Roopa Divatia Interview
When the veteran Roopa Divatia steps on stage there is an air of excitement and loads of expectation. One of the finest actors, she has an impressive array of plays, films and TV serials. Having clocked four decades as an actor she is a respected name on the Gujarati stage. Having started at the tender age of three, when one can barely speak Roopa has proved her mettle in films, TV and plays like JASMA ODAN, PILU GULAB NE HU, VISAMO, SAMAY, SHIKAST, SHUBH CHINTAK, DERANI JETHANI, BA RETIRE THAY CHE, ANT VAGARNI ANTAKSHRI, 7X3=21, MAHARATHI, amongst several others has placed her in an enviable position on Gujarati stage.

 By Jahnavi Pal

In Ahmedabad since the lockdown, Roopa Divatia is making the most of her free time with her dogs and family members. She travels back in time as she shares nuggets from her interesting career on stage.

"I was three when I had my first brush with acting. It was a 'prachar natak' where artistes travel to distant villages and perform plays with a social message. I was doing a small role in a play called HARISHCHANDRA TARAMATI. The only memory I have of that play was sleeping in my aunt's lap and crying in a scene which required me to cry. My aunt would either nudge me or give me a small pinch and I would start crying," says Roopa.

She then did a lot of drama related activities in school and that was the real exposure to the world of acting. "I went to Vidyanagar School where my principal Mr Kapasi was a lover of performing arts and hence the environment in school was very art oriented. This is where my foundation was laid. I would take part in plenty of theatre activities and I received a lot of encouragement for this. This is how I developed my love for acting."

Roopa then went on to join Darpana Academy Of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad as a student. "I was studying the folk art called Bhavai and did my first commercial play JASMA ODAN where I played the role of Odan. The play was based on Bhavai and it was so thrilling as I played a part where I sang and danced as well. The dialect too was very different and I learnt a lot from this. We toured with this play and performed it at NSD as well. I was slowly getting recognized which gave a great start to my career. After this another milestone in my career was when I played the role of Shakuntala. This play had music composed by my father-in-law and the songs were sung by my mother-in-law. I was not married at that point in time. We had performed this play in honour of C. C. Mehta (popularly known as Chan. chi) the popular playwright when he was awarded the Gujarat Gaurav Puraskar. It was a memorable play and received a lot of critical acclaim."

Soon after Roopa got married to Kuntal, a still photographer and sound recordist and the couple moved from Ahmedabad to Mumbai for better work prospects. "I was working in serials on Ahmedabad Doordarshan and doing some good work. In fact I played the very popular role of Radha in Huto Huti a serial which went down in history as one of the most watched serials on DD. When this serial would air Ahmedabad would shut down from 8 pm to 8.30 pm every Tuesday. Even now when I go to Ahmedabad autorickshaw drivers recognize me and don't accept the fare from me ! "

And as they say good talent never goes unnoticed and she was spotted by Feroz Bhagat who offered her a role. "It so happened that he had come to perform a play in Ahmedabad and the heroine of his play PITRU DEVO BHAVO backed out at the last moment. He requested me to step in and I readily agreed. I can say I started my journey on commercial stage as a replacement."

Soon with the advent of commercial channels, DD lost its importance and Roopa was compelled to look elsewhere for acting assignments. "Work in Ahmedabad was not happening so we decided to shift base to Mumbai. In 1989 I moved to the city of action and Feroz Bhagat who had promised to give me work if I ever came to Mumbai offered me the hit play SHIKAST. Though people got to know me after this play unfortunately not much work came my way and a long period of struggle followed. But things began to look up as Sanjay Goradia offered me DERANI JETHANI which was followed by BA RETIRE THAY CHE. It took a lot of courage for me to play the iconic role of Ba. This play changed my life. By now I was also doing some serials, like Kkusum, Ghar Ek Mandir, Sambhav Asambhav, which gave me a foothold in the TV industry. But my first love was always plays."

Roopa has been one of the few actors who has acted with almost all the top actors, producers and directors of Gujarati theatre. She has had the good fortune of having worked with all the five Arvinds who reigned supreme in those days. Arvind Joshi, Arvind Trivedi, Arvind Rathod, Arvind Vaidya and Arvind Kirad. She says she shares a beautiful connection with Arvind Joshi and has played the lead in many of his plays. "All the five Arvinds have helped me be a Mumbai artiste." Roopa says when she began her journey as an actor times were very different. "In those days I would help clean the stage, wash my costume and help in every way. This is something actors of today can never even think of doing. But it is this grounding that has helped me come a long way. In those days we would rehearse for almost a three months for a play as I feel that it does take that long to get into the skin of your character. I have been blessed that I have worked with stalwarts like Sailesh Dave, Kanti Madia, Shafi Inamdar, Upendra Trivedi and so many more who felt the same way. It is not the same now. "

As she continues to walk down memory lane Roopa shares and interesting anecdote. "It so happened that for one of the performances of our play KHULI AANKHE BIDYA HOTH which had Darshan Jariwala and me playing the lead roles Darshan's flight was delayed. He was unable to make it on time for the show. The director Kanti Madia stepped in to play Darshan's role at the last minute. I was 35 then and Madia 70. We had a romantic sequence in the play and when he started saying those lines the audience burst out laughing. In fact Madia always wanted to act opposite me but I would tell him he can never be my hero. And after this Madia told me he had succeeded!"

"Another such incident happened when I was did MAHARATHI with Paresh Rawal. I was about to go to bed one night when I got a call asking me to rush to Bhaidas. I did as I was told and rushed there in my tracks and Tee. As I entered the foyer I heard my name being announced and when I rushed backstage they pushed me on to the stage. It had so happened that Ragini who was doing the play was in Gujarat and couldn't make it as her flight was delayed. I had read the script only once but knew the part as I had watched two performances. I performed that show in my tracks and went on to do 15 or 20 more shows as Ragini asked me to continue. Yet another landmark in my career was a play called SANAK which was written and performed by Abhijat Joshi. It was the story of an 18 year old who is fascinated by a 35 year old and was way ahead of its times. I enjoyed doing this one as it was so challenging. One more such play was AGYARMI DISHA which was based on the Hindi film BASERA. Apara Mehta played the role of Raakhee and I played Rekha's role. Suresh Rajda played the role of Shashi Kapoor. I got a lot of accolades for this one and it was one of the finest plays of our times. I have also done some good work with Manoj Shah when we have performed some wonderful plays in Prithvi."

"If I have had light moments there have been a some agonizing moments as well. I recall when Darshan and me were doing a play called SAATAM AATHAM which happened to be my last play with Feroz Bhagat we got the news during the show that Darshan's mother had passed away. Nobody broke the news to him until much after the show.

"There have been some extremely stressful moments as an actor and when I look back I am amazed at how I managed to pull it off. I was doing a play PUTRI DEVO BHAVO with Neeraj Vora. It had Arvind Vaidya, Manoj Joshi, Sai Barve and me playing pivotal roles. The play was opening the next day and nothing was ready not even the music! Neeraj had made several last minute changes and had added a series of flashback sequences to the play. None of us knew our entries and exits and it was a wonder how we pulled this one off. The play went on to be a hit and did about 168 shows."

For Roopa who says that the stage is her mother and films and serials her 'maasi' doing good work on stage will always remain her top priority. "Theatre will always remain my favourite as I was born into plays. Though I must add that my best is yet to come!"

*Jahnavi Pal is a journalist, writer and theatre buff

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