Malavika Rajkotia
It's not everyday that we get to interview someone like Malavika Rajkotia. When we discovered that the ace divorce lawyer based in Delhi had a substantial theatre background as well as a sprint in television, we knew we were in for an interesting conversation. Here, Malavika Rajkotia reminisces her days in the theatre and recalls her favourite plays. We also ask her briefly about her book Intimacy Undone that demystifies family law in India with a focus on marriage and divorce, and which can be appreciated by anyone interested in the subject.

 By Deepa Punjani

Deepa Punjani (DP): You are a famous divorce lawyer but once upon a time you were actively doing theatre. Tell us about those days.

Malavika Rajkotia (MR): I don't know about being famous! The days of theatre were intense because I was an amateur actor who was a student, and then later a lawyer. I was always doing something during the day, but the evenings were a withdrawal to a completely different world - one in which I was happy to be creative with a completely different set of people, who were much closer to me than the people I met during the day.

The darkness of the auditorium and the lit stage was the magic that I looked forward to at the end of each day. I was intent on learning new plays, playing and exploring different roles, and enjoying a deep connection with my body that had to be fit and agile to allow me to perform.

DP: What led you to theatre?

MR: I have always done it. I did little home plays as a child. My parents, family, and domestic workers had to buy tickets of Re. 1 for every production. I would put up a bed sheet in place of a curtain, take up the lead role, and direct my younger sister and other neighbors' children who played with us.

Malavika Rajkotia

DP: Did you work with a single theatre group or with multiple groups?

MR: I worked in college theatre with fine directors. Then I worked with Sheila Bhatia of Delhi Art Theatre and some other groups that were connected to the National School of Drama (NSD). I worked with very fine actors too during this time. Eventually I settled with Aamir Raza Hussain and Stage Door, primarily because their rehearsals were held late in the evening and everyone gathered after dinner.

DP: Who do you count among your favourite theatre directors?

MR: Like I said, Sheila Bhatia at the beginning of my theatre career. With Aamir, I learned timing, pace, and comedy. Bhaskar Ghosh and Joy Michael taught me a lot too. But the deepest influence was Sheila Bhatia.

DP: How would you say Sheila Bhatia influenced you? What did you learn from her?

MR: She taught me the glorious pleasure of commitment; the rewards of commitment to a role, of submerging yourself, of valuing every line that you had the privilege to speak and to work with care and not to throw it away, or hang on to it either. We were taught to identify the lines that are studiedly thrown away to achieve a purpose, to make the audience gasp for example. I learned to act with my being. Sheila ji would stop me sometimes and say: your hands and feet are still Malavika. Take them with you to the character. She taught me the discipline of time, of working with seriousness, of how to relax in a yogic pose.

Her politics was left liberal and so I met many intellectuals and writers through her. They were very encouraging towards me because I was the youngest, all of 19 or so then. I worked with her troupe and later worked in television with good actors like Mohan Agashe and Suhasini Mulay. With Aamir it was different. It was a different type of theatre but my learning from Sheila ji gave me a polish that I felt was different than the others I met in English theatre. There were great actors but I felt gratitude for my years with Sheila ji.

DP: Who were your peers who went on to establish themselves in theatre?

MR: Sheila Bhatia had taught Naseeruddin Shah, Raj Babbar and Om Puri when they were at the NSD. We met many actors who had moved on to film but Sheila ji was always regretful of theatre being used as a springboard for film. The star in Sheilaji's troupe was Madan Bala Sindhu. She would sing on stage with clarity and strength. The note was true and it was always mesmerising.

DP: Whose plays have inspired you?

MR: I did a lot of Hindi theatre. The power of conveying a social message while entertaining the public defined my politics and work ethic. Ritwik Ghatak's KOMAL GANDHAR, Subramanium Bharti's DRAUPADI, Surendra Verma's SURYA KI ANTIM KIRAN SE PEHLI KIRAN TAK, Dharamvir Bharati's ANDHAYUG, Krishna Sobti's MITRO MARJANI, have all been very inspiring. And of course, I enjoy Shakespeare for the joy of the English language, and Noel Coward for the light touch and elegant lines, to name just a few.

DP: When was the last time you saw a play? If you were to pick your favorites in Delhi theatre today, who would they be?

MR: I have not seen a play in a long time! I miss theatre a lot and watching without being able to participate is painful. I watch operas and plays when I travel with my children, though. I saw ELECTRA in Athens a couple of years ago, so I guess that was the last one. I know there is a lot of good work and experimental theatre happening in Delhi but I have been out of touch. I have always liked the boldness of experimental theatre. It is exciting to see new ways of communicating with a live audience.

DP: If you had to choose a couple of plays from the time you were acting on stage, which would they be and why?

MR: I would love to do DRAUPADI and KOMAL GANDHAR again. I would love to again do LION IN WINTER as well. One play that I never got to do and we would talk about often was DANGEROUS LIAISONS. I wish I could do that now. I would love to do the male roles in Shakespeare's HAMLET or MACBETH.

DP: Your book Intimacy Undone on marriage, divorce, and family law in India, which has recently been published, takes a pro-women stance. You are not shy to contemplate the realities and complexities of marriage in our society. What hope do we have for more women empowering legislation, especially in our vicious time, and where our women continue to be unsafe and are treated as “second-class” citizens?

MR: It's always best to be hopeful. The struggle for empowerment is in itself a liberating exercise. The movement has to evolve further, although we have come a long way. While empowering legislation already exists on our statute books, its implementation has been weak. We require a transformation in societal attitudes in order to see real change. This is a work in progress and we can never rest. It's about equality, transcending artificial barriers of caste, community and class towards an ethic of humaneness and compassion.

DP: As a lawyer and an artiste, and more crucially as an empowered woman, what would be your advice to young women in India?

MR: Never give up hope. Never stop working and thinking and learning to be able to constantly evolve to your ideal.

DP: You are a very busy lawyer but should you come upon an opportunity to act again, would you?

MR: Yes, definitely!

*Deepa Punjani is the editor of this website.

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