Act one: From Europe to Chhatisgarh
Watch Tanvir Ka Safarnama, being screened by The Root Reel at Alliance Francaise, which follows the late Habib Tanvir on a theatrical journey from Europe to his homeland in Chhattisgarh where he works with uneducated villagers to develop Indian theatrical masterpieces
From 2004 to 2007, director Ranjan Kamath was busy “un-learning about theatre” as he set about filming his 70-minute documentary, Tanvir Ka Safarnama. The movie about theatre legend Habib Tanvir had Kamath travelling across the world with the Naya Theatre troupe. It convinced him that even in a digital era, theatre still matters. Naya Theatre was founded in 1959 by Tanvir and included tribal and rural folk artists from his hometown — Chattisgarh.
“Tanvir Ka Safarnama is the third in a trilogy; I had already made two films — Fishers of Men and The Die Is Caste — that examined various agents of change. This film was made with the conviction that theatre is still a medium that brings about social change in the electronic and digital era. I wanted the future generations to know about Tanvir, how he endured trials and tribulations over several decades and had the courage to unlearn and create an essentially Indian theatre,” says Kamath.
The director adds that his acquaintanceship with Tanvir transformed into a close friendship over the making of the film. The process of shooting the documentary took Kamath from the Prithvi Festival in Mumbai to Bhopal where most of the film was shot, across villages of Chattisgarh and to the opening of Tagore’s play Visarjan directed by Habib Tanvir in Kolkata in 2007. The film crew also accompanied Naya Theatre to Germany for the Bonn Biennale in 2006 where Tanvir retraced his theatrical roots to the Berliner Ensemble.
“Plenty of time was spent getting acquainted with the actors in their native environment, to learn more about the ‘men behind the masks’, their families and the diverse theatrical traditions in which they are rooted. Essentially, it is many journeys interlaced into one film,” says Kamath.
The hurdle factor
One of the significant challenges faced by Kamath during the filming was to respect the theatre space and observe rather than interfere with the rhythm of events. He also remembers an anecdote about their shooting in Germany. “To make this trip to Germany, which I couldn’t afford, I served as a tour manager to the troupe. I had to single-handedly manage troupe logistics. Convincing the German visa authorities to allow a 50-member troupe to travel to Bonn was no mean challenge.
Eventually, only 28 people travelled to Bonn; it was a nightmare. On reaching Germany, we had a hard time once again, with time management and set design. Their sets were too perfect for a rural setting and while their production team was ready at 9 am, Naya Theatre actors would be strolling in an hour later for rehearsals,” he recalls. Bittersweet memories aside, Kamath likens the experience to a drama school. “I was the only student to have Habib Tanvir all to myself, not as a teacher but as a friend who taught me much in the process,” he concludes.
On: Tonight, 6.30 pm onwards
At: Alliance Francaise Auditorium, Theosophy Hall, next to Nirmala Niketan, New Marine Lines, Churchgate.