Deepa Gahlot: Mumbai theatre in global spotlight

Mumbai may not have a Broadway or West End, but the city is finally on its way to becoming part of the international theatre circuit

At a recent entertainment conclave during which, amidst three days of hectic networking, there are dozens of talks and panel discussions on various issues to do with show business, this year a session on theatre for held for the first time.

It is a big leap for Mumbai (or Indian theatre) to be taken seriously as a part of the business, and not just a poor country cousin. And the entertainment industry does not easily open its doors to anything, unless there is big money involved.

A file picture of rehearsals for a Broadway-style production of Beauty And The Beast that opened in Mumbai for the first time last year and is returning again next month
A file picture of rehearsals for a Broadway-style production of Beauty And The Beast that opened in Mumbai for the first time last year and is returning again next month

Mumbai, which calls itself the entertainment capital of India, does not have a Broadway or West End, which attract hordes of audiences, many of them tourists looking to get an authentic theatre experience. Which is not to say that the germ of that idea cannot be sown, now that there is a fair amount of money being poured into theatre.

Mumbai does not take business lightly and over the last few years there has been an exponential increase in the number of plays being produced, across the spectrum — from shoestring budget to mega productions. Kudos to Mumbai audiences too, for buying their tickets and not demanding ‘don’t you know who I am?’ complimentaries. Nor just that, they don’t flinch at spending amounts from Rs 300-Rs 8,000 for tickets.

Credit must be given to a couple of major theatre events that must have served as eye-openers to the entertainment industry, because a couple of big industrial houses are taking the lead. They must have seen value in theatre to invest in it.

But it is undoubtedly the Disney production of Beauty And The Beast that proved that the city (and maybe some other parts of the country) are ready to be a part of the international theatre circuit. Director Vikranth Pawar was a part of the panel, and it is to his credit that the production with all the technical razzmatazz, was world-class. Which could only mean that after this successful foray into the Indian market by Disney, other productions will be planned.

Earlier this year, Jeeves And Wooster In Perfect Nonsense travelled to Mumbai from the West End. Then theatre maestro Peter Brook’s Battlefield had Mumbai on its international itinerary. This year will see a lot more foreign hits coming to Mumbai, because now the money and managerial skills are here, infrastructure will just follow.

Stage and film producer-director Feroz Abbas Khan, who was also a speaker (along with Sonali Kulkarni, Salim Arif and Akarsh Khurana) said that theatre — or live entertainment — is the medium of the future. For years, every time a new entertainment medium came in, the demise of theatre was predicted. Not only has theatre lived, it has thrived; enveloping, as it goes along, new technologies (video, LED screens, 3D-mapping) that make it worthwhile for an audience to pay high ticket prices to watch. So, ironically, the oldest entertainment medium is entering a growth phase.

In India, this is happening without any government aid and very little corporate funding. So imagine how much theatre could have grown if there was more financial support and venues to perform and fewer bureaucratic hurdles.

The one area where there is enough backing is in training, said Salim Arif. Apart from the National School of Drama in Delhi, there are many theatre training courses —both government-backed and independent — though not many can guarantee employment opportunities. Still, in Mumbai, films, TV, ads, and the web have started dipping into the theatre talent pool. Sonali Kulkarni pointed out that these days, there is greater respect for theatre actors because they are perceived as talented and disciplined. Not just actors, theatre is providing talented writers and directors to other mediums.

And, Feroz notes that the heads of several entertainment companies have their roots in theatre.

Akarsh Khurana has gone off the beaten track and tapped into a audience outside Mumbai, hungry for culture. His group, Akvarious, travels a lot and has also started performing at alternative venues, mopping up viewers who may not be able to reach a conventional performing space.

There is no comprehensive study done on the business of theatre, but if one were to be commissioned, the figures might just startle those who think theatre is just for the arty few. Maybe, it's time to shine the spotlight on the stage.

Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. She tweets at @deepagahlot

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