Rajendra Butala Interview
It was in the eighties when Rajendra Butala struck gold. The celebrated dramatist Sailesh Dave had just written and directed a play called SANGHARSH which unfortunately wound up after only four shows. He had no work after that and went to meet Butala. Though it had tanked, Butala saw great potential in it provided a few changes were incorporated into the show. He suggested this to Dave who readily agreed. The play had two male actors Siddarth Randeria and Homi Wadia and they were looking for a female lead. Butala chanced upon an ad in the newspapers about an INT play KURUKSHETRA starring Raksha Desai. Their main attraction Sarita Joshi was not there in that play. Butala realised that there was a huge opportunity for him and he rushed to meet Sarita Joshi. Armed with a bag of money he made Sarita Joshi an offer she found hard to refuse. He said he was offering her a play outside of INT for the first time and the money in the bag was hers regardless how long the play ran but was substantial for fifty shows. The actress accepted the offer and the play had a good run. Most importantly a new producer had made a mark on Gujarati theatre. The astute Butala has since then not looked back.

 By Jahnavi Pal


"Basically I was a mimicry artist,"begins Butala "and I would perform with almost all the leading singers of the country. During that time I got an opportunity to produce a Gujarati play called TARSYO SANGAM based on a novel by Harkishen Mehta. The subject was undoubtedly good and in the main leading roles I got Arvind Trivedi and Vishnukumar Vyas. Everything was good and I jumped into production. From then on till now I have been actively associated with theatre. But the past two years have been terrible."

Coming to the current phase when due to the pandemic theatres were forced to shut down Butala says , "All producers have been severely hit. Actors and others have been fortunate to get work on OTT platforms but Corona has broken our backs. Though we are now informed that theatres may start activity in October but only if the third wave doesn't hit and that too only with 50% capacity. This is not an economically viable option as theatre owners cannot sustain with such a cut due to their huge overheads. I am waiting for miracles. Even if theatres do open to full capacity my worry is that since our audience is largely only senior citizens they may adopt a wait and watch policy as they may not want to risk anything by coming to watch a play. So there are a lot of issues that are bothering all of us."

Butala says though there was no work happening during the lockdown he did a lot of social work along with completing a few scripts. "All our backstage artistes were out of work and something had to be done for them. Along with Kaustubh Trivedi we started collecting funds and helped them by paying them in cash and ration for the month. We raised a decent sum of over Rs 12 lakhs which we distributed piecemeal to all our backstage workers so that kitchens keep running. Some actors and even audiences have donated generously."

Talking of his milestone plays he says, "GURUBRAHMA directed by Shafi Inmadar, Pravin Solanki written ADHI AKSHAR PREM NA, PATRANI directed by Arvind Vaidya, GANDHI VIRUDH GANDHI directed by Chandrakant Kulkarni and SUGANDH NU SARNAMU which created a record of 100 shows in 100 days are some of the plays I am proud of. As far as acting is concerned my play JO BAKA PARANVU TO PADEJ created history when we put it up on YouTube and over 12 lakh people watched it, and my role was appreciated too. My recent plays KITTA BUCHCHA and CHAKARDI BHAMARDI were resounding hits which gave me great creative satisfaction as well."

Throwing light on the current Gujarati theatre scene he says, "If I were to draw a parallel between other language theatre and Gujarati theatre I can say that Marathi audiences accept anything that they are offered. Be it mythology, social, suspense, political satire they accept anything. In Gujarati theatre all they demand for is stupid comedy. Twenty years back when we made relevant plays they were accepted but now it's only comedy. We have to serve what our customers demand! Honestly I am not happy with this trend. My dream is to make Meera and people have told me that this subject can never appeal to audiences. In fact even a great director –writer like Gulzar has failed when he attempted it. I had even experimented with a play on Kalapi. I have made a play on Narsi Mehta. I may have taken risks with all these plays but something valuable should be offered to audiences. No doubt it is bread and butter but one should have a moral responsibility towards their audience. Another thing that ails Gujarati theatre is the lack of a younger audience. This is because we have stopped talking in our mother tongue at home. We need to buy and read Gujarati dailies. We need to preserve our language."

Reminiscing about his foray into the cut-throat world of production the veteran says, "As far as production is concerned when I began it was the monopoly of a few producers who had a hold over theatres and nobody else could get dates on a Sunday in these theatres. When I made RAMAT SHOON CHOKDI NI, a play that would get a full house in one day I did not get a single theatre in the proscenium and I did the play in Sophia Theatre for an afternoon show. This slot was vacant 52 weeks in a year and I risked doing it in this time slot. I then revolted and went and met the trustees of all the theatres and told them of the wrong prevailing practise. I got all the main theatres when I offered them Sarita Joshi's first play outside of INT. That's how my play got into the public domain and I came into the mainstream."

Coming to the current OTT craze, Butala feels it is a huge threat to theatre. "There is an app which offers 1000 Gujarati dramas and films for just about Rs 365 where the average works out to be Rs 1 a day is a huge threat however good it is. People will think twice before going to a theatre and spending so much on a play. But at the same time live art is live art and there is an audience that is habituated to it. They don't want TV but enjoy live theatre. People are now waiting for live art and I hope my judgement is right."

*Jahnavi Pal is a journalist, writer and theatre buff

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