Mukta Barve Interview
Mukta Barve is an acclaimed Marathi actress who performs on stage, in films and TV shows. She has recently returned to the stage after a gap of 5-6 years with the play CHARCHAUGHI which was first performed in the early 90s with a different cast, and a play reading entitled PRIYA BHAI, EK KAVITA HAVI AAHE. Barve also talks about the nitty gritties of acting, types of stages, preparing for a play, co-actors and her theatre journey over the years.

 By Neha Shende

How was it decided to revive the play CHARCHAUGHI and how did you get associated with the project?

Chandrakant Kulkarni (director) had actually spoken to me about reviving CHARCHAUGHI before the pandemic. Prashant sir (Dalvi, writer) had completed writing the play a certain amount of years ago, so to commemorate that, he decided to do it and I wanted to work with him once. When CHARCHAUGHI first ran I must have been 10-11 years of age, so I have some vague memories of the time. I thought, such a beautiful, important play, why not? I have been continuously working in theatre. I produced plays too. These last 5-6 years I took a gap because I started with other projects in my career. So I thought it was a good opportunity to both work with Prashant sir's script and with Chandu sir. So when things restarted after the pandemic, sir called me saying we had talked about this, should we do it? And I said let's. And then it began.

You are a very well-known actress. You have said before that as you become increasingly famous, you get a certain baggage. It becomes more difficult to convince the audience that you are that character. How do you lose that baggage?

I think the audience itself helps you lose the baggage after the first entry. One does not need to make too much effort for it. If you have a powerful story and characters, if their world has been presented well, then people get engaged in the story and take the emotional journey that the character is taking.

You have said that you like plays with a message. But you have also mentioned that you may not necessarily agree with all that the writer has to say. What is more important for you? A good role, regardless of what the play has to say overall or the entire message of the play?
The play and the message aside, I feel that it should be crafted well. It's not necessary for me to agree with what the play has to say. But if it is not powerfully crafted, then even if your role works, the play will never work in its entirety. Sometimes it may happen that they have written a great part for you but the play as an art form doesn't work as a whole. And then sometimes you have to stop doing it after 10 shows. There's no point in that. The craft of a play is more important. We can discuss morality later. Whether I agree or not with the message is another issue.

When you work with relatively new actors, do you do anything to build camaraderie with them?

No, actually-- when you go through the rehearsal process, all actors, big and small, start at the same level and take the journey from point A to B together. The roles and the play are new for everyone and you familiarise yourself with them together. Sometimes you have to make an effort for the screen when they do workshops. In theatre, the process itself is like a workshop.

So what is the definition of a good co-actor for you? That if they have these certain qualities, you'll be happy to work with them...

Actually, you need to have actors on stage who understand the balance of the play. What I always say when I talk about Vinay sir (Apte). I was very young at the time -- in both my career and in age -- and it was a play like KABADDI KABADDI. Now if an actor on stage has a big fan following, usually the audience is in favour of that actor. And I think the definition of a good co-actor is someone who doesn't disturb the balance of the play.

So not putting their star value at the forefront... sometimes, you have to become invisible when others are performing, even while you are on stage. Because otherwise, people are looking at you. They are in love with you. So I think that's an art in itself and I feel great respect for it. When I was praised in my scenes with Vinay sir sometimes, I knew that he was letting my work be seen. That's a big deal. When an actor who truly understands the art form lets the stronger, more beautiful points be enhanced. Only then can the performance be sustained until the end.

In CHARCHAUGHI, you have an amazing scene where you talk to your separated husband over the phone. I always wonder: What must an actor do to convincingly portray a telephonic conversation when there is no one at the other end of the line?

Chandu sir had reserved an entire day for that. And we worked on it, thinking about what the other person might be saying that I am responding this way. The entire time what the husband is saying plays in my mind. The only thing is that we cannot go with a very realistic approach here, because it's theatre. So the audience must understand what I am listening to without pausing for the amount of time the husband will actually take to speak. So we took some time to arrive at an accurate effect. We spent some 4-5 rehearsals trying to figure it out -- if it seemed hurried. Because I was also uneasy that I am going to speak by myself for 15-20 minutes, I wondered if the audience's attention would be sustained. When you are performing, you cannot listen to yourself that keenly. So I was quite uneasy about that and was looking for feedback. So Chandu sir, our friends who'd come for the rehearsals, or Pratima Joshi (Marathi film and TV serial director), Bhagyashree (Jadhav, Marathi writer and costume designer), all helped a lot on whether it seemed fine.

The phone scene is very emotional. Has it ever happened during a performance, that you got so involved in the emotion, you weren't able to say the next lines?

That doesn't happen. That's why practice is important and useful. At least it hasn't happened to me that I got caught up in that emotion. I think the emotional high points of any play, at a certain stage during rehearsals, you approach them fully, in all ways. Then you distill what seems the best and keep it in mind and calculate accordingly. So at that moment, you do have that emotion within you, but it is also a technical game. So it doesn't happen that I got so caught up in the emotions, I lost awareness and couldn't say my next lines. It is crafting. That crafting only looks beautiful when you can't see how it's been carved, and you think this is really happening in the present, spontaneously. But it should definitely be calculated. Otherwise, if a certain scene starts flowering into more, then it may last 5 minutes today, 10 minutes tomorrow, or may end in under 3 minutes on another day, because that day I just didn't feel it. That can't happen. Once you set markers of the scene's overall length, emotional length and intensity, then it should take place around those markers.

And when do you set these markers? When you get the script or during rehearsals?

They get set more during rehearsals. Now a scene like this phone piece, you don't get those often. You get more scenes where you talk to another actor. But this play has 2-3 scenes where I talk a lot. So even when I was reading the script with Chandu sir, I found the markers. Sir had actually written a one-and-a-half-page note for this sequence. He said he won't tell me how to do it, but he told me what the audience should feel after listening to each of my lines in the scene. So he told me what effect he wanted and I decided accordingly how I wanted to perform it. So that was very important for me -- that this line should have this effect, the audience should feel this -- and then I acted towards that. So it was a reverse process in a way and I found that very interesting.

Costumes and sets help get into character. Moving away from CHARCHAUGHI, when you are doing PRIYA BHAI, EK KAVITA HAVI AAHE, you read from a script and there's no set, only a slideshow in the background. How different is your approach here? Is it difficult to become Sunita Deshpande (writer, and wife of writer and humorist P.L. Deshpande)?

To be honest, it wasn't a very different process for me. Even though it wasn't written as a dialogue, it is a conversation between Pu La and Sunitabai. Even though Pu La doesn't actually talk during the performance, for me that entire world had come to life. While performing, the tricky part was the poems I was going to recite in front of the audience, but it was supposed to be Sunitabai reading them out to Pu La. So we were looking for the right approach -- whether the recitation should be theatrical, whether it should feel more casual, like at home. The decision was finally our director Amit's (Vaze). He said I should definitely do it for the audience. But I was searching for that magic. So then I decided to do the recitation in the old style. If today, I read those poems as Mukta, I'll 100% not read them as I do during the performance. The part of the word that is stressed, hand movements, today people approach it all in a very different way. I recited them in a very ornate way (In Marathi poetry recitation, it means breaking up each syllable with a high level of cadence and modulation): Taplya Ahet Tara (While These Chords are Still Tuned: poem by B.B. Borkar). I'd say it by elongating the last syllables a lot. He told me the ornateness was sounding good but the elongations at the very end were not. So then I removed those. As an actor, I had to visualise Sunitabai. And the more clarity that I saw Sunitabai with, the more precisely I could bring her to life. Actually, I only draped a simple saree and sat there. But people tell me they saw Sunitabai and Pu La. It's the power of writing and many kudos to Amit's direction that he built the piece like this. But as an actor, for me, it was no different from a full-fledged play.

And how did this project happen? What were the motivations behind it?

This same group from Pune had done this show called KAVI JATO TEVHA after Kavi Grace (Marathi poet) passed away. That was also adapted from a feature article that Sameer Kulkarni had written. I had seen the show and liked it immensely. And once I love something, I'll praise it, promote it and tell people. I even drove a car full of friends to Pune to watch the show. Amit realised I had really liked his show and then he approached me a few days later and told me he wanted me to do Sunitabai in this show. The first time I read it, I hadn't fully realised what it was going to be. It wasn't even built the way you see it now. At the time, it read more like an article. Because it had been adapted from one. And then during rehearsals, slowly, we modified it. Our music team -- Ninad (Solapurkar) and Jaydeep (Vaidya) -- also suggested things. Then we got Sameer to write more for us and in this manner, an entire text was formed. It became more theatrical. As a director, Amit also has a great ear for music.

Kausalyecha Ram (the Marathi song used as a metaphor for the poet, Pu La and the audience throughout the performance) -- that was beautiful...

Yes! He's woven that melody into everything so that it all comes together seamlessly. But it all happened during rehearsals. That is how they work, he told me. And I gave them a lot of time. I would go to Pune, do rehearsals, sit and discuss for days and days, all while I was working on other projects. And that's how we built it. Some tunes were made right in front of us. Someone would say I'll recite this verse and then you start singing. It was a lovely process.

You have said that if you follow the script you manage better to bring out the rhythm that the writer wanted. But have you ever improvised and it actually worked really well?

Not in a play. So if the play is going in the direction of folk theatre, impromptu things might work there. But I haven't done a play like that yet. We improvised in Ghadlay Bighadlay on TV -- it was like a mix between folk theatre and a TV show. But I haven't done that in a play yet. Unless I fully like the script I don't say yes to the play or start rehearsals. Because I think a play is a writer's medium. Even though the audience sees us and later the play becomes the performers', nothing can come of it, if it is not written well in the first place. When I first produced a play, I gave my writer a lot of time. She took 6-8 months just for the writing. Ira (Iravati Karnik) wrote CHAPA KATA beautifully.

You have said that as a child, you were introverted and that the isolation that the proscenium provides drew you to theatre. So how important is the architecture of the stage for your performance? Is your approach different on a thrust stage or maybe if you ever acted in street plays and do you prefer to not act on them?

No, it's not like that. Not for the performance. The space does mean the space of the theatre, but it also means that you enter another world and you can build that world anywhere. If you started doing a play here even, that would become the stage for me. The shape and construction don't make a big difference. Isolation means, no one else is going to come in between. That's why I don't like games, they are unpredictable. I am scared of the unpredictable. When I act in a play -- even a street play -- I am within my circle. And I don't even mean a circle of people, I mean I am in that character, so it is bound by that. So I find that space very comfortable.

You have mentioned that there's a charm beyond physical attributes like height and weight. You have mentioned that you used it when acting opposite more senior actors like say Vinay Apte. When did you realise that you have that charm? Can an actor be successful without that certain charm?

Yeah, definitely. And whether that charm is there or not, more than me turning it on, the audience helps you grow that charm in yourself. When people tell you they like seeing you when you are on stage, that's what it means. I am the same person you are seeing right now, who they are going to see on stage. They like to see that actor with that aura on stage. And like I think that is my space, maybe that comfort zone reaches the viewer. I feel nice and peaceful on stage. They probably understand that peace, that niceness that I feel.

You definitely get it from the audience, but do you put in that special effort sometimes, maybe in front of a more experienced actor, to achieve parity in performance?

Not really. I think your work compliments the other if they are a good actor. It comes from within. I don't say to myself, now I'll outperform my co-actor. As an actor, I am always selfish or always happy or always want to do good work. Because when that happens, what it creates within me, maybe a chemical change, that gives me the kick. So it's not for anyone else, it is for myself. Any other person comes after that. Who is standing in front of me hardly matters in that sense. Maybe you can feel pressured by a strong co-actor, but I don't. I think we are all of us together taking that piece of art forward. Co-actors must work with each other, a play is not a combative activity. For my fifth scene to work, the second scene with another actor must also work. Or people will get bored by the time I come on stage. So co-actors must understand the graph of a play. If you take longer-than-necessary pauses, for laughs, for emotional scenes, the audience will tire by the end.

When you produce plays, how involved are you in the casting process? Do you conduct chemistry reads? How does the process work?

An appropriate person (is chosen) for the script. Chemistry happens, it has never not worked out in my experience. During a play you get so much time to experiment with each other, that chemistry surely develops over time. But whether that actor suits the role, whether they can give enough time for the play, and whether all actors feel the same way for the play are important things. Now Parth (Ketkar) is not there in the first act of CHARCHAUGHI, but he's there backstage the whole time. He helps us off the stage for our exits during blackouts. He'll be standing backstage and giving instructions to someone or the other. So all seven artistes feel that the play should turn out well and that they're a good team. We called 10 actors when we cast his role, 5-6 actors when we were casting for the role of Prakash (played by Shreyas Raje). So there are several facets to casting a good team for a play.

Where do you think theatre is going? Do you think fewer young people go to watch plays?

It's different from what was happening 7-8 years ago. Now after coming back, while doing both PRIYA BHAI... and CHARCHAUGHI, I see a lot of youngsters. And about 35% of the audience has come and told me that they have come for the first time to the theatre to watch a play. This is very positive. After being exposed to so many mediums of entertainment, after the OTT explosion, people want to once again see performances live. When a piece like PRIYA BHAI... goes housefull, I find it to be a pretty big deal. In a show like this, people might think, oh it's about poetry, obscure subjects, let it be. But the audience is going beyond that.

Do you think maybe that they are coming to see you?

That is a possibility. It can happen that people go to watch a particular actor. But out of 10 such people, maybe two will consider going for another play. And if they like the second play too, I am certain that they will be converted into regular theatregoers.

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

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