Saturday, August 3, 2002

A non-conforming artiste
Aditi Tandon

Mita Vashisht --- Photo Manoj MahajanAS a nine-year-old, Mita Vashisht would often run away from home, sniffing the streets of City Beautiful in the hope of bumping into something exciting, something life-giving. But she would be dragged back and lectured at length about the consequences of "abandoning home". Tutored to respect society and its frame, Mita would sit back for hours, crying over her apparent loss of freedom, whose meaning , as a child, she could neither understand nor analyse.

"It is only now, after years of observing and living life through the medium of theatre that I know what freedom means and tastes like," quips the seductive actress, who has no qualms about admitting that the only time she feels sane is either when she is herself acting or when she is directing 30-odd sex workers, who are now a part of her theatre troupe and a part of her life too.

Hailing from the red-light areas of Mumbai, these women, many among whom are too young to be called women, have taken upon themselves the task of staging plays in various flesh- trade markets all over India and also Nepal.


And all these plays, for a change, do not seek to lecture or preach or highlight a social evil. Conceived and developed as pure comedies, they are simply meant to act as "momentary healers" for all those prostitutes, who survive under the shadow of pain. For Mita, the task of striking a rapport with the girls in the red-light area of Mumbai was not an easy task. For long she frequented this area simply to observe them, understand their gestures and comprehend their language.

"They are a very aggressive lot. No amount of courtesy pays when you are dealing with them. The first time I went to see these girls, they made fun of me, called me names and were not ready to listen to anything I had to say. Most of them felt that I, like many others, wanted to gain publicity through them," recalls Mita, who persisted with her efforts till eventually the girls came around. She continues, "They thought that I was some big fool, trying to organise them as a theatre group. Initially, I actually behaved like one in front of them. I never probed into their personal lives because I knew that was the last thing they wanted share. I only joked around, trying to fill their grim surroundings with sounds of laughter. This worked. They began to see me as a part of them. That was what I wanted."

Then came the real challenge of refining these women and instilling in them a sense of confidence. "They resisted initially, thinking that the bad world had taught them enough and that they could handle everything on their own. I started holding exercising sessions for them, sometimes teaching them Bharatanatyam, telling them that the purpose of all art is pleasure, nothing else. I had to work on their body language, tell them how to dress up when not on job; I also had to help them with their language and speech. In their area of work, they are expected to speak in a particular way, which sounds very jerky. While respecting their work, I told them that they could be sophisticated in their own right," says Mita.

For the past two and a half years, Mita has been improvising stories with her colleagues she likes to address them so. The first play they did was a 35-minute comedy titled Mulla Nazruddin ke Kisse, which they staged in red-light areas of Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore and Nepal. Later they presented yet another comedy called Dada ji ka Tabut. "Not even once did we have any chief guests or any media persons covering our shows. The very idea appeared ridiculous," says Mita wearing a smile on her face.

What about mainstream acting, the first priority in her life?

"Well, priorities are bound to change. After the powerful characters I played in Mani Kaul's Sidheshwari, Govind Nihalani's Drishti and Drohkaal and Kumar Shahani's Kasba, I was fairly satisfied on the professional front. I knew I had acted in stories that did not befool the audience but offered them a worldview. Later many commercial roles happened. They are still happening. Although I liked my characters in Dil se, Ghulam and Subhash Ghai's Taal. I still cannot understand why I ever played that role in Yash Chopra's Chandni. I don't relate with it at all," says an easy-going Mita, who talks very fondly about her role in Shubha Mudgal's music video Man ke Manjire.

Mita's mischievous eyes light up as she makes her final statement, "That is the real me, non-conforming and audacious!"