Rajat Kapoor Interview
I met Rajat Kapoor at his office in Bandra on the occasion of his play I DON'T LIKE IT AS YOU LIKE IT, one of the 10 plays to have made it for the Mahindra Excellence In Theatre Awards (META) 2017. The play is also the latest in his ''clown'' repertoire, based on Shakespeare's plays.

The office had a large hall and was empty barring a few inconspicuous chairs in front of the computer in the right hand corner. In the corner to the left, was an old rack covered with stacks of scripts- both old and new. Across the computer niche, was a window under which lay a writing desk with a clear view of the market below. When I came in, there was a girl reading a book in the hall, while Rajat, Meenal (his wife) and Sachin (Kamani) sat in front of the computer. Meenal and Sachin got up to leave as I came in through the door...

 By Gaurangi Dang

Rajat Kapoor (RK): Stay (to Meenal and Sachin). She's early. There are still three minutes left.

I sit awkwardly while they discuss. I try not to eavesdrop and focus on the construction sounds permeating from the floor above us. Eventually they leave and Rajat looks at me and says, ''Go! I'm ready.''

Gaurangi Dang (GD): Let's start with a simple question. Where were you born?

RK: That's easy. I was born in Delhi. I grew up in Delhi. I spent the first twenty-five years of my life in Delhi. Where are you from?

He then proceeds to ask me a lot of questions...

RK: Yeah, so I grew up in Delhi... I've said it so often that it's started sounding like it's false but the truth is that by the time I was 15-16, I knew that I was going to make films. I was's not that I'd made up my mind, but I knew that this is what I was going to do even though I didn't really know how.

GD: What made you so certain?

RK: I can't remember. I mean there's no one incident. But I remember this very well, that at that age, I was certain. I used to watch a lot of films like every other person in this country, both in English as well as Hindi. My father was a film buff, but then everybody in this country is.

In Delhi the National award-winning films were shown at what is the Siri Fort Auditorium now. It was Vigyan Bhavan at that time. I remember watching Mani Kaul's 'Duvidha' with my dad in 1974 when I was 13, which in hindsight, is an unusual thing because people don't really watch such films. Not only did my father watch the film, but he also took us along with him. So maybe that had something to do with my calling. My father was also a big Raj Kapoor fan, so films like 'Awaara' and 'Barsaat, which were made much before our time, were also introduced to us. Then when I joined college at 16, I joined the film society.

GD: What was home like , the one that you grew up in?

RK: There were two homes. One was with my parents in Daryaganj, but very close physically and emotionally, was my grandfather's house in Chandni Chowk. So it was really like a joint family. My father had five brothers and two sisters and then there were their kids. It was a full house.

GD: That's a big house. Do you have siblings?

RK: I have one younger brother and a number of cousins. There was Bua, Chachi aur phalana-dhamkana and I remember that with great warmth. I think for a child to grow up in a joint family is the ultimate joy because that warmth is a must. There is always somebody who is there for you, somebody to give you love. If this one person is angry with you, then there's someone else to talk to... It's fantastic. And I think our kids kind of grew up in this theatre environment that has now become their joint family, or maybe it is our way of replicating our experience.

So that was one home, and the other was my parent's house, which was a happy one, but also a traumatic one. The usual traumas I suppose... especially in the mid-teen years 14-15 and up until 19. Maybe it's because you're growing up during that period but the joint family balanced it out.

GD: I also remember fighting a lot with my parents when I was that age.

RK: At that age, na? Yeah, because you want to be independent... you want to be a grown-up. You want to say, ''fuck you'', and that kind of thing. So yeah, at 16, I joined a film society at Delhi University.

GD: But you were still in school at that time?

RK: No, I joined college in Delhi University at 16.

GD: At 16?

RK: Yeah yeah, we were the smart ones. It used to be class 11 back then instead of 12. I think ours was the last batch with class 11.

GD: Which college you went to?

RK: Shri Ram College of Commerce and I did B.Com honors. Dad was like, ''What do you want to do?'' I was like, ''make films.'' He said, ''Okay, but till you make films, what do you want to do?'' and I was like, ''I don't know.'' Dad had a printing press, and he of course wanted me to join the press. He would print everything from Bank Ledgers to NCERT textbooks to wedding cards - anything and everything. He started it on his own at a very small scale and managed to grow it ino a nice medium-sized business- it was his passion and dream. So he said, ''Accha tum Commerce kar lo yaar. Accounts main kuch help ho jaayegi meri.'' So like an idiot I did B.Com and I learnt nothing.

I mean I look back and think, agar khuch bhi aur kiya hota... history kiya hota or literature kiya hota to kuch to sikha hota but B Com honors?! I still don't know which side is debit and which side is credit. I really learnt nothing. The teachers were boring, but University was great. You really grow up during it, and Delhi University was a dream place... and you know, first love and girlfriends...

That was where I also discovered World Cinema. That was where I discovered Fassbinder, Herzog, Godard, Bergman and it just blew my mind. Until then I didn't know that you could do all of that with a camera.

Then another funny accident happened. I joined Alliance Francaise to learn French. They had a small theatre troupe there, which would rehearse, in a pocket theatre there. One day I accidently opened a door and Théâtre de Poche were rehearsing behind it. I had no interest in theatre till I was 20, none whatsoever, but I saw them rehearsing and I said, ''Okay''! I got involved and then boom! It was such a huge high! The first 2-3 years were like a drug.


GD: What was the play that they were rehearsing?

RK: They were rehearsing for some mime show I think...How funny things are, no? How they connect...Now I'm working with clowns. Every small thing influences you in ways you can't even imagine. No, the mime thing was later. The first thing we did was Moliere's IMAGINARY INVALID in 1982, and I was terrible in it. I was terrible on stage. I was so bad that my director decided to put me in a drum, so that only my hands and my face were visible on stage. But it was still a great high, to be a part of the troupe and to be on stage. Then mime was the second thing we did, and suddenly something happened within the body; it evolved. Then in 1983 we moved away from Théâtre de Poche and 8 of us formed a group called 'Chingari'. Our fist play was TUGHLAQ in 1984, which was directed by K. Madhavan in which I played Aziz.

I was very good on stage and it was a lovely experience. Amateur theatre has another spirit, you know. We were doing everything from collecting money for the brochure, to printing, to making the costumes, the set, putting up the posters on the walls. Everyone would finish work at 6, reach the rehearsal space till 7:30-8:00 pm, and then rehearse till 1 or 2 am. Then we'd go home and do it all over again then next day.

We rehearsed for four months for TUGHLAQ. It was our first big production with 'Chingari' at the Shri Ram Centre with a huge cast of 25-30 people. We had a really big set with scaffolding and all, and our first platform was at 10 feet, while the second platform was at 14 feet. We knew we needed rehearsal with it, so we built the set at IIT in the open-air auditorium and rehearsed with it for a month. We really used it well, but what we didn't realise was that we had never rehearsed with a proper blackout.

On the first day of the first show, in the fourth scene of Tughlaq- Azam and Aziz exit, and later Tughlaq is supposed to re-enter on the first platform, there was a blackout and we heard a loud thud. Lights came on slowly and we saw a black cloth on the ground, which was Tughlaq's cape and it was surrounded with blood. The actor had just taken an extra step in the darkness and had fallen on his head. For two minutes we didn't know what to do. Then we stopped the play and took him to AIIMS that night. He had a head injury and a fracture.

In September of the same year, I directed my first play FIREBUGS in which Atul (Kumar) at 17, made his debut with 'Chingari' and in which Rahul Vohra also acted. This was back in 1984, and now we've been working together for 33 years. Can you believe it? What I really like is that in spite of all the shit that we've gone through, we're still able to work together. Despite all the petty things, and all the glorious things, we still have a bond, which I am very proud of. That is the magic of theatre.

In 1985 I went to FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) to study direction.

GD: So what made you go to FTII at that point?

RK: The play, FIREBUGS.

GD: What is it about?

RK: It's a Swiss play by this guy called Max Frisch. It's a very funny play, along the same lines of a Brecht or a Dario Fo play about arsonists in a city.

GD: How was the experience at FTII?

RK: Really good, but traumatic at times. I'll tell you why it was traumatic. FTII is a great place but suddenly you feel very inadequate. You feel like ''Who am I''? I know nothing and then suddenly somebody like Kumar Shahani will come in and he'll quote Schopenhauer, and then he'll quote something from Indian Classical music and then he'll say isme itne taal hote hain and then he'll talk about some painting, and you're like will I ever make a film! I don't know any of this! So you feel very inadequate and that is traumatic.

However, you're exposed to great cinema. Everyday you're watching a great film. It's a great place because it gives you time as you're cut off from the world in a way. You can be completely with cinema; you can read cinema, watch cinema- you can talk film all the time and we had some great teachers like Kumar and Mani (Kaul). We also had Suresh Chabaria whom I love. He used to teach us film appreciation and he is my absolute favorite. He could really open your mind up when it came to watching films.

I went on to assist Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani after school. It was a great learning experience. I learnt everything about cinema from them. Then the problem know the biggest problem for any artist is to find his own voice and that can take years. Now there are two things I'm talking about simultaneously - alternative cinema, and my experience during that period. The 90s were also a very difficult period for filmmakers.

You see until the mid-80s, the NFDC (National Films Development Corporation) was very supportive of alternative cinema. Filmmakers like Mani, Kumar, Vikram Mehta, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Sayeed Mirza- they all made their films with NFDC grants. By mid 85' the grants stopped because of which we all had nowhere to go. Whoever wanted to do anything that was not mainstream, was screwed.

The 90s phase was terrible for cinema. Secondly, one had no source of income at all. I had assisted for three years so I could not go on assisting, but there was nothing else. So I'd write articles for Mid-Day or do a film review. It used to be 150 rupees per article. Or I would do odd jobs and make little money, but even that was okay. Luckily I was not dead creatively because theatre continued. Even today, luckily, theatre continues.

GD: How did theatre continue?

RK: I would go back to Delhi, spend 3 months there, do a play with 'Chingari' and then come back. So in '89- 90 I did DEATHWATCH and THE MAIDS by Jean Genet. In '91 I did JACQUES AND HIS MASTER, and then WAITING FOR GODOT, which I acted in and translated... so that kept me going. Also in 1993-94, I made a short film called 'Tarana', which won the National award for ''Best Short Film'' and ''Best Cinematography''. That's another long story.

GD: And money? What were you doing for money during this period?

RK: There was nothing. I was doing, like I told you, these odd jobs here and there. 'Tarana' eventually paid me fifteen thousand rupees for two years of work. That was the kind of money that one was making. But you know with the four five thousand rupees that I would manage every month, it was not bad.

GD: It was enough to cover rent and everything?

RK: 800 rupay ka mere ko ek kamra mil gaya tha, ek bahut accha sa. There was an old dilapidated bungalow in Sanatcruz in which I was living as a PG. It was a room this big - he indicates towards the space in which we are sitting. This rack here was actually used in Mani Kaul's 'Nazar'. I took it. There was a bed, a desk- this same desk (he is referring to the desk lying under the window). 800 rupay ka voh tha, kuch 1000 rupay ka khana hota tha maheene ka. 11-12 rupay ki thaali mil jaati thi peeche Santacruz station ke paas. Baaki transport. To 3000-3500 mai maheena nikal jaata tha. And I had no needs. Even now I have no needs, because you don't have any money, so there is no room for that kind of stuff. Also, I knew that this was going to be my life, because this was the kind of cinema I wanted to make.

When I watch 'Tarana', I find some of the shots very beautiful. It's too influenced by Kumar Shahani. It's like me wanting to be Kumar Shahani. We shot the film 'Private Detective' in '95-96. Anjum Rajabali was commissioning for Business India Television (BIT)-, I gave him 'Private Detective' and he took it on. I gave it to Naseer saab (Naseeruddin Shah), and he agreed to do it. So we shot with Naseer saab, Kashmira Shah, Ali Khan, Kenny Desai and Irfan Khan- one of Irfan's firsts I think. By the time we finished the film, the producers had vanished, the BIT offices had closed and so again I had to wait for two years to finish the damn film because we had no money to edit it. I kept going to the BIT office and said, ''Bhai, 6 lakh rupay chahiye''. Voh nahi hua. Finally after a year and a half we finished it. Then I was waiting for the release because they said, ''haan'', we'll release it. It never got released. Nobody saw the film. It died.

Then I ended up making a short film with FTII. FTII had restarted the acting program, so they wanted me to come in and make a film with the acting students. I made this film called 'Hypnothesis', which was where I first worked with clowns. I felt I was still under the influence of Kumar (Shahani) with 'Private Detective', even though it's a noir film. With the film 'Hypnothesis', and then with the play C FOR CLOWNS, is where I think I started to find my own voice. It was then that I knew what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to do it.

GD: What is 'Hypnothesis' about?

RK: 'Hypnothesis' is a strange film about a kidnapping. So there are six jobless guys who kidnap a bridegroom and then blackmail his father for the money. Everybody eventually becomes a clown and then there is a huge clown chase. It also got the National Award for the ''Best Short Film'', but that's about it. So now it's 98-99, and I still do not have a regular source of income.

By this time Meenal and I had gotten married, and had our first baby in '97.

GD: So you've done C FOR CLOWNS and still have no money.

RK: Yes. Then a very bizarre thing happens. Somebody asks me to do an ad film. I go for the audition and they love it, and I end up doing the ad. It was a very good ad for ''Double Diamond'' chai, and I am playing a husband who is pretending to have made the chai, while it is the servant who has actually made it. Then I get another ad, and the bizarre thing is that I get paid 40,000 rupees for that one-day's work. It still hasn't sunk in after all these years. So, then I do another ad, then something else, then somebody has watched that ad from Farhan's (Akhtar) office, so they called me for an audition for the film 'Dil Chahata Hai'. Meanwhile around the same time Naseer had recommended me to Mira Nair for her film 'Monsoon Wedding'. So I became an actor, and for the first time in my life I saw some money. It was all pure accident.

He then proceeds to pick up the cigarette that has been left on the table in front of him.

RK: I'm trying not to smoke. I'm wearing a bloody nicotine patch. then I became an actor and the money problem stopped, but the trauma of still not being able to make a film remained.


GD: Did you want to become an actor?

RK: Never. That's what I'm saying... I never pursued it. I just fell into it but I knew that I could act. Also, being a director, having worked with Kumar and Mani, and then being at FTII, you already know what the camera wants from you. In '98-99, I wrote 'Mithya' and 'Raghu Romeo' and I was meeting with producers for these films. Then another accident happened when all the multiplexes came up in 2000. For the first time we had a chance a release our films. I started saving about 2 lakhs every year and that way in four years I had about eight lakhs saved. I began crowd funding for the rest. I wrote an email to all my friends saying, ''I'm making this film 'Raghu Romeo'. Give what you can. So ten thousand here, some there. Naseer saab gave 5 lakhs as a loan, but people gave money. And in 2003 I made this mad film 'Raghu Romeo', which is absolutely my voice.

It opened at the Stockholm Film Festival and there were 9000 people at that screening. Saurabh Shukla was there, Vijay Raaz was there, and we're looking at each other and thinking fuck...we have an international hit on our hands. When the film was released again after a year, nothing like that happened. The film flopped and I lost all the money. I was in depression for the first time in my life and I had to return almost 20 lakhs to everybody.

But Sunil Doshi saw 'Raghu Romeo' and said ''I have 60 lakhs. Can you make a film in that much? Do you have a script?'' I said I have 'Mixed Doubles' and boom! Within two months we were shooting for it. Then 'Mithya' happened and within a year of that 'Bheja Fry' happened. 'Bheja Fry' became a free hit because of which life became a little easier for a few years, and then we were back to the same shit. Again, I'm struggling to make a film, looking for producers. I guess that doesn't change.

RK: This is for Mumbai Theatre Guide?

GD: Yeah. So lets retrace the theatre bit. You did C FOR CLOWNS...

RK: Yeah in 1999, we did C FOR CLOWNS. The idea was very simple - we'll just work with clowns. I had no idea what the play was going to be. We just met on the first day and started exploring clowns. How would a clown walk? How would a clown talk? We kept improvising and in three months we had a play. We didn't know if it was working because we kept creating it as we went along.

GD: How did you guys come together?

RK: Atul (Kumar), Sheeba (Chaddha) I already knew. Vinay Pathak had just come from the US after having done an acting course there. There was Joy Fernandas and Asif Basra. We were all quite vella at that time. Nobody had any work. The play was a spectacular success. It ran for ten years. With 'Chingari' nothing ran beyond ten shows. All the work that you've put in- finished! Never to be seen again; it only lives in your memory. C FOR CLOWNS actually ran for ten years. People kept coming back. Raabia (daughter) was two years old when we started doing the play. She grew up with it. She would travel with us and do actors' make-up when she was three. She kept growing with the play you know. It was like family. We didn't know whether people would respond to it or not. When the first laughter came, it was such a relief.


Then I thought, what if the clowns were to do a classical text? So we moved to HAMLET. But Hamlet was a one-off thing; there was no idea of doing Shakespeare after that. Then about 3-4 years later we decided to do KING LEAR, but we wanted to do it differently from HAMLET, so we decided to do it with only one actor. We did that in 2011 and then last year MACBETH and now our version of AS YOU LIKE IT. Now we have four Shakespeare adaptations and we're travelling all over the world with them. What a gift! It's such a privilege to be doing what you want, and that people are willing to give money to watch it.

I remember Vinay and I were walking in Tel Aviv from the hotel to the theatre three years ago, and I was telling Vinay, ''Did you ever imagine that this would happen to us?'' In our wildest dreams we would not have dared to dream this. We're travelling several cities now, sometimes performing four shows over two days.

GD: Why Shakespeare, and why so much of it?

RK: There's a fear of Shakespeare. We feel we don't get it. I mean I read it, but I don't get it. I think it's only when you do it that you begin to understand it. And I think that's why I had to find the rhythm to understand it and appreciate it. Now I really feel that I do.

We try and make the plays contemporary, so that we make it valid for this day and age. We take what we want from the text and we chuck the rest. Like in MACBETH, I find the third and fourth act boring as hell, especially in comparison to the first act. The first act is phenomenal.

People ask me why Shakespeare is important? The depth with which he has explored human emotions, nobody has even come close to that. If you think of jealousy- there's OTHELLO, old age and betrayal- there's KING LEAR, ambition- MACBETH, existential crisis- HAMLET. Who has done it better? I mean it's incredible to have accomplished all of that, 400 years ago. He was a genius, there's no doubt about it.

GD: Don't you want to make anything other that Shakespeare?

RK: Like what? I thought I'd do OEDIPUS REX with clowns next. So I read it but I found it too thin. The central idea is fantastic, but the play as a whole doesn't have enough meat for me to get excited. With Shakespeare, you can keep going on and exploring. If I find something else, then I'll do it. Who cares? It has to excite me.

GD: What about your stories?

RK: These are my stories. MACBETH is my story, KING LEAR is my story, and HAMLET is my story. Hamlet is also about a theatre troupe doing Hamlet. LEAR is absolutely my story. You know when we did Lear, Vinay, Atul and I, we were all improvising. Atul has a daughter, Vinay had two daughters and I have a daughter. So we started talking about out daughters and our fathers. That's how the play evolved. We didn't work with the text at all. I mean we went to the text but realised that what we wanted was the plot. So we broke it down to what the play is about- It's about father and daughters; it's about betrayal; about loss of power; it's about blindness, and it's about the bastard brother.


We took all the themes and put our own stories into the play. The first image that came to me was that of a man in Mumbai, in a half sleeved shirt with a bag in a local train, going to meet his daughter. The second image was that the play starts with a depressed clown- a clown that is crying. So what does a clown do when he's depressed? Where does he go? This is what we kept exploring. That's why we called the play NOTHING LIKE LEAR- because even though it's King Lear, it's nothing like it. Then from our stories we moved towards the text. Whatever we enjoyed in it - like the Fool's character, the monologue in the storm, the curse to the daughters, we kept.

MACBETH is as contemporary as it gets. It's about the present political situation. What made the play for me is the final poem by Namdev Dhasal that these two clowns read. Next year I want to do a musical with five or six clowns where everybody plays an instrument but I don't know which one.

GD: I want to understand the economics of your theatre group. How did you manage to sustain it? Did you make enough money?

RK: With 'Chingari', we didn't. I think the first time we made a little money was with C FOR CLOWNS- enough money to pay everybody a little bit. Now we make money and we pay people well. Again things have changed because now there is a demand for theatre. People are calling us. Also because Vinay is a star, Kalki (Koechlin) is a star. I don't deny it. There is an increase in demand for the live medium, like stand up comedy for instance. 6 years ago people didn't even know it existed and now they're willing to pay about 1200 bucks a ticket to watch somebody tell jokes. People have money and they want to spend it. Not on our films though. They still don't want to spend 300 bucks to come and watch our films. They'd rather download them for free.

GD: Tell us about your version of AS YOU LIKE IT. How did it happen? Where did it begin?

RK: That's another play that I've liked very much, mainly because of the idea of Rosalind becoming Ganymede. Now there are actually four things. Rosalind goes to the forest and then becomes Ganymede. Then she meets Orlando and says I will pretend to be Rosalind. There's another level because in Shakespeare's time boys used to play girls, so there was a boy playing Rosalind who is playing Ganymede playing Rosalind. So, that excited me. I thought that this is a play about gender and especially in our times, what does it mean to be a man and what does it mean to be a woman. I had one image in mind when I started. It's again a troupe of clowns doing AS YOU LIKE IT. The director of the play decides one day that all the boys will play girls and all the girls will play boys. They fight and then eventually they agree. The boys and girls exchange clothes, till eventually by the end of the scene, the girls are dressed as boys and the boys as girls. That was my starting image.

Then we worked, we improvised, and we threw in ideas. We took a scene and we massacred it. We tried clowning, and slowly the play emerged with every passing day. I was lucky to find some actors that I had not worked with before, like Faezeh Jalali, Aadar Malik, Cyrus Sahukar, Shruti Vyas, Rytasha, along with of course Vinay and Joy.

GD: How did you find these actors?

RK: I auditioned this time because a funny thing happened. We were supposed to open the play in December 2015 with Aadyam, so we started rehearsing in December with my usual suspects. Then they told us that we could get the auditorium only in March 2016. I had gotten 20 actors together, and there were more actors than what I needed. So those guys became a part of MACBETH. Then when we had to make AS YOU LIKE IT, we had no actors, because everybody that I normally work with, was busy. So we auditioned about 200 actors, out of which I picked 20. Then I work-shopped with them for about 15-20 days and that's how we ended up with this lot.

It is difficult to be a clown, to work without a script, to work with a director who doesn't know anything yet, one who is not able to help you initially. So you need an immense amount of trust in the other person, hoping that I will not fall, that I will not make an ass of myself.

*Gaurangi Dang is an English Literature graduate from the University of Delhi and a student of The Drama School (DSM), Mumbai. She likes to tell stories :)

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