Interview With Vishaal Asrani and Jiji Subhi
Vishaal Asrani and Jiji Subi, directed many plays like ABBA, MADAGASCAR - A MUSICAL ADVENTURE among other musical dramas speaks with Mumbai Theatre Guide about their journey, VAPIA, Musical dramas, THE JUNGLE BOOK and much more…

 By MTG editorial

How did you started your theatre journey?

Vishaal Asrani: Well, theatre is a part of my life always because it was growing up in the school episode encouraging back there it was Greenlawns which was very encouraging of all these co-curricular activities which would then call extracurricular activities so it was always singing dancing, so I think it was all about about three or four activities, to sing, dance, act. I think my parents encourage me a lot they help me training music, meet up together in the evenings after school with the kids. That's where my journey began.

Jiji Subi: Pretty much the same I think I had always kept my dream in dancing as I am a Bharat-Natyam dancer and through college Years through school it's all been you know between elocution competitions, restrictions, acting on stage so the journey continued through college as well. Lots of inter-college competition, festival, happened. So, this is how the journey continued.

How VAPIA started?

Vishaal Asrani: I actually wanted to be a singer as I grew up so I trained for 15 years in Indian classical music with the short and last year, and then somewhere down the line I think my interest change and I wanted to do western music. As most kids do come when they become 15 and 16 because Indian music is not cool at that age, so I think that interest changed, I worked for all India radio and that's where the interest in acting has been started. So I did a few exams in Trinity College London and got message so that's where the journey for teaching began. I taught at Greenlawns early and then over the period of time I taught the same about 35 40 different schools. I met Jiji who was working in Air Force during that time. So we met, fell in love and decided to work together. So, he was in dancing, I was in music which I did and he loves teaching too. Over the years I think slowly VAIPA has become more of the show me and by Jiji does all of the teaching for the kids. Because we do children's theater it's the kids that are trained under him that we take into our workshops and then they put on the show.

Jiji Subi: I was in air force in 2011 but I used to constantly work with Vishaal because I used to travel a lot as he used to do shows in Delhi, Jaipur, Dehradun among other plays. So, I used to help him during my leaves. So that’s how the process started, you know got into theater like almost like a full time thing. After that it was just I think a full-fledged shift into theatre, but I think for us the biggest thing was since we were working a lot with kids we saw that there wasn't quality stuff happening for children in Mumbai and that's when we decided that in our way what we teach in class we could probably expand it onto stage and bring the kids and even make them do different stuff.

So, you also help kids with workshop too…

Jiji Subi: So that's right so we do workshop. I think our biggest USP of our show is the fact that we have not just kids but we have adults and kids working together. For example, we have one of our show SNOW WHITE for example so the lead cast. So, SNOW WHITE will basically an adult but the children play the role too. So it is adapted in such a way that the children and the adult actors will come together and put on the show together. So, that I think is a big USB of the bypass road.

SHOW WHITE AND SEVEN DRAWFS, ABBA and now THE JUNGLE BOOK, many musical dramas has come into theatre, what’s the reason behind it?

Vishaal Asrani: I think, basically everybody loves music, so one can take away from the fact that music can transform your mood from happy to sad - sad to happy, you can fall-in-love, get angry. So, I think the music is something that is universal that touches everyone be a child or a person. So what we realize is what better way of telling a story then putting music into it because kids love to watch music dance the more the kids are having a blast. With this if anybody who's knows that we encourage the kids sing dance along. So, I think that's what makes it a day out of not just sitting back and watching something like you would watch on TV, but it also depends what you want to do. So, the kids are being asked questions from stage they answering that they laughing I mean they asked about what do you think should happen next time.

Funniest thing happened…

VIshaal Asrani: I think, meeting Gigi was the biggest fun thing! (Jokes Apart). There are so many over the years I mean I've been looking out for 40 40 years and there have been times where people have forgotten lines and jumped to like five pages ahead, and you know for the fact that if they don't remember the lines of the five pages the whole play will make no sense. You try and bring them back and they again jump and you again try and bring them back and again and it's happened. Luckily we were two seasons, you know actors on stage whom managed to bring it back on stage this happened recently with a show called heart. If we miss that middle channel the entire second half making no sense. In theatre, there is no second date/chance. You get on there and you do what you have to do you feed off the audience and it's just beautiful.

How difficult becomes for both of you to direct as we all know there’s a difference in cinemas and theatres…

Jiji Subi: Direction is not only the difficulty process theme, because you have a certain vision and you're trying to translate that vision from what you've done on paper it goes on to stage, so that's something because what happens as you're directing you suddenly realize no this is not how I wanted, so you change certain things okay and you go with the flow. I think that is a director go though. You have a very clear perspective the things you start but the end product kind of changes here and there and you have to navigate the whole thing too. So, I think that is what is challenging about being a director of a show. So, I think that is the most challenging thing.

Vishaal Asrani: I truly believe that a director of the show needs to be the captain of the ship. So the director cannot turn around and say I don't know what I want for choreography. For e.g., if Jiji is choreographing, then I will sit down with him and will look line by line about the choreography stuff and makes sure that everything works in tangling. Whether it's costumes it can be that I have somebody to do my costumes and leave it to them so you have to be in charge right from script to Stage which is a message Journey so there are no teens in place, it's I think both of us are the team because we do our costumes themselves I mean as you walked in earlier you saw us working on the LED backdrops for the next show. So, we can do that because maybe we are a bit of control freaks but I think that's what keeps the quality up.

How much time it takes for a play to come on stage?

Vishaal Asrani: It depends on whether you are getting ready script and music, like for MADAGASCAR it took us about three and a half months when we did it lasts because we but in touch with MTI and DreamWorks so they gave us a really script and they give us so the songs were already ready everything was ready so it took us about three and a half months. However, because we wrote our own music wrote the lyrics, wrote the entire script, and everything about JUNGLE BOOK took about 6 months. So, the journey is 2 months prior to before even starting rehearsals, you have to start with your script. Maybe it's a little quicker for us because we've been doing this for so long but putting on a plane is not simple it doesn't happen like in 15 20 days at least not the kind of Productions we are looking at with massive large-scale sets with moving LED all of that.

How you decide about the character of the plays? Depends on Genre? Script?

Jiji Subi: So, we would like to adapt scripts. If you see the story of SNOW WHITE, SNOW WHITE is not just all about just SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS AND THE EVIL QUEEN and that skin because that's what the main story is about we have added a totally different angle with introducing an enchanted forest so there is a magical forest it's fairies in the forest the fairies are the one who died true and true then we have King over on who becomes the magical mirror to be kind of broken and doubt because I think that's very important for kids to understand what the whole logic behind the thing is. So we like a back story so we create a bad story. SNOW WHITE is not just about the magical mirror talking but who is the magical mirror who went into the mirror why does the mirror talk so we've kind of explained all that so every script is different so if we have the creative freedom to kind of add a backstory we like to do that but with a show like MADAGASCAR which already good and we had to follow it to the team so we did not do any backstory or did not adapt to him anyway so it depends on stupid history.

VIshaal Asrani: So, also I think because we're teachers is very important for us that when children come to watch the shows they go home with a takeaway they go home learning life lessons not just simple things about being nice because that's being taught in school. We try to indirectly subliminally affect their minds in a beautiful way where we show them tolerance acceptance, acceptance of gender acceptance of colour because in a world that we live like today where we still have doubted because of the colour of a girl's skin we've taken a snow white is not fair she's she's dark she's beautifully Dusty and that's what we try to teach the kids that listen beauty is not indeed it is beyond that and hopefully in a small way even if a few you know incidents don't happen in the future where there aren't any Dory it's a torture I think that will make a huge difference.

Share something about THE JUNGLE BOOK?

VIshaal Asrani: THE JUNGLE BOOK is I think can Eternal favourite of everybody is we all grew up with all those wonderful characters mowgli, and up to 3-4 characters in the elephants, we learned it in school. It was part of our literature syllabus as we grew up. For years we were thinking of doing the JUNGLE BOOK and I think we wanted to do it a few years ago and then Disney came out with you said maybe this is correct time let people enjoy the you know Disney version and then we come up with a newer version and since Kipling's Works fall into the public domain it was right on script around it or create the characters we tried to give it an Indian feel without making it a very Folk in its field we've got a fantastic 11 year old boy playing mortally who's selling his own songs so that's it and…

Jiji Subi: and I think you know compared to all the other shows would be at Viper we have done I think one thing which is radically different about the JUNGLE BOOK is the fact that after a long time since we did the RAMAYAN okay after long time we did a story that was based in India otherwise all of our stories were usually the ones for kids especially but either fantasy and stuff like that so this one really nice like going back to the roots and doing an Indian story but at the same time like he said like not make it totally but we have also given it a very contemporary modern look and feel to the whole thing with the beat the designs okay leave the costume designs leave the LED screen on stage the language the light switch the language of modernization that it needs but at the same time get the essence.

Apart from this have you seen some other plays in different languages?

Vishaal Asrani: Whenever we travel abroad which we try to do every summer we either travel to New York for London we go to watch most of the Broadway shows it doesn't matter whether their kids shows right from MARY POPPINS, LION KING, MATILDA, THE PUPPET SHOW. I think it's very important to learn that you learn every day so through different experiences that we've you know experienced in theatre whether it was even in Spain we watch the Flamenco theatre we've watched Band rock group after three we watched fabulous different kinds of medium that people use to tell stories I think it's it's just phenomenal what we learn every time we watch a new production is there something you say oh my God why don't I think of that and that's the reason you learn every single day from every new production that you watch best player performance directions both of us here and Indiana because what happens is like I said every new production is a challenge every new production is like a new baby and you're asking us to do and we know baby I mean if I have three daughters and two sons and believe when we kind of put up the night on Broadway it was just two singers on stage with Michelle himself and with the two singers they had costume changes in every single song which was handled by me so it was like a Vishal would go on come his costume changes happening and there are just about 40 seconds in between the songs so you know right from Phantom of the Opera to suddenly jumping on to do like teeth from Love is Rob Lowe to suddenly doing a piece from Cabaret then from Cadbury going on to something else it will just city of challenging thing to do that so I think probably wouldn't change yes it is it's quite chaotic because I didn't both of us are very particular about what we put on stage so not as if not a hair has to be out of place you cannot have things not correctly so it's literally standing there and then there are three people dressing you to get on stage for the next one and we talking of being in a churidad and doing one song and in 40 seconds changing into a complete tuxedo with a mask with that with gloves with every single time she was on stage there was a role from the audience because she transformed into a princess in front of your eyes and every girl in the audience would come back and say until I said that like I would love to but I can't okay so I have seen that most of your place great quality because a lot of people I think I mean I'm going to say this very candidly think that because it's Children's Theatre it doesn't have to be great quality I mean unfortunately children are the biggest feelings in the world they will say to your face I didn't like this I hated it I didn't like the voice that dance was horrible so for children the quality has to be even more even more it has to be better than what we would put on for an adult they want visual representation so you need to have a quality control need to have your set looking a particular way the costumes have to look beautiful so I think it's just hard work because when we say 3 months of work we're talking about 3 months of work from 8:00 in the morning to say 2 o'clock at night so that's the kind of work that goes into put on one of the Viper Productions and we've seen a lot of theatre here in India and honestly somewhere I just feel that just being interested in theatre and trying to put on a play for Kids Safe children it doesn't because today the world has become such a small place kids are traveling abroad all the time with their parents I mean Thailand all over the kids expect that certain quality when they're watching a show because the last thing you want is having kids dominance I don't want to go for the next show because this was not beautiful I want to watch what we watched in Disney over there so in our own way we try to keep that level and that quality high.

What differences you had seen in audience?

I think what has happened is I mean post the pandemic for us also I think the audience you know it's it's of course it's improve okay for us it's not been drilled at all so even before touch wouldn't hang out be used to have full houses and stuff like that but what I've seen is I think the whole pandemic where they were stuck at home okay without any avenue for doing anything outside of their house okay and lucky for us even during the pandemic, we did a lot of workshops with the children online which were right from Broadway Workshop to a fables Workshop to a storytelling Workshop to a Harry Potter Workshop so the kids were you know leave a constantly with the kids coming in from all over like all over India because it was online so there was no there was a child from Delhi to from Guwahati and all of that was happening so I think what has happened is people have seen so we've been active through the whole lockdown so I think somehow that is worked for us in our favour because when we came back I remember it was the month of March 2020 when we shut down at the opera house was the last show we did JACK AND THE BEANSTALK and we were reversing for the next door JACK AND THE BEANSTALK and that's when the whole lockdown was announced and we had to shut down and after that in December 2021 we were the first theatre group again to open at the opera house. All we can say is we are grateful and thankful that the trend has continued and we are still continuing with turning out show after show. which is and like we shall rightly said I think a lot cable has to do with the quality of the production the fact that listen you can't go lacks after doing one great show you can't be like all this in my MADAGASCAR was Jungle Book can be okay no Jungle Book has to be even better than Madagascar okay ABBA every single time we put on the other show the other show will look exactly the same quality or better but never once will the show come down and said recently we had a four year old who flew in some Delhi to watch the other show okay because he's a huge Abba fan and he came up on stage and stand with the singers so that is the kind of love and response that you get so I think the audience is definitely rude what is played for you oh Life Is Life love and we always say that life would be so boring what's life without a kind of an extended family like you know the people we have met in theatre the kind of bonds we have found whether it is you know whether it's a co-directors okay whether it is the kids who assist us now because these are kids were grown up in front of us and now how they work towards making the show happen and how they take on the responsibility that's amazing so it's like having a really family of your own yeah and it's like become a family unit and every show that we put up everything cable that is a big thing for us because it's like it's one family putting on it's our show it's not like oh we just want to put on a show for the sake of putting on a show and I think that is what both grew up being misjudged all the time being pointed at called names we've made by into a safe space for people so as kids come here whether it's kids to adults once they start working with us they realize that they never judged for who they are where they come from what size they are what colour they are complexion is so everyone is beautiful and that's the end of it like we celebrate the differences that uniqueness that makes and I think that's what field is giving us celebration of a diversity and yeah I mean I wouldn't know what to do with it.

What up next after the JUNGLE BOOK?

So, we working on this massive International project and It will be on paper in another 15-20 days you'll see it in the papers and on the boarding’s which is storing all over the country we're also planning to revive The Little Mermaid because it hasn't been done for about 7 years so that's a great spectacle that we are planning to open in February next year and yeah that's that's as of now.

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