Om Puri
The NCPA-AGP Centrestage festival this December will open with the Punjabi play TERI AMRITA. But apart from its not-so-familiar choice of language for Mumbai audiences, the other thing that the festival is drawing the big news for, is that the play is being staged by Om Puri, who also acts in it, and who is returning to theatre after 25 years. The veteran actor needs no introduction. Cinema has had the upper hand, undoubtedly for the very good with some powerful portrayals by the great actor, but hopefully now, as Om Puri himself says, he will be doing more theatre. In this interview with Aditi Sharma, Om Puri talks of finding his feet on the stage again and takes us back to the days when he first started with theatre in Punjab.

 Aditi Sharma

OM PURI and DIVYA DUTTAAditi Sharma (AS):Why do a play in Punjabi?

Om Puri (OP): Well, because this play has already been done in Hindi. It's still being done and Faroukh Sheikh and Shabana Azmi who have been doing this play for the last 20 years have the rights to it. The other language that I know is my mother tongue, Punjabi. So therefore, I decided to do this play in Punjabi.

AS: Why pick TERI AMRITA as your comeback play?

OP: I picked it because I'm coming back to theatre after 25 years. It's like, you know how to swim but you haven't got into the water for 25 years and when you want to get into deep waters you are a little hesitant. It is the same kind of hesitation for me. I haven't been on stage for a very long time, and so to gain my confidence, I decided to do something very simple. The play is about two people who are reading letters that span a time frame of 35 years of their lives. The two go through all kinds of emotions - happiness, anger, agony, etc - and there are no props, no music in the play. There are just two spotlights, which go off only in the end. But the next play that I pick up will be a more 'normal' play, in which there'll be a set, there'll be music and the works.

AS: How did you rope in Divya Dutta for the play?

OP: Divya Dutta is a little young for this part so I'm going to dye my hair temporarily for the play. I couldn't find many actors who can speak Punjabi. But Divya can read Punjabi and she speaks the language very well.

AS: The English version of the play (Rage Production's LOVE LETTERS, featuring Shernaz Patel and Rajat Kapoor) also includes movements. Did you think of portraying the play in a different way when you decided to direct it?

OP: Shernaz Patel told me that they have walked around on stage but I have not seen their play. I thought that since the play is about reading the letters, dramatising it and giving it movement, one might miss the words. The concentration should be on the words. What is being said and what is being written is important. I don't want the audience to be distracted by anything which is contrived.

AS: TERI AMRITA had its premiere show in Canada before a largely Punjabi audience in August this year. How did the audience react to the play?

OP: They were very pleased and the show went off very well. It was our very first show and it was like a trial for us. The play is mainly for Punjabis but a lot of people whose mother tongue is not Punjabi should also understand the play. Barring a couple of words, the audience will be able to follow the emotions the play is portraying.

AS: Can you tell us more about the process of translating the play from Hindustani to Punjabi?

OP: I got the play translated by Amrik Gill and he has done a great job. He is a graduate from the National School of Drama (NSD) and he teaches at the Punjabi University in Patiala. He is also a wonderful writer. He has written dialogues for a number of films and he is currently directing his first film in Punjabi.

AS: In the last few years, you've also gone back to your roots and tried to promote Punjabi theatre. You've been instrumental in setting up the Harpal Tiwana Centre for Performing Arts (HTCPA) in Patiala. Can you tell us more about the project?

OP: I did a lot of theatre in Punjab when I was in college. I started working in theatre in 1966 when I was about 16 years old. I was part of a theatre group called Punjab Kala Manch, which was headed by Harpal Tiwana and Neena Tiwana, his wife. Both of them were NSD graduates and they took me under their wings. Harpal Tiwana was my first guru in acting and I did several plays with him in Punjabi, Hindi as well as translations of English plays into Hindi. We did Strindberg's THE FATHER, Sophocles' OEDIPUS REX, Camus' THE MISUNDERSTANDING apart from some original Punjabi and Hindi plays. Then in 1970, I joined the NSD. The Harpal Tiwana Centre for Performing Arts is a wonderful place for theatre. I'd call it one of the best in the country. Gurdas Mann (singer-actor) and I had met the chief minister of Punjab and requested him that Harpal Tiwana's contribution to Punjabi theatre should be recognised as he is called the Father of Modern Punjabi Theatre. We told him that we want a theatre to be built in his name in his hometown. The chief minister had also seen a couple of his plays and he agreed with us. He promised to build the theatre and within a year the theatre was ready.

AS: Do you see yourself doing more Punjabi plays in the future and taking Punjabi plays across the country and even abroad?

OP: Well, I will do Punjabi theatre but I will also do theatre in Hindi. I have a particular play in mind for an international audience. Hopefully, I'll be able to draw in a western audience into my theatre as well.

AS: What prompted your comeback to theatre after so many years?

OP: See, I'm 64 now and I can't expect quality work as a character actor in the kind of films we make in Bollywood. To keep myself busy, to keep my sanity and to keep participating in social life I decided to get back to theatre. Moreover, I can create opportunities for myself in theatre which I can't do in films. I'm not rich. If I was rich, I would have produced a film. I can afford to produce a play and I'll continue to do that.

AS: We saw you overseeing rehearsals of Motley's plays when the group was celebrating its 30th anniversary. So even though you weren't totally involved in theatre, you've been on the periphery of the theatre scene for a while now...

OP: Not in a very serious manner. Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah), for example, has been doing theatre regularly and I admire him and his work although when we came together to Mumbai after the NSD, it was I who started a theatre group called Majma and Naseer was a part of it. Naseer did ZOO STORY and WAITING FOR GODOT with my group. Later when Majma shut down, he started his own theatre group. But for about 6-7 years from 1977 to around 1986, we did a number of plays. Our production of Govind Deshpande's UDHVASTHA DHARAMSHALA was performed the evening that Prithvi Theatre was inaugurated. I also acted in the play GHASHIRAM KOTWAL before it was made into a film. In the play, I played Nana and in the film, I played Ghashiram.

AS: Even with your international films you've had a theatre connect - 'East is East' was written for the stage before it was made into a film...

OP: I was also invited to do a role in the play but I didn't go because, to be honest, there was hardly any money. So I didn't go. Now there are a lot of actors from theatre, mainly from the NSD, who are doing films. But we- Naseer and I, were the first ones who came from the NSD and at that time nobody knew anything about the National School of Drama.

AS: Which plays would you consider as your most prominent theatre work?

OP: Oh, there were lots of plays. Chekov's THREE SISTERS that we did at the NSD would feature on that list. Then I did a Kabuki play called IBARAKI, which was directed by a Japanese director. The play was performed at the NSD in Hindi but the style was Kabuki. Another very popular play which I did and which did about 70 shows was BICHHOO (directed by Ranjit Kapoor). It was a Moliere play that was adapted into Hindustani. It was a total comedy and it was a huge success.

AS:Could you tell us a little more about the productions that Majma, your theatre group, did?

OP: Like I said, we did UDHVASTHA DHARAMSHALA and BICHHOO. We took BICHHOO to the Middle East and UDHVASTHA DHARAMSHALA was performed in Delhi, Indore, Calcutta and many other places in the country. We did GIDDH and KHAMOSH ADALAT JARI HAI, two of (Vijay) Tendulkar's plays. Another play we did was ANDHON KA HAATHI, which was again a political satire. Then we did two plays in English - ZOO STORY and WAITING FOR GODOT.

AS: Which was the last play that saw you on stage?

OP: The last was UDHVASTHA DHARAMSHALA. Either UDHVASTHA DHARAMSHALA or BICHHOO. I don't exactly remember but it was one of the two. In fact, once there was a theatre festival and Jennifer Kapoor asked me to do BICHHOO for the festival. I said, ''Ma'am, we've not performed BICHHOO for the last six months and the director Ranjit Kapoor is sitting in Delhi and he can't come. The cast would also have to change, so it would be difficult for me to do this play.'' She said, ''What rubbish! If Ranjit Kapoor is sitting there you should direct the play and find new actors.'' We didn't even have proper costumes so she caught hold of me and took me to their garage where they stored all their film costumes. She asked me to take whatever I needed from there. I couldn't say no to her. When we finally did the play it went so well that she came backstage and she said, ''I knew you could do it!''

Aditi Sharma enjoys watching theatre, and writing about it.

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