On September 22 this year, Tejpal Hall was filled to capacity. And while the audience waited impatiently for the play to begin, there was one man who was feeling a bit nervous backstage. Actor, director and producer Neeraj Vora was making his return to theatre after nearly 20 years with Waah Guru, a Gujarati play written by Sai Barve, who’s his co-star as well. “I was as nervous as somebody performing the first play of his life,” he laughs, recalling that moment.
But when the audience broke into a loud applause after the play came to an end, all his doubts went flying out of the window. “Once the shows started on a regular basis and the play became successful, I felt the satisfaction of coming back and being accepted by the audience,” says Vora.
Vora is not the only film personality to have returned to his roots. The past year or so has witnessed quite a few stage veterans making a comeback to the stage after making their mark in films. In December last year, Om Puri’s poignant performance in Teri Amrita, the Punjabi adaptation of the long-running Hindi play Tumhari Amrita, was much appreciated. He performed on the stage after nearly 25 years. After a hiatus of nearly 20 years, the audience got to see Kulbhushan Kharbanda on the stage, in Kolkata-based theatre group Padatik’s Hindi play Atmakatha last year. “When I was approached with the script, I was not sure whether I had the confidence to learn so many lines. But then, as an actor, you have to be ready for everything. Lekin karne ke baad, ab lagta hai ki main kar sakta hoon. (After doing the play, I think I can do it),” he smiles. Similarly, Saurabh Shukla marked his presence in theatre after 18 years with Two To Tango, Three To Jive, again, last year. UTV co-founder Deven Khote, who left his job last year to ‘kick back and do stuff he’s passionate about’, staged a comeback with Scent of a Man that premiered in Pune recently. “The last play I did must have been in the ‘80s. I can’t call it a hiatus, it’s way longer than that!” he laughs.
Hiatus or not, the return of veteran actors to the stage is a healthy sign for theatre, believes theatre director, actor and writer Vinay Sharma, who directed Kharbanda in Atmakatha. “It’s a fantastic thing. For the actors, the immediacy of the audience reaction is something that draws them back. Being on stage for two hours is a test of their skills and far more than films, which is a director’s medium, this is something every actor craves for,” says Sharma.
Eye on the bigger picture
The theatre world is not devoid of actors who divide their time and energy successfully between cinema and stage. Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Paresh Rawal and Anupam Kher are just some names that come to mind, when one talks about Bollywood actors who have not broken their link with theatre. The younger generation too, including actors such as Kalki Koechlin, Randeep Hooda and Nimrat Kaur, are keeping their love for the medium alive by regularly acting in plays. But circumstances sometimes force theatre actors to move away from the medium. Like in the case of Puri, who ventured into cinema as he wanted to reach out to a larger audience. The actor, who started doing theatre when he was in college in Punjab, says he was hungry to reach out to maximum number of people through his art, and that’s the reason he shifted to films. “For my age group, there are very few good parts in films these days, and I want to stop doing silly work,” the actor had told us at the premiere of his play in Mumbai. “This is something which is in my hands and I don’t have to look forward to other people giving me a part. I can pick up a play that I like and that’s what I’m going to do,” says Puri, who also produced Teri Amrita.
For Khote, who co-founded UTV with Ronnie Screwvala and Zarina Mehta, it all boiled down to priorities. “After working in a number of English plays through the ‘80s, I started UTV with Ronnie and Zarina. Once the company was up and running, there was no option but to concentrate on that. I had to put theatre aside and that was it,” he says.
Theatre, like any actor would tell you, is a time-consuming process. And when somebody is on the brink of building a career, then it becomes imperative to channel all your energies towards it. “Cinema was always my first love, and that’s where I wanted to be,” says Shukla, whose big break came in the form of Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya, where he was the co-writer. Prior to that, he was associated with theatre with NSD Repertoire Company, the professional wing of National School of Drama. “Post Satya, I was loaded with offers and theatre took a backseat. In theatre, you have to commit a certain time, whereas in between films, you can do other films. It’s hard to do that in theatre because that’s a continuous process,” he says.
The stage beckons
No doubt, cinema gives you a lot, in terms of money and fame, but for an actor craving instant gratification, the stage holds an attraction that’s unmatchable. In numerous interviews and articles, theatre actors have spoken about the immense joy of performing in front of a live audience. And while that might sound clichéd, these veteran actors say that it’s true. “When you start your career with theatre, the love and affection for the medium, and the thrill of performing in front of a live audience never fades away,” believes Vora, who kept his love for theatre alive by producing plays all these years, when he was busy with cinema. “You can earn your money from movies and propel your careers, but eventually there is something that is missing. So that was the main reason I wanted to be back on the stage,” he adds.
Shukla seems to agree with the sentiment. “Theatre and cinema are two very different mediums. There is an exclusivity attached with theatre, as you can only go to see a play at a dedicated time and every show is different. That’s the charm of theatre. Secondly, theatre does not pay much, so the only driving force is the love and passion you feel for it. In that way, it’s a purer medium,” he feels. When Shukla stepped on the stage after 18 years, he says he didn’t feel that he had left it for that long. “I felt 18 years was like yesterday. So mentally, I never left theatre,” says the actor, who has, since then, done innumerable shows of Two to Tango, Three to Jive in cities across the country. Citing an example, the actor tells us about the connect he feels with the audience when they come and watch his play. “My performance in films like Barfi and Jolly LLB was much appreciated and a number of people have told me how much they have liked it. But what happens is, that their emotion is at an all-time high the moment they see the performance, but the distance between the reaction and original emotion is far off. In theatre, the moment you perform, the audience meets you and reacts then and there. A number of times they have come and ended up sharing their lives with us. It is so heartwarming when somebody comes and opens up his or her life with you. There’s no feeling to match that,” he says.
Vora adds another aspect that he associates with theatre’s charm. “Theatre is the god of small things,” he proclaims. Ask him to explain his statement and he says, “In cinema, you don’t move without certain amenities and facilities. But in theatre, you don’t mind travelling in a train or sharing a cutting chai with your co-actor. The small things, whether the payment or treatment, don’t matter. Sharing small things is the greatest thing about theatre, as it not just teaches you about how to perform, but also about life,”
When Sharma cast Kharbanda in his play, he did that because he thought the veteran actor thoroughly suited the role of an acclaimed writer who is dictating his autobiography to a researcher. The director thinks that the audience, too, looks forward to seeing popular and talented actors in the flesh, on stage. “But more importantly, veteran actors staging a comeback is a great thing for theatre itself, as it’s vital for a certain amount of regeneration of interest in theatre. The majority of theatre here is still in amateur stage and there are not many people making a living out of theatre. So I think it’s wonderful if these actors come back, if it helps to draw the audience back in any way,” he says.
And while in countries like United Kingdom and United States of America one can find big stars lending their names to plays, that’s hardly the case with stars here. But according to theatre critic Deepa Gahlot, it all boils down to quality. “But what is happening increasingly, is the unbroken connection between cinema and theatre. And that’s quite encouraging,” she adds.
In his collection of articles titled ‘Once there was a war’, American writer John Steinbeck famously wrote, “The theater is the only institution in the world which has been dying for four thousand years and has never succumbed. It requires tough and devoted people to keep it alive.” With established actors returning to bring the stage alive once again with their talent, theatre here certainly doesn’t seem to be devoid of them.
Hollywood’s love affair with stage
Judi Dench is one of the most well-known British theatre performers and has worked for the National Theatre Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Academy Award winner Jessica Chastain made her Broadway debut in a limited-run revival of The Heiress playing Catherine Sloper. The play ran on Broadway, from November 1, 2012 to February 9, 2013.
Daniel Radcliffe may have won hearts by his portrayal of Harry Potter in the film series but his debut as J Pierrepont Finch in the 2011 Broadway revival How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying won him a number of critics too.
Katie Holmes made her Broadway debut in the revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons in October 2008. The play opened to mixed reviews.
In 2010, Scarlett Johansson acted in the play A View From The Bridge. She was praised for her performance.