Play it again, for Prithvi

“I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way  in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”

Irish author and poet Oscar Wilde’s prose could possibly sum up theatre’s significance and at the heart of it, the guiding philosophy of Mumbai’s iconic Prithvi Theatre Festival

Sanjna Kapoor and Shashi Kapoor at Prithvi Theatre during prep work for the festival in 2004

Started in 1983, on the fifth anniversary of the Prithvi Theatre, the festival has stood the test of time. Kunal Kapoor, son of Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor, who has been handling the affairs of the festival along with his sister Sanjna, after his mother’s death, brands the journey till now as satisfying. “When it began in 1983, it was probably the only one in Mumbai which was open to the public. There are very few theatres in India that have plays being performed every day, through the year. No corporate events, no weddings, no private functions — just plays. So, an annual festival that presents either highlights or new productions is always exciting,” says Kapoor.

The Prithvi Theatre Festival, an annual feature of the Prithvi calendar, usually begins in early November and runs between a week, to a month. After its inaugural year, the festival was stalled in 1984 due to Jennifer Kapoor’s death, but a month-long festival was organised in February 1985 and then, another two-week festival in November the same year, to make up for the lost year.

Kunal Kapoor, Trustee Prithvi Theatre, who handles the affairs of the theatre now

The focus of the festival changes each year — while one edition concentrated only on local Mumbai theatre groups, the next was open to theatre troupes from across India. Some years have also witnessed interesting themes like in 2006 that celebrated Prithviraj Kapoor’s birth centenary and took the theatre company’s motto — Kala Desh Ki Seva Mein — as its theme. The groups that were invited that year sought to deal with contemporary socio-political issues in their work.

Old is gold
While new talent keeps associating itself with the festival, Prithvi boasts of artistes, who have been a part of the event for decades and continue to express their loyalty towards it.

Paresh Rawal and Feroz Abbas Khan in a Gujarati play Khelaiya, at Prithvi in the 1980s
Paresh Rawal and Feroz Abbas Khan in a Gujarati play Khelaiya, at Prithvi in the 1980s

One such theatre personality is actor-director Feroz Abbas Khan, who began his tryst with the festival in its inception year. “Jennifer Kapoor was the head and I was one of the arms of the first Prithvi Theatre Festival in 1983. She wanted Prithvi to celebrate and honour the outstanding work of various theatre companies in Mumbai. It was also a precursor to a Prithvi Repertory, a resident theatre company that she believed will encourage people to pursue theatre as a profession. She wanted the best available talent to work in this company. That was her vision and dream. Unfortunately, she passed away too early, and it remains unrealised,” rues Khan, who showcased his famous play, Salesman Ramlal, this edition.

Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah have also performed at the fest in the past

Remembering his fondest memories, he recalls the 1985 edition, when theatre stalwart Habib Tanvir stayed at his place. “The wisdom received from him is etched in my memory. He was truly a theatre prophet. As for the fun story, I remember I overheard Jennifer Kapoor once asking a festival volunteer whether I was a genuine Pathan from Peshawar or a duplicate Khan from Uttar Pradesh,” he laughs.

From start to finish
For some, the festival has not just been a training ground, but an abode, which gave them an entry into the world of theatre. Acclaimed theatre actress Shernaz Patel made her debut at the festival with The Diary Of Anne Frank in 1984 and has since then been attached to the event.

“I was a volunteer at the festival and then did my first play there. I started my journey from there, so it’s very close to my heart. I remember 1984-85 had theatre groups from around the country participating at the event. That was a high,” she reminisces.

In a group photo during an earlier edition, spot Alok Nath (front row, 3rd from left), Raj and Nadira Babbar (2nd row, 4th and 3rd from left, respectively), Satish Kaushik (standing, 11th from left) and many other actors. Pics/ Suresh KK, Sameer Markande, Rane Ashish and Nimesh Dave

For theatre veteran Nadira Babbar, who has her group Ek Jute, the festival was such a great opportunity for people hungry to show their prowess. “Earlier mostly foreigners were invited to Prithvi Theatre for shows, probably, because they wanted to introduce Indians to international theatre, but the festival gave a good platform to homegrown talent,” reminisces Babbar, hoping that the festival promotes Folk theatre a little more as well.

Money matters
While the festival has been growing from strength to strength, finances are still a major concern. “I’d like to see more corporate and government spend in theatres and the festivals, so that the festivals can be held across multiple venues and cities. Festivals work like a booster shot for any industry — theatre needs their patronage,” explains Kapoor.

New Talent
Shaira Kapoor: On the décor of the festival 

I have grown up with it always being there, but this is the first time that I’m actually more involved. From the décor viewpoint, the Prithvi Festival has always done such creative things that I had a hard time selecting the theme this time. So, every time I came up with suggestions, dad (Kunal Kapoor) told me that we’ve done that before. This year, we’ve used fun circus letters and big bulbs. We thought that since the festival is almost overlapping with Diwali, we should use more lights, so, that it looks like fun and gives the feel of festivities. 

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