s called back inside for the second round of rehearsals.
But we can’t leave without getting in a word from Kirkire, who plays Death. Why death, we ask him. “Death was a constant in Tagore’s writings,” explains Kirkire. “It’s something that’s omnipresent in Tagore’s life. It’s like his alter ego, that laughs at him and sympathises with him too,” he adds. Kirkire, who we know better as a lyricist and singer, reveals that he’s a trained actor from National School of Drama. “I’ve directed a play earlier, but this is the first time I’m acting in one. It’s a great experience to work with such beautiful actors and with Manav, who is an amazing director,” he tells us. The 10 minutes are long over and we don’t want to stall the actors any longer. As they start rehearsing for the second time, we quietly make our exit. Colour Blind comes to Mumbai in December. If we needed a reason to watch the play, we got plenty after watching the rehearsals.