The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, May 21, 2000

"TV is, for me, the mega-festival of ignorance"

IRONICALLY enough, the home of the Hindi theatre is away from home. In the Indo-Gangetic heartland, there being no regular, ticket-paying audience and therefore no commercially viable theatre, the productions invariably fold up before the number of shows approaches two figures, while, in Bombay, the shows of a Hindi play may run into hundreds. And this when the Hindi theatre there faces tough competition from much stronger traditions of Marathi, Gujarati and English plays. Maybe, the multiple challenge is the very source of its strength. Be that what it may, this feat has been possible because of the untiring efforts of a couple of committed directors, the most distinguished of them being Dinesh Thakur whose Ank has to its credit about 5000 shows of its five dozen plays including Hai Mera Dil which, premiered in 1980, continues to run till this day.

Although Dinesh Thakur claims to be basically an actor, he has been directing plays for Ank and among the most successful of these have been Badal Sircar’s Baqi Itihas and Pagla Ghora, Shri Ranga’s Suno Janmejaya, Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq, Vijay Tendulkar’s Jaat Hi Poochho Sadhu Ki, Khamosh, Adalat Jaari Hai, Kamala Mohan Rakesh’s Adhe Adhure, Shankar Shesh’s Rakt-Beej, Manu Bhandari’s Mahabhoj, Elkunchwar’s Atamkatha, Vasant Kanetkar’s Gaganbhedi, Agha Hashra Kashmiri’s Hangamakhez, B.M. Shah’s Sheh Ye Maat — besides, of course, plays by Chekhov, Brecht, GB Shaw, Moliere, Anouilh, Gogol, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Molnar, Neil Simon, Oscar Wilde, Oliver Goldsmith, Agatha Christie, PG Wodehouse, JB Priestley, Richard Nash, Ayn Rand, et al.

  In the NSD festival, Bharat Rang Mahotsava, this year, Ank presented Tendulkar’s Anji and in a Baat-Cheet session on the occasion, Dinesh Thakur had many interesting things to say. Chaman Ahuja reproduces some of his perceptions.

Usually it is believed that artists like you, who work in films, serials as well as in the theatre, are either failures in the media or else use the money from the media for sustaining their theatre. What is your position?

Once one has opted for acting, it does not matter where one acts; a good actor would excel anywhere. At least I feel equally at home in the media as well as on the stage. It is wrong to assume that only failures in the media work for theatre; an equally wrong notion is that people keep leaving theatre just for money. Take the classic examples of Naseeruddin Shah and Sreeram Lagoo: despite their preoccupation on the screen, they insist on devoting time to theatre. That keeps them well-oiled as actors. Personally, I prefer to work in theatre because I find it a more meaningful means of self-expression; TV is, for me, agyan-ka-mahotsava (the mega-festival of ignorance).

The popularity of your theatre makes people think of you as a commercial entertainer.

People are free to say anything but my perception of my work is different. I make a distinction between doing popular theatre and popularising theatre. Those doing popular theatre are interested primarily in success, they compromise; theirs being an approach sans commitment and sans responsibility, they let the art degenerate into titillation. That means vulgar commercialisation. Our approach is different: we take theatre very seriously but without taking fun out of it. If you approach Tughlaq as an avant-garde material, it becomes theatre for the classes; we would rather make it accessible to the masses. We don’t trivialise; only we stop short of high-brow abstraction. We know that common man would come to theatre only if it communicates to him at his level — that is, only if he gets maza out of it.

Is maza the be-all and end-all of everything in theatre?

I should think so. Maza for me as a director, maza for my artists as performers, maza for the audience as percipients. Only when all of us enjoy, the process becomes complete. One may make distinction between creative joy and aesthetic pleasure, but, quintessentially, it is maza in either case. No, by maza, I don’t mean sensuous gratification or just entertainment; it is much more than that. It is something analogous to the bliss of meditation: Transcending your narrow range of personal experiences, you escape the world of harsh realities, at least for some time.

How about the role of theatre as a mirror unto life as an instrument of change that makes people face reality and become aware of the stark problems of existence?

I believe that is a very over-rated role for theatre. Has theatre ever — I repeat, ever — really brought about any radical changes in the social set-up? It might have been used as a tool, but on its own it has never led a revolution. I should know what I am saying because I was one of the earliest performers of street theatre in Delhi. Since people come to theatre for the kind of maza that theatre alone can give, messages or propaganda are bound to drive them away.

What has been, for you, the most efficacious way to popularise theatre?

First and foremost, I must persuade the people to come to theatre; for that I make the titles of my plays promise something interesting. If I did G B Shaw’s Pygmalion with its original name, the chances were that majority of the people could be put off; so I called it Tum Kya Jano Preet Parai and the people thronged to it. When Norman Barasch and Carrol Moore’s hilarious comedy, Send Me No Flowers, was adapted into Hindi by Ranbir Singh, he called it Afsos Hum Na Hongey; I thought that the title would keep out some of the prospective viewers. I called it Hai Mera Dil and thousands have come because of the title. Once a theatre goer has arrived, it is up to me what I give to him. I can depend on the magic of theatre and the power of my art to hold him in my hands and to ensure that he would come again — and yet again. I like immensely K B Vaid’s play, Bhook Aag Hai; it is the kind of ironic stuff that I love to do. But when I choose to do it, I would start by changing the title.

How do playwrights like these changes — and the critics?

The playwrights stop minding once the popularity earns them name and fame. As for the critics, I don’t perform for them. Had I gone by their edicts, I should have left theatre long ago — or at least doing theatre would not have been such fun, so full of maza. Surely, if my audience had read their reviews, Hai Mera Dil could not have run into thousands of shows.

You, it appears, change not only the titles but also the scripts. For example, your Anji does not end where Tendulkar left it.

Yes, he ended the play when the protagonist professes to have enjoyed being raped. I make my Sutradhar go a bit farther. He says that this ending is not the kind of ending that either Bharata Muni or our society would approve of; going by their moral code, they would insist on something different — perhaps suicide. Having said this, he leaves it open to the audience to decide what they would prefer. I have not rejected Tendulkar’s ending; rather I have so placed it that the audience would feel that the other alternative being so melodramatic, they should accept his more humane ending.

Why do you use Sutradhar in the play — do you also feel that modern Indian theatre can be created only by roping in such conventions of the traditional Indian theatre?

Sutradhar is here because he is there in the play and Tendulkar brought him because this play was written for Rangayana. I think that it is an apt device for an effective interplay between fantasy and reality. I have an open mind on the use of old devices. I won’t use them for the sake of fashion; also I don’t mind employing them if that helps me achieve my aesthetic ends.