Amitosh Nagpal Interview
Amitosh Nagpal is a multi-hyphenate NSD graduate whose adaptation of Shakespeare's TWELFTH NIGHT into PIYA BEHRUPIYA became one of the most successful Bard theatre productions in India. On the tenth anniversary of the play, the actor-writer-director shares with us his journey so far, his upcoming projects, and how he plans to nurture creativity through his performance spaces, Le Chakkalas and Slums of Bollywood in Aram Nagar, Andheri.

 By Divyani Rattanpal

Ten years to your play, PIYA BEHRUPIYA. How does it feel?

It feels nice and joyful, but honestly, it doesn't seem that it has been 10 years in the running of this play. I still recall how we had newly met and had lots of excitement to get to know each other.

But still, very few plays get to last that long...

Yeah, the only difference between that time and this is that back then, we didn't know it will last for 10 years. Although, I'm not a big fan of things that keep on running, like a channel by the name of CID on which Sony comes! It isn't that big an achievement, honestly. I am at that space where I am eager to do 10 new plays with people: for me, that would be more mazzedaar. I am one of those who feels excited by doing something new in life.

Do you remember any stories from the time when you were adapting TWELFTH NIGHT into Hindi?

I had joined very late in the play, as a lyricist. Atul Kumar had called me for the audition but I didn't go for it because I didn't know music. Then when I dropped by, I realised I really wanted to work with these people. I asked if I should do something else instead; so, Atul told me to help write songs. I wrote a song called Meri Phati Jeans Ki Pant to which Atul gave the feedback that it doesn't go with the rest of the natak. Then jokingly, I replied that the whole play can be tailored to suit this song! (laughs)

Only 16 days were left for us to go to London for the Globe to Globe theatre festival, and Atul told me that after we come back, I can write the whole adaptation. I said why can't we do it now?

Over the next four days, I wrote the whole adaptation. I remember Atul gave me a simple translation, a No Fear Shakespeare which was an English to English translation. But I told him that what I was understanding from the translation was not vastly different from the original, so I stuck to the latter.

I kept writing whatever I understood from reading the play.

I remember a story which I am very fond of. When the whole adaptation for the play was done, Atul was asking everyone what they understood. I was most scared because actually, I didn't know the story. I was going page by page! Atul thought I was lying but that was the actual situation.

When we went to London to perform, some people from BBC came to interview us. I remember running away from there. I was worried they might ask me something that I don't know (laughs)!

As someone who enjoys new challenges, how did you handle the monotony of doing the same play for a decade?

Actually, I had left the play in the middle. Because after the success of the play, things had become predictable. Atul told me that whenever I felt like coming back, I was welcome. After a little gap, I again got the inclination to rejoin the play. We have all worked together for so long, so there's a certain kind of mohabbat with everyone.

So, what new projects are you occupied with?

Recently, I have started a new play with Girija and Sakhi. I asked them to do improv and tell me childhood stories. Now we are seeing how we can dress the story.

The story that is roughly taking shape is that of a therapist who gets a female client, and slowly by slowly, it is revealed that it's the therapist who actually has problems!

Then there's this new space, Slums of Bollywood, and Le Chakallas. Through these spaces, I wish to upend this idea of ownership of "my play" and "my film," and just have fun! I want it to be dynamic enough that we create a small piece here (at Slums of Bollywood) and perform it there (Le Chakkalas). You know, small pieces that can become a lifestyle.

Le Chakkalas was shut in the two years of the pandemic. We had decided we will not rent any space but again on an impulse, we got another one. Now we have two spaces.

There is a vibe with every space. What vibe are you trying to create with both these spaces?

First, that it should be inclusive. In Bombay, I feel every person ends up meeting the same type of people and leaves out another set. As a storyteller, I find that very suffocating. For a very selfish reason, i want to meet different kinds of people through these spaces and interact with them. And luckily there are other people who are in sync with that thought. Look for instance, yesterday I had put up a post on Instagram that I want to paint my new space, and now all these people are here and painting with such patience.

How did you land up in Mumbai?

I was one of those actors who wanted to come to Mumbai from their childhood. When the teacher in my Haryana school used to ask the class what we wanted to become, I would say i want to be a hero. The whole class used to make fun of me. Then I realised actor bolne se kam mazaak udta hai, (it's less frivolous when you say you want to be an actor). Then later, when I grew up more, I realised that saying you work in theatre is even safer!

Apparenly even at the age of five, I used to say that I want to go to Mumbai and become an actor. My parents were always scared that someday he will run away from home. Then I went to NSD, wahan bahut mazza aaya. I got the chance to tour different countries through theatre, and following that circuitous journey, I landed in Mumbai.

Life has been very kind to me here. Whatever I have done, I have gotten overattention from it. I have only written one play, PIYA BEHRUPIYA and people take me seriously as a theatre writer. My first film was DABANGG, first lyrics were for OYE LUCKY LUCKY OYE. Everything happens with little exertion that's why I don't feel like stretching something beyond recognition.

Let's talk about your journey as an actor

I always tell people I am an actor who writes. But as an actor, I I need to be invested in the story. With the kind of politics that we see, I want to be part of discussions where I can explore contemporary society through my work as an actor.

Any people that you admire?

I am a big fan of Woody Allen. I love his humour and his observation of Jewish life. In terms of work, I feel most engaged when I can humbly work with ustaads and learn from them. Although I keep doing bazaar ka kaam, I really long to meet ustaads.

You wrote your first play in four days. Do tight deadlines work for you?

I like deadlines. I like the process of shaping something in a specific time Secondly, I like writing quickly because my memory card is a bit off. After a while, things start seeming too complicated and as the biggest critic of my work, I start distancing myself from my writing.

Do you feel there's anything missing in Mumbai theatre?

There is so much missing in me that I am trying to fill! I want to read more, watch more, and produce more. Because of PIYA BEHRUPIYA, I meet a lot of people who ask me for feedback on their work. I politely excuse myself because storytelling is a very personal experience. What I appreciate is when there's a relationship between the creator and his creation: an invisible thread that weaves the storyteller with their story.

Typically, how do you live your day?

These days, I get up at 4 or 4:30 AM and begin writing my new play. I have more writing assignments so I try to match the deadlines. Then I come to this space and decide what colors would work here. Come evening, I crib that I didn't do anything worthwhile. Then I take off two pages from what I wrote in the morning! Then I make a calender of the amazing things I am going to do next month, but the next morning, i wake up and say forget it yaar, just live your life!

What was the last converstion that really struck a chord with you?

I was talking to an autowallah who, incidentally, was also a murderer. He was telling me stories of how he used to orchestrate his killings. His dialogues were very heavy: Chaati kaat ke main machli ko khila deta tha. I was not liking it, but as a storyteller things are sometimes material also for you.

I was lucky that I travelled a lot with my parents during childhood. We moved from a small village to a city, to a very big city, and back to a village. I like mystery in things. I like things which I don't understand, that pull me and engage me. Then, I am like arrey I know it by now, bring something else.

*Divyani Rattanpal has worked as a journalist for The Quint, where she was also among the Founding Team members. While there, she also hosted and produced a podcast and fronted several standups. She's also worked for The Times of India group. She's now a theatre and film actor.

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