Sheeba Chadha
Sheeba Chadha is one of our best actresses working in English as well as Hindi theatre. Her cameos in Hindi films have also been critically appreciated and she has done television too. Gaurangi Dang converses at length with this striking actress, who has worked closely with Rajat Kapoor and Atul Kumar, and who never fails command a presence. She is currently acting in Caryl Churchill's mystifying dystopia FAR AWAY, directed by Rehaan Engineer.

 By Gaurangi Dang

Gaurangi Dang (GD): Tell me about yourself. You're from Saharanpur?

Sheeba Chadha (SC): Yeah, I was born there.

GD: I am also from Saharanpur. I didn't really grow up there but I lived there till I was about eight.

SC: Oh! That's interesting because you don't really get to meet people from there over here. I lived there till I was about three. Then we moved to Delhi, but we'd still often go back to visit relatives and everything. I have very little memory of it though. I spent all my life in Delhi; went to college there.

GD: And, the college you went to...

SC: I went to Hansraj and studied Literature. I got in through the Dramatics quota because I didn't have the marks to make it through the General quota but that meant that I got to do a new play every year. Hansraj has a pretty active dramatics society. There's a professor of ours, Sanjay Kumar, who still teaches there. He's like the main mover and shaker of the theatre scene over there. So every year we'd have a new play, rehearse for a few months, travel with it to college festivals, and then have a public production at the Sri Ram Centre.

GD: How did you end up in Bombay?

SC: You know I keep forgetting the year. I have a feeling that it's '98. I think it's '98 roughly. I didn't land up here with some focus of finding work. I was aware of the fact that this was an alternative kind of space for the kind of work that I wanted to do. I came here because I had some dear friends here. You know I was in the U.S. for two years before I got here, and when I came back I realised that this whole T.V. wave had started.

GD: Daily soaps?

SC: Oh no, daily soaps were not there back then. There were those weekly shows and hour-long short episodes, kind of like mini films. Television had begun to boom at that time and I remember being pleasantly surprised by it all. I didn't come here with an idea of what I wanted to do. I didn't come here as an actor trying to make her mark in films. I just came because I wanted to get away from Delhi, and I had friends in Bombay that I could go to. But when I got here, I immediately got a film to do, and then I just stayed back.

GD: A lot of your earlier work was in collaboration with Rajat Kapoor and Atul Kumar. How did this relationship come to be?

SC: So Rajat, Atul and I have been working together since our time in Delhi. We all belong to a theatre group called Chingari from Delhi. Atul has an older association than Rajat and I, but the three of us, have been working together for a long time. Before C FOR CLOWNS, I had already done a monologue that Rajat had directed in Delhi, and then he directed us in DEATH WATCH by Jean Genet. Then I was in a Hindi adaptation of WAITING FOR GODOT, which Rajat had translated. It was an absolutely stunning translation. Rajat also translated the two French plays - THE MAIDS and DEATH WATCH into Hindi. In fact I recently asked him for the Godot translation and the fool couldn't find it. He said that he had lost it in a drawer somewhere.

GD: But you all ended up arriving in Bombay separately, off your own accord.

SC: Yeah, Rajat had already come. He was already in FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) when I met him. He'd keep coming back to Delhi to direct and once he finished at the FTII, he came straight to Bombay. We all came at different points.

GD: And then you ended up collaborating together again?

SC: Of course, we were friends. So when we came here, we'd meet up and hang out together all the time. Then after a while we decided to work on something. That's how we started working on C FOR CLOWNS.

GD: Tell me about C FOR CLOWNS.

SC: I don't know how we picked it, but I do remember that we had been toying around with the idea of exploring clowning for a while. Again, I don't remember whose idea it was, whether it was Rajat's, Atul's or mine, but it was definitely something that had attracted all three of us. We all have, even today, this great attraction towards this whole idea of clowns.

GD: Had you worked with Clowns before?

SC: Never. None of us had ever worked with Clowns before. You know, I don't think the idea was to find a method. I think we began with working on situations-situations of love and longing to situations of sadness. You know I'm not the right person to ask this question because I have a terrible memory but this is what I remember of it. I think what we were trying to explore very crudely and viscerally was the clown in all of us. We knew that we couldn't be the clowns that you saw in the Jumbo circus because those weren't the clowns that interested us. In our heads there had to be something more to it that that. I think Rajat would be able to explain it a lot better.

For me the clown really is the very delicate and yet simple part of our beings. It's almost a simultaneous existence of two polarities. On one side, he's this hugely funny being and then on the other side, he's this hugely tragic one. Both these emotions exist within the same being at the same time in equal color, in equal magnitude and equal depth. There's nothing funnier than a clown and yet there's nothing sadder than a clown. Again there's simplicity and a complexity that exists within them. So that's what drew me to clowns and clowning. It's as though everything is felt more by that being. For me a clown is the epitome of polarities and that's probably why I'll never cease to be fascinated by it.

So that's how we started. We were exploring situations and our clowns in them. Everybody found there own clown in that point and time through that process.

GD: What is the piece about?

SC: It was a very simple piece. There's a circus clown show. It's almost like a day in the life of five clowns at a circus. There are four male clowns, familiar to the circus. Then a new entrant comes, it was I at that time, and that alters the entire dynamics of the pre-existing equation. During this process one of the clowns which is Vinay's clown (PoPo), dies but the rest have to continue working because they have a show in the evening.

GD: There have been a lot of fans of the Clown series. However, some say it's Fellini and others, Mera Naam Joker.

SC: Fellini for sure has been a huge influence. La Strada for me has surely been an influence. Buster Keaton would be an influence; Charlie Chaplain would be an influence but Mera Naam Joker not so much.

GD: You did Ibsen's HEDDA GABLER. Do you feel that he's been an underrated playwright in India?

SC: Honestly, I have not read enough Ibsen to comment on that. In fact I find it very difficult to read through most plays. Would I do another Ibsen play now? Probably not. My main attraction towards it was that Rehaan Engineer was directing it and I really wanted to work with him. For me it worked in a certain space and time in my life.

GD: One of your best works was Ionesco's CHAIRS. How do you respond to the piece, as a work of vaudeville or as a high theory of the 'Theatre of the Absurd'?

SC: I do not know enough about vaudeville to comment on it. Certainly it is a remarkable piece of absurdist theatre. Would I do it again now? Maybe not; certainly not. But at that point of time when I did it, it was great because it helped open me up as a performer. But I'm sorry as I do not think that it is one of my best works. It's not a very exciting piece for me anymore. It was then, but would I revisit it? I wouldn't.

GD: Actors could rehearse a lot before shows but often an entirely new beast emerges when they step on to the stage. Has that happened with you?

SC: Of course, stuff like that keeps happening. No two shows are ever the same. Sometimes magic happens, but I can't pintpoint as to why it happens but it just does. I guess that's the beauty of it being a live medium. I can't give you an instance. However, there was this one time that I got hurt really badly. We were doing Stoppard's ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, which was directed by Atul. There were a lot of different set changes during the third act, and it was really dark on stage. There was a heavy rope ladder with wooden steps that needed to fall down from the catwalk during the blackout. But because it was so dark and chaotic, the ladder fell on my head. I was playing the head player and I used to wear a big leather hat for that part. I could feel the blood trickling down and when I took off the hat I realized that it was covered in blood. My entry was in the next ten seconds. So I tore off my cloth bag, covered my head with it and put the hat back on and finished the third act. That was the most dramatic thing to happen to me during a show.

It's always surprising because there are days when you feel like it's all going to go down terribly, but then the show turns out to be amazing and you can't put your finger on how that happened.

GD: What's your approach as an actor?

SC: Oh man, I'm so not the right person to ask these questions. My approach is to take it as it comes. Each new day of rehearsal brings in something new and then those little things eventually come together to help form the larger picture. Also I'm an extremely lazy actor. I don't like to do homework or secondary readings or read up additional literature. However, this time I'm starting to work on Rehaan's new play and we're working with a specific historical time and space so I'm going to have to go in prepared. So, I guess it just depends on the piece.

GD: What is your routine on show day? Do you still get nervous?

SC: I still get that feeling in my stomach on a show day. I like to get to the theatre in time and have some peace and quiet. I don't like to run around too much on show days. I hate it when we're running behind schedule and doing techs till the last minute because it makes me agitated and jittery. I want the last two hours before showtime to simply get my bearings together and relax. That's pretty much it. I like to do a warm up or a collective warm up. Sometimes I remember that I would like to walk through the whole play. Just simply walk through it without any lines or anything.

GD: Any play that you would have like to have been a part of/ performed in?

SC: NOTES ON CHAI by Jyoti Dogra. I would have loved to been a part of it. I think she's fabulous at what she does. STORIES IN A SONG if I could sing, but I can't sing. Manav's plays I love to watch. I mean one doesn't really get to watch a lot of yummy hindi theatre apart from Manav's and some of Naseer's work.

GD: You watch a lot of plays but you never leave. Why do you endure so much bad theatre?

SC: Hahaha. Who told you that? I bet it was Atul. Yeah, it's rare that I would leave a play. I don't think that I've ever left a play. Now I'm watching a lot lesser because ever since my baby came, it's become a bit difficult to take time out, but there was a time when I used to watch a lot of theatre. I just love it. If there's ever a choice between catching an averagely good film or a play, I think I would go see a play any day.

GD: Why is that? Is it because it's live?

SC: I think that would be simplifying it. It's more complicated than that. For me it's very difficult to nail why I do theatre or love it. It stirs you in another way like nothing else does. Obviously there's something to be said about the fact that it's live. Something about the fact that you're a part of that time and space, in that very moment, but there's also an insider's view. It's like when you go to watch a play, and you can see all that has gone into it. There is the stage, but there are the wings and the green room behind it that are just as equally dramatic. And even from just sitting in the audience, I can imagine the whole beast, with its arms, legs and head. It's a lot of work. I don't know how actors do it. It's a lot of time and energy that goes into creating a piece of theatre. To have to invest months into rehearsing for a play and committing to only that while simultaneously running a house is no easy task. It's a tough call but we still choose to do theatre because it's such an alluring process.

*Gaurangi Dang is an English Literature graduate from the University of Delhi and a student of The Drama School (DSM), Mumbai. She likes to tell stories :)

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