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Saurabh Shukla recollects his love affair with stage

As actor-director Saurabh Shukla readies for the Mumbai premiere of Barff, he recollects his love affair with stage

From playing gangster and perfecting the comic act in Indian cinema to directing the popular play, 'Two To Tango Three To Jive', in 2011, the versatile Saurabh Shukla seems to always have something up his sleeve. Unlike purists, Shukla's encounter with theatre didn't begin with a die-hard love for the medium. "When I was in the sixth grade in school, I wanted to make films. I was a Delhi boy, who had no connections in the world of cinema. In college, a bunch of friends who were also interested in cinema figured that since we didn't have the know-how and access to filmmaking, we should take up theatre as it involved everything we loved from stories, scripts, sets, costumes and acting, minus the camera. That's how I took up theatre," confesses Shukla.

Saurabh Shukla
Saurabh Shukla

Stage, screen, stage
"Delhi had a thriving theatre scene. The first play I put together was 'Sab Chalta Hai', a satire based in Delhi University. It was a work of fiction about a day when the University finds itself without a Vice Chancellor. The administration picks the paanwala as an eligible candidate as he has a great rapport and a khata (book of pending payments) with everyone including students and the faculty," he recalls.

Post this encounter, Shukla fell in love with theatre and forgot all about films in the period in between 1984 to 1993. "The first play I had seen was 'The Glass Menagerie' written by Tennessee Williams and presented by a Delhi-based group called Drama Tech. Another play that impacted me was the 'Phantom Of the Opera' that I saw in London," he recollects. Shukla made the shift to cinema and moved to Mumbai when he got a call from filmmaker Shekhar Kapur for the film 'Bandit Queen'. Post this, he got involved in cinema and though, he watched plays as an audience, he couldn't find a way to go back to the medium. "You have to commit to being physically present and it means letting go a few films when you want to work on a play. In 2011-12, I finally decided to do a play and that's how 'Two to Tango Three To Jive' came about," he says. The play has completed over 90 shows.

Snow thriller
His latest directorial venture where he also plays the lead, Barff is a thriller set in Kashmir during winter and spans over one night. "I got a call from NSD (National School of Drama) in November to perform at the Bharangam Theatre Festival, which is a prestigious platform and features plays from across the globe. I didn't have a play in mind then. I went back to my writing and found Barff, which I had written as a film. We had found a producer but the film got delayed. It's a thriller with three actors and one space and I felt it lent itself to theatre," says Shukla. The play has the same premise but the execution and screenplay has been modified for the medium.

"Like a movie, I wanted to transport the audience to Kashmir (where the play is set) not just with the dialogues and the storyline but also by recreating the physicality of the location. It is common practice abroad. I roped in Raghav Mishra, a popular set designer from Delhi to create the sets. We don't have budgets like the Broadway but AGP (Ashwin Gidwani Productions) has been helpful. I wanted to show snowfall on stage since the story takes place on a winter night. A lot of research went into creating 40 feet snow (like found on a mountain). Equipment was not easily available and we almost ended up creating our own machine," shares Shukla.

All about timing
According to him, the one-hour 40-minute play is a dramatic thriller and not merely a whodunit. "Hitchcock never made whodunits. He made thrillers that had drama in it. It's not about finding out who committed a crime at the climax. The idea is to show people that this is bizarre but there is a possibility for it to happen to anybody," replies Shukla.

The play has a double cast. Actor Vinay Pathak will be replace Shukla in the lead for certain shows. Audio Block has created the music for the play. Costumes are based on what people in the valley wear in the winters. "The collective laughter, sorrow and discovery of the audience during a play is rewarding. Theatre is not very commercial and is not answerable to money unlike film so you get to experiment," says Shukla before rushing off to the rehearsal.

On: April 10, 6 pm
At: Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point.
Call: 22824567
On: April 17, 7.30 pm
At: St.Andrews Auditorium, Bandra (W).
Call: 26401657

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