A stage for all the world
Neelam Mansingh

The Prithviwallahs presented
by Shashi Kapoor with Deepa Gahlot. Roli Books. Pages 151. Price not stated.

The Prithvi Theatres troupe at Delhi station after a tour of Kashmir in 1952
The Prithvi Theatres troupe at Delhi station after a tour of Kashmir in 1952

While reading the book I was reminded of the words of Bharat Muni, the sage who wrote the Natya Shastra: Natak wohi kar sakta hai jis ka kutumb ho (theatre can only be performed/supported by one who has a sense of family). This fourth century aphorism was aptly reflected in the relationships that Prithviraj Kapoor had with his actors, technicians, backstage workers, script writers and umpteen family members who were not only part of his itinerant repertory but also became members of his continuously growing family.

Prithviwallahs, a Roli Books publication, written by eminent film historian and critic Deepa Gahlot and presented by the charismatic and cherubic actor Shashi Kapoor, is a valuable documentation of a vital and dynamic period in the history of Hindi theatre.

Written in a Three-Act format, Act I is about the incredible fortitude and belief of Prithviraj Kapoor who set up a theatre with a mission not only to entertain, but also to educate taste. Using narratives replete with socialistic ideas with emotive and pedagogical appeal, his plays became extremely popular. Not only due to the star status of the chief protagonist Prithviraj Kapoor, but also because of the secular content of the texts. The style of performance was a naturalistic presentation of life, combined with gushing idealism. Plays dealing with Partition as a narrative of violence inserted with rhetorical solutions and dislocation vivisection layered with symbols of reconciliation and hope.

The actors of the Prithvi Repertory would speak, enact, emote and gesticulate in a vocabulary reminiscent of the Parsi Theatre, but thematically mouth dialogues rooted in specific quotidian realities. This crossing of styles, forms, genres lead to a new configuration in seeing and experiencing performances. He, with single-minded determination had laid the foundation of the contemporary Hindi theatre.

The theatrical and cinematic journey of this extraordinary man started in 1928, when at the age of 21 he left his home in Peshawar and journeyed to Bombay in search of the elusive chimera called stardom.

On his arrival, he hopped off the train carrying his suitcase along with his talisman—a hockey stick that he clutched in his sturdy hand. Hiring a one-horse Victoria, the Gateway of India is his first stop in the city, an act that assumed symbolic and physical significance. Standing in front of the shimmering sea, he raised his hands in benediction and threw a challenge to himself, "My God, if you don’t make me an actor and a star here, I will swim the seven seas and go to Hollywood."

Sixteen years of continuous theatre, a mind-boggling 2,662 performances over 5,982 days in 112 different places, with Prithviraj Kapoor appearing in every show is what makes the man into a legend. Prithviraj’s life is a biographer’s delight.

Starting his career as an extra in the Imperial Studio, luck favored him, when the hero of the film Cinema Girl failed to turn up and the distraught director asked his heroine Ermeline to chose an actor from the line of extras. Prithviraj, with his startlingly good looks, was the natural choice and thereafter there was no looking back. From Cinema Girl, he went on to act in films like Sher-e- Arab (1930), Vijay Kumar (1930), A Bid for the Throne (1931), Toofan (1931) and to the first Indian talkie, Alam Ara (1931). Prithviraj made the transition from silent films to talkies effortlessly due to his training in theatre under the doyen of Punjabi theatre, director Nora Richards.

It was also during this time that his restless spirit desired a change from costume drama and spectacles to something more immediate and direct. While at the peak of his career, he launched and established the Prithvi Theatres in 1944 with a repertoire of plays, Ghaddar, Kalakar, Paisa, Ahoothi, Pathan, Deewar, etc.

He toured the country with his group of dedicated and committed actors, with a roster that now reads like the who’s who of Indian theatre. The success of his company can be gauged by the number of talented musicians, actors, technicians, scriptwriters, etc., that where bequeathed to the Hindi film industry, all trained under his discerning and unerring eye. The real marker of his success lay in the work culture that he inculcated. An anecdote in the book reveals his egalitarian style of functioning, "Anyone who stands up for me will be fined one anna."

Act II is a flash-forward to Prithvi Theatre in its present avatar, resurrected by his daughter-in-law Jennifer Kapoor and son Shashi Kapoor on a plot of land in Juhu. The plush theatre with its push-back seats, precisely controlled air-conditioning, acoustics that can make an actor lazy and the genteel ambience of the Prithvi caf`E9 that can seduce even a hardcore bourgeois into going grunge is what makes this space a winner all the way.

Its back-stage facilities can spoil actors forever and make them lose their perspective on the conditions that exist in most theatre houses in India—dirt-encrusted bathrooms, broken bulbs, cracked mirrors over-boiled tea and surly organisers. In the face of all this, Sanjana Kapoor (daughter of Jennifer and Shashi), the artistic director of the theatre and her band of loyalists are like an oasis in the desert of pusillanimity.

While reviewing this book, I was thrilled to see my photograph in the play Uddhwasta Dharmashala, with the caption: "Inaugural play of the Prithvi Theatres on November 5, 1978." Staring out at me in sepia was a picture of an unrecognisable me standing next to Om Puri. The photograph unlocked a flood of memories of our theatre organisation, ‘Majma’, which by a stroke of fate had been catapulted to the center stage of Bombay’s theatrical firmament by default.

M.S. Sathyu, who had been originally invited to showcase his work at the opening of the theatre, backed out at the last minute. As most established groups were busy, the cherry dropped into our lap making us ditzy with joy. The play, with its long-winded dialogues and pedantic semantics was quite unlike the theatre that I had done at the National School of Drama. Om Puri, Nasiruddin Shah and I were making our debut on the Bombay stage with this play. I was sure that the applause that we received after the show had more to do with the euphoria generated by the opening of such a magnificent theatre than the virtuosity of the performers.

Act III is a series of anecdotes, reactions, perceptions and vignettes from the legion of actors, directors, organisers and friends, associated with the growth and development of the Prithvi Theatres. The tone and tenor of these raconteurs is subjective. The voices that we hear have a light and breezy amiability, making for a distressingly easy read. Most of the contributors belong willy-nilly to the Prithvi Theatres/Kapoor family fan club. Not a bad or negative thing in itself, but the fallout is a palpable absence of dissent, with no space for discourse. The revolutionary happenings of that period glossed over by the clutter of bonhomie. This in a way belies it significance and reduces it to an expression that is not only sanitised and linear, but also eulogistic.