Aditya Rawal and Zahan Kapoor
Aditya Rawal is a writer and actor from Mumbai who works in theatre, and for the screen. Zahan Kapoor is a theatre and film actor. In this interview, the duo talk about their upcoming play SIACHEN, which Rawal has written and co-produced with Kapoor, who also stars in the play. They also talk about their famous families' legacies in theatre, their reason to work in the field and the A to Z of what goes into staging a play.

 By Neha Shende

What got you interested in this subject? How did you start writing?
Aditya Rawal (AR): When I first read about this highest, coldest battlefield on earth – Siachen – where no enemy bullet has taken a life for 20 years, I was fascinated. It is not only an example of a political, diplomatic, military conflict, but in many ways, it symbolizes our existence on earth as well. The challenge of writing this play was never about, “Do we have something to say?”; it was about “We have all these interesting things to say. How do we put them in a dramatically engaging way?” and after the first couple of drafts – that I wrote in English, actually – Zahan and I read it together. From that point on, through the translation of the play by Raghav Dutt, that has been our motive – How do we make this a dramatically engaging piece of theatre? Hopefully, we are somewhere around that ballpark.

When you write something that you haven't really experienced yourself, what kind of research goes into that?
AR: In this case, I went up to the places that we speak about in the play and did a lot of reading, a lot of interviews with stakeholders in the region. For me, writing is a way to explore the world, broaden my horizons. But when you are writing something that you haven't experienced directly, you have to approach it with great humility and care. You must make sure that your research is solid. But when writing a fictional piece such as this, you must also be open to invention. One is always discovering things even as one moves forward. It is just about keeping an open mind and ploughing on while retaining that sense of humility.

Zahan, what drew you to the script?
Zahan Kapoor (ZK): Boredom (laughs). We were in lockdown 2 in ‘21. We were waiting for our film to start, and we didn't know how else to pass the time, to be honest. We were meeting on Zoom, and we lived really close by, and as things got relaxed, we could meet a little bit in person as well. Both of us knew that we had an interest in theatre, so we said, “Why don't we just read some plays in the time we have?” And also one of the plays Aditya was talking about – SIACHEN – that he had written in English while he was in New York. We read it, and I remember feeling this is really interesting. It felt as interesting as some of the other plays we were reading, which were written by some famous, some not so famous western writers.

Personally, I was always keen to find modern playwrights. There are an amazing number of modern playwrights in America and England. And it feels like they have this grasp of modern stories and fresh content – things that feel relatable set today, new approaches stylistically. Really contemporary. Because the time and place of Anton Chekhov, the classics, Bernard Shaw, the way they are told are very traditional. Incredible pieces of text, no doubt. And we follow them as people excited about the art form. We're very excited about exploring even older texts. But here was a text that was not only new, it was set in a world that was genuinely ours. So, there was no need to say, okay we can create an adaptation and we'll set it here and try to make it believable. Here we had everything.

The only thing I insisted on, I said let's do a translation in Hindi – for two reasons. One is, it just makes it slightly more accessible for our audiences. And genuinely the world of the play would be better suited to have it in Hindi, because it is soldiers. They come from all over the country, but they do speak in Hindi most of the time. So, it felt like it was a good fit to do this translation. It was an interesting piece of writing to begin with, but as we started the process of translating it with fellow writer Raghav Dutt, who also has roots in theatre and is also now doing a lot of screen work and dialogue writing – the process itself of refining it, of working on a text from Ground Zero, in the sense that Aditya has done the work but how are we now going to pick this up and start to envision it? That was the real exciting thing: I get to meet someone who is like me – interested, eager, young and we both have passion for this medium. In '21 we started talking about it, by the end of '22 December, we applied for dates. We put a gun to our heads and said, look, we have to apply for dates! Because then that will give us a deadline-

AR: -to work, yeah. Because we say things like, do saal se baat ho rahi hai, teen saal se baat ho rahi hai. I wrote the first draft 4-5 years ago. The English version was going to undergo a residential workshop in New York but then COVID struck. And just like that, life gets in the way, so many commitments get in the way. I think for me what was important was to get somebody like Zahan, like Raghav and then Makrand Deshpande sir (director) – the idea of building the tribe – it is the tribe and the deadline that compels you-

ZK: -Yeah, it compels you to put it together because otherwise-

AR: -I can speak for Zahan, Raghav, Makrand sir and myself, we are all quite busy with our film commitments, web commitments. It is very easy to say we are busy. But it is only when you make that extra effort that you can make theatre. I look at my own father – I remember him making sacrifices to be able to put up one play every two years and that is just the reality of the theatre world today. We live with that, but we work with it as well and we get to tell our own stories this way.

You said you wrote in English first, and we are Indian but our first language somehow, becomes English also. We speak mostly in English. What are the challenges of working on a Hindi project?
AR: I don't see too many challenges-

Or to make it seem real to the audience, where this is not the language you speak every day...
AR: But it is the language we speak every day as well. In my own house, I speak four languages. I speak Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, and English. We are very comfortable with both Hindi and English.

ZK: I think the only difference is like you said, coming from Bombay, the only difference is we are formally educated in English. But again, I didn't go and study theatre, writing the way Aditya did. I spent my years here, working alongside other theatre groups in Prithvi, watching things, doing things backstage. And the world you encounter is not that world. So, I don't think it is such a problem. Yes, I wish I had more inherent ability to even write in the language. I have been working on it. I think I have gotten better at it. But that's why you've got people around you who bring their talents and then we work at it. We're also working in this language on film and OTT so it's not such a stretch. Of course, if you want to be a poet and write shayari and things like that, that's different.

What are the pitfalls of translating?
AR: Well, to begin with, if the translator is trying to do a functional job, they will try to achieve a lot of the things you are achieving in the original English version. But such is the nature of translating. You will lose a bit of nuance, certain things that are trying to be said, because the language just doesn't allow it. Sometimes the construction of a dialogue might not fit and, therefore, you have to amend the thought also. I say this because as a screenwriter I have often had people take an additional dialogue pass on the script that I have written. Very rarely do you feel that the version has been enriched. But in the case of Raghav, who is a fantastic writer, he has enriched it in ways that I could not have imagined. I say this often, but I don't think the play would have been what it is if it wasn't for Zahan, Raghav. Through our discussions, through Raghav's translations, we actually found a lot of things that perhaps weren't as well fleshed out in the English version. Of course, you lose a few things, but that's part and parcel of the-

ZK: -It's the process, an evolutionary process that happens again while we rehearse.

AR: Just right now, the mid-point of our play – I had a completely different thought for it. Makrand sir brought in this fresh idea that is better than what existed. And that's just how it works, it is a collaborative process. There's always going to be losing some and winning some.

You have both worked on Faraaz together and Zahan you have worked with Makarand Deshpande on PITAJI PLEASE. What are the advantages of working with frequent collaborators and are there any disadvantages?
ZK: I'd say the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. I consider myself extremely fortunate. Because in just the couple of projects that I have worked on so far, I've been lucky enough to work with people who are very talented and passionate. To work with Mak sir again is great because he gives his all. He is extremely passionate. He wants every rehearsal to be like a show, he wants every rehearsal day to be juiced and made the most out of, he wants to infuse life into everything as much as possible, he is playful and curious. To work again and again with him, not only do I feel like I am growing but I am also able to understand how his experience is enabling him to be consistent, be efficient. When you are with frequent collaborators, you can start where you left off as against starting from zero. The ability for Aditya and I to have a conversation today is built on the fact that we have been having conversations for two and a half years and we have already talked about everything we believed in, what we like and don't like and what we are trying to do here. So, it makes it easier, working with frequent collaborators. The only disadvantage is maybe that you get limited in your own rhythm or instincts. We have also got another cast member who is also from Faraaz – Jatin Sarin. He is also a lovely actor and a really good friend. But we have new collaborators on this play whom we have never worked with before. There's this mix. And fresh collaboration also gives you a lot of things, things that you may not have thought of.

AR: It is nice to have that mix actually: to have stability in some of the relationships that we had built before we stepped into the rehearsal room and a great freshness that's added by the other folks that have come in. They come in with their own relationships and dynamics, and it's a beautiful mix.

As an actor, what must the relationship be with a director or with a writer, and for a writer with the other two?
ZK: With the writer, the first most important thing to do is to understand what the writer's intent is. What is the writer trying to say? Then it is my job as an actor to serve that intention, that story and to try and to bring to life the behavior that makes that story make sense.

The director is the outside eye. He is like the obstetrician who is guiding the birthing process but is not really in charge of what the DNA of that child is or what its makeup is. That's the writer. The writer is putting that all there and saying this is what it is. The director is just making sure the process is happening smoothly, so that you reach a result. Both require tremendous trust. The director is going to watch you and give you notes that help you go in the direction you were trying to go, or maybe in a direction that you didn't even think about. So, I feel supported by the written word and guided by the direction. But at the end of the day, it is on me to bring it all together and put that energy forward at each show and rehearsal. Slightly different relationships, but so essential. With Mak sir, the last time, he was the writer and the director, that's a different thing. He is then operating from a different place. Here, there is a writer on one side and the director who is the outsider. It is different this time, but it is comfortable because I trust both of these individuals deeply.

AR: I have always found that once you enter the rehearsal room, within a week – especially if the actors are diligent and hardworking enough – actors know the play better than the playwright. So, once you put forth your vision, they have the script, you have done these readings, it's been bolstered by a lot of these conversations that you've had with the director and the actors, the actors really begin to own those characters. I have found over time that you must let them. That is the only way for something to blossom as it should. And then you are doing everything to support the actors. I know a lot of playwrights who are very particular about what they want in the play, right down to things like, “This sentence has to flow in this way,” which in some cases is very important. But because of my experience as a screenwriter, I have become less precious. I have found that there is great benefit in being that way because sometimes an actor, if allowed freedom, is able to bring in something truly special that is unique to just them, because they are the only ones who can do it in the way that they do it. To be able to recognize that and to be able to use that is very important.

As regards working with directors, Makarand sir is so strong with his imagery, with the idea of theatricality, with having perspective, about being able to put himself in the audience's shoes and then manipulate the images. So just having him do his thing and supporting him in whatever way I can is how I would look at it.

ZK: Yeah, the decades of experience that he has is prolific. He does 2-3 plays a year sometimes, it's incredible, and all original writing! He has learnt by presenting an idea to an audience, understanding how they received it, then presenting another idea, then doing that and he's done this dance for so long that his instinct is incredible. And he has his own madness, his own flavor, ideas. That is invaluable for us. We have also got lots of ideas, lots of beliefs, but at the end of the day, we are still finding our feet. It is very humbling to be at this stage. But it's even more humbling that we can at least tap into some people like this and hopefully learn from them.

What was the process like? How did Makrand sir get involved and-
ZK: We caught him by the collar, and we said aap ko karna hi padega, aur koi option hi nahi hai (laughs).

Right, and how long does an ideal rehearsal time last?
ZK: Six to eight weeks would be a good one considering-
AR: Given our resources. Longer if one could, but the minimum is six weeks.
ZK: In this country, in this city, in how we do theatre, yes, 6-8 weeks is something that is achievable and good. We've been very lucky that we have a good team we've managed to put together. So we've been pulling out 6-8 hour rehearsals daily, but it always feels like it should have been more. If I had another 10 days, I could have spent it exploring something totally different. And again, resources of time and money...

Is there a lot of scope for improvisation with Makrand sir?
AR: Huge. Where he comes from is the idea of creating this world around you as an actor, inhabiting the world and then interacting with it. That really grounds all of the actors into the characters, into the worlds. So, there's a lot of scope for that. What I also enjoy doing is if they found something in the course of this exercise, I like to incorporate those things. So, in that there's always fun to be had.

How involved were the two of you in the casting process and how did that work?
ZK: Theatre doesn't have a formal casting process. So, it was literally both of us reaching out to people who we thought were accessible. I think the key is actually people who we thought could commit. Because theatre is not- I cannot offer you sustainability of paycheck. I can offer you hopefully, a rewarding experience and the idea that you get to spend time in a collective of people who all believe in doing the work, who are all excited about learning and growth. But that's all you are really offering. We are looking for people who we think will fit. So, we tried to reach out like that, figure out double casting, so that we could try and create sustainability. That's proved to be quite difficult actually. So, for this run of shows, we have whittled our way down to having just our principal cast. But that being said, I think we have every intention to make this one of those plays – if it gets on its feet in such a way –where the cast can be rotated comfortably. The script and the story should be solid. Now we've done Phase 2, which is not just to sit around in a room and discuss the story, but to get on your feet and try and breathe life into it. Based on that, we have a modified and updated script. Going forward it will be very exciting to see a whole new set of cast members come in and bring the same story to life, or swap roles. That's the luxury we have with theatre where we get to do those changes-

AR: -Because everyone has invested so much time. I was thinking about it yesterday... As the producer, when it comes to a play, yes you have your sets, your props, your costumes, the script itself. But the actors who have put in their invaluable time and effort and have begun to be those characters are also an asset to the production.

ZK: The most valuable asset. It's a live performance, what are you going to come and watch? You have come to watch a real human being living, breathing, moving.

The most wonderful kind of performance. In a play like SIACHEN, what kind of work goes into production design and when Makrand sir did SAINIK, did he have any inputs from that, since it is also a war play?
ZK: We haven't come to our final design. There's been a lot of ideas, back and forth. Mak sir has brought in a lot of ideas. As the rehearsal was moving on, we started to block scenes. That's how he visualizes the space and infuses ideas. We haven't zeroed in on what is going to be our final set. We have some ideas we have been playing with – budget constraints are a real issue. Because you want to make it sustainable. We are very aware of that. The need is to make it sustainable as against lavish.

AR: A flight of fancy!

ZK: Yeah, I mean give me the money, I'd do anything on stage. So, we are in the process of it. My sister Shaira is now a very experienced art director, production designer in her own right and she has worked with some incredibly big productions in film and some OTT stuff. I have tried to rope her in, but she is very expensive (laughs). We are working on ideas and resources. We are trying to create a new language, something that feels like it's us, whether it is costume or sets.

What do you watch or take inspiration from for the production design?
AR: I don't think it is necessarily watching one specific thing. If you are talking about one specific thing, it would be research photographs to find your feet in that world. But when it comes to the set, it is an accumulation of all the things you have seen and done over the years, especially when it comes to theatre because you are not really imitating the reality of that space. You are elevating it and taking it to a different place. So, I think it is more what has been accumulated over the years as opposed to yaar ye meine dekha, mujhe ye utha ke daalna hai.

ZK: In today's day and age, there's so much out there that's just a click away. Every day we are coming up with new ideas to incorporate - how do we use rope? Tie knots? How do we figure out what kind of props and sets can lend themselves to dynamic behavior? What kind of texture or quality of light, costumes, what are they going to do? What are other productions in place? How did they do interesting things? Films, music and soundtracks, art in general, any kind of depiction of a scene or an emotion, it is all fuel.

Are you both co-producing this play?
AR: Yeah, I mean Zahan has been instrumental in the process from the get-go, not just when we had script discussions but more so with the design and aesthetic, which is one of his many strengths - which I am not there with yet. With the story, character, and the point I want to make, one feels like one knows what one is doing. With design and aesthetic, he is just incredibly good. If you look at our poster, it's been lit by him with lights that have been made by him on a whim during lockdown because, “I have these things, I am going to repurpose the television screen into a light,” which I think is an incredible talent. In that sense, he has been very important to the play, more than just an actor, which as he is constantly reminded now, is his primary function (laughs).

Why is your production company called 72° East?
AR: That is the longitude of Bombay. The latitude is 19° North, and the longitude is 72° East. We are from Bombay-

This play is premiering at Prithvi. What is the difference between putting up a play on a thrust stage as opposed to a proscenium?
ZK: Slight differences in staging. A thrust is incredibly immersive and intimate. A proscenium tends to be more like a frame you see from a slightly detached point of view, like any piece of art in a museum. It has depth of course, but (at a distance). A thrust, you are wrapped, you are embracing it more. I don't think the difference in our process is huge at this point. The place we are rehearsing at right now is like a very small proscenium. It changes how you move. I think a thrust makes it more comfortable to incorporate blocking differently, it's just a physical thing. There are certain limitations of a thrust in terms of how you stage things, but it also has these incredible advantages. This play, we are going to have to perform it in both venues. PITAJI PLEASE, I performed in thrust and in prosceniums. I always found a thrust stage more immediate. It's just a little bit more connected.

Do you notice a difference in audiences of different cities?
ZK: Yes, there is a difference. Even within Mumbai, a Prithvi audience is different from an NCPA audience. It is interesting every time. Sometimes it feels disappointing only because you feel like the audience is a bit cold or distant. But they have every right to be. It is on us to warm them up.

Zahan, you have spoken about how performing at Opera House was special because of its history with your great grandfather Prithviraj Kapoor and Prithvi Theatre is in the family. You have also said you are not one to talk about favorites. But do you have a favorite venue to perform at? Aditya, do you have a favorite venue to set up a play at?

ZK: Prithvi Theatre.

AR: There is something really special about the venue. It is a place that is dear to me because I used to go there for workshops as a kid. I have seen more plays there than I have at any other theatre. I grew up a stone's throw away from the theatre as well. I tell Zahan often that it should not exist! In today's day and age in Bombay - a place, the real estate of which is eye-wateringly high - the family chose to set up a trust and make a theatre there. They could have done so many more lucrative things, but they chose to champion the arts and theatre. And what better venue than this? We are lucky. Because anyway Bombay has the problem of a lack of venues – less so now than it did maybe 10 years ago with smaller theatres cropping up and fantastic massive venues like NMACC – but Prithvi has been a mainstay for ages and to be able to just step on that hallowed ground is a privilege.

Zahan, what do you think Prithvi means to Mumbai?
ZK: Prithvi has become iconic in so many ways. There is the facet of Prithvi that is just its sheer perseverance. It's been over 40 years now that it's just been consistently going. What it shows you is that the show must go on, that the stage doesn't go dark. The only time in its history that there was a shutdown was because it was the lockdown. It had to be a pandemic to stop that ball from rolling. And even then, we tried to find little ways for just keeping the energy alive in that physical venue. It also is a benchmark for a lot of artists, like a rite of passage. It is also now a culturally iconic venue, which means it's the idea that this is just a place to come and have a look, that is something special. Everyone comes and does darshan like a temple (laughs).

AR: And also watching a play at Prithvi is an act in itself. Sometimes you are not going for a play, you are going for the theatre. How often do we do that?

ZK: Exactly, so it has cultivated behavior in its audience, in its artists, it has cultivated a reputation, a solidarity. It is one of the cultural anchors of this city. It is one of the places you look to, you know there's going to be performances on, that twice a year there is going to be some special festive events, that the café is a place to go and drop in and have that experience, the bookshop is there.

AR: The experience of the thing - you look at our stage manager, Mohit Solanki - he is not from Bombay. The first thing he did when he came to Bombay, he put his stuff in his flat and started going to Prithvi every day. That's where he felt he will find his tribe, his work and that's how we found him as well. What better example than it being a place that fosters art and artists?

Zahan you have spoken about how you started doing PR for Prithvi. How important do you think PR is for Prithvi versus the legacy that draws in the audience?
ZK: PR in general is very important because there is so much noise. I am not talking about just art and Prithvi. In general, genuine communication about things that matter is not prioritized as much as quick little fixes of entertainment: we'd rather watch 20 reels over half an hour than a half an hour video about learning something, for example.

AR: And we are all guilty of that.

ZK: Yeah, we are all guilty. I'm not preaching here. But that's why it is essential to do this. It is why it is an ongoing process of reminding people and finding new ways to catch their attention. It is important to make people understand that genuine intent. In the current scenario, people have a lot of assumptions about how Prithvi functions or about how theatre is made in general. Even today, if we talk to friends who are maybe not from our world, it is a weird thing to tell them that we are slogging 8-9 hours a day, exhausting ourselves, but we are doing it, why? Because we want to. It is physically and mentally demanding. Very few professions have a mix of both. Lot of them are mentally taxing, physically you are sitting in an office. The stuff that is physically demanding, you are out there doing labor, manual work, but you are not being creative.

So, it is a mix of very different energies that we are doing all the time and there are very limited commercial resources. It is mad. But if you can communicate the value of these things and share why we think this is so special – art and poetry and music, it helps us live, helps us cope with our own lives and existence, understand that we are not alone, helps us make sense of our own condition and it helps us to feel connected to another human being. We are very fortunate to be able to do this. So, we take that forward with great care and humility and we want to then do our best and reach as many people as we can, whether it is putting on a production or whether it is sustaining a venue, which is the same thing.

We believe that it matters that you come on time, that you respect the people around you, that there is a sense of behaving as a collective, there is a sense of respecting what someone else has worked hard at to share with you. There is a sense of reminding yourself that this is valuable because, in a world that is oversaturated with digital content, we are sitting across from each other and having a conversation in a real space. And that's important to keep reminding people.

What have your learnings been about setting up a successful theatre production company?
ZK: There's not enough money (laughs).
AR: That money is made of paper and not elastic (laughs). But very honestly, you learn how to refine your needs, how to cut the frills, how to still be very effective. Within your limited resources, sometimes you find that it is your limitation that brings about great imagination and novelty. I did have a similar experience when I was in New York with my first play - THE QUEEN. It was done on a slightly different level. Here we are being far more hands-on and having such a great crew and a fantastic cast, one is figuring things out one step at a time.

Aditya, were you not tempted to act in this play?
AR: I was very tempted to act in the play. But just considering running around with the production as well as the writing and I was also doing another play at the same time - AS BEES IN HONEY DROWN - I felt like it would be unfair to the actors who are coming in every day, putting in their eight hours and you don't want to be the person who jumps in and out as per availability because you don't want anyone else to be that person as well. Eventually we got such a fantastic cast, it is my personal greed to be on that stage, but I think the actors who are there are doing great justice to the play anyway. So, on the level of the writer, I am quite satisfied to see these fantastic actors speaking out words that I may have written, as an actor I feel very jealous (laughs). Maybe in the future...

ZK: Yeah, in the next run, we'll shake it up!

As artistes, who have families that come from a theatre background, how do you promote theatre for the masses, getting people to work at Prithvi or getting people on a production who are not from the world?

ZK: People come. If you are interested, they show up. Honestly, it is unbelievable, the passion that you see.

AR: Our music composer, Ajay - he's incredibly talented. This is his first play. He's done the soundtrack for Thar, among others. He is just here because he wants to be a part of this process. That's how people come together. It's great to see Ajay and Makrand sir discuss things and then Ajay will send you something that will knock your socks off, he's just so good and perceptive, despite it being his first theatrical production.

ZK: He has a great sense of story and mood. That was always our fundamental objective: To reach out and try and get different kinds of talents to enrich this story and have a presentation that also feels fresh. Hopefully we live up to that ambition.

Do you have any recommendations for plays to read or watch?
ZK: Read all of Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, the classics, Tom Stoppard, modern playwrights, read everything you can and find what you like. And don't forget some of the classics we have - Vijay Tendulkar, Elkunchwar, Karnad. You need not say I will also do it, but I am saying: Read it.

AR: All incredible. And such a wide range of work. To suggest something is to be unfair to the rest. Just take in as much as possible and you will find your own zone and keep going further down that path.

ZK: And watch as many plays as possible.

AR: Starting with SIACHEN!

*Neha Shende is an avid theatre-goer and enjoys watching old Bollywood movies in her free time.

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