“Now that it is a success, I can say that I worked on a hunch for all these years, swallowing criticism,” says Habib Tanvir, in the documentary Tanvir Ka Safarnama (Tanvir’s Travelogues), which contains footage that director Ranjan Kamath shot while shadowing the popular poet, playwright, actor and director from 2004 to 2007.
The film documents the journey of Naya Theatre that Tanvir formed in 1959. He roped in tribals from the village of Chhatisgarh and urban theatre performers and wrote plays for social change. Although the plays were performed in Chhatisgarhi language, they were staged in Europe and London to a rousing response.
While deciding a name for the theatre group, Tanvir suggested New Theatre, but his wife Moneeca Mishra preferred to call it Naya Theatre, and the name stuck. The Naya Theatre group stayed together for 50 years, and trained three generations of actors.
The 78-minute film begins in Germany in May 2006, as Tanvir revists the land where he ‘spent his best years’. “I lived in the West, and kept going back to the East for theatre,” he says. Kamath explains, “The movie has many layers — it is a metaphorical of sorts, and an agent of social change. Habib believed that even in the time of electronic media, theatre could still inspire social change.”
Tanvir wanted to tap the song, dance and drama intrinsic to the cultural heritage of India’s villages, and would therefore ask them to enact his works spontaneously. Actors who worked with the legend share anecdotes throughout the film. Rehearsals with Tanvir Saab meant a late pack up. The decided time would be 6 pm to 9 pm, but we’d wrap up only around 1 am in the night,” says an unnamed actor in the documentary.
Naya Theatre also staged plays such as Zahreeli Hawa based on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and Sadak, which was a play on development. Folk actors narrate how scared they used to be of his scolding, and you see his lanky figure standing in the corner of the stage during rehearsals. There are also memorable moments, like when Tanvir says, “There will be a moment during the play that will hold you, transform you and that is inspiration,” “Tanvir saab gave me a new perspective towards theatre and life,” says Kamath.