Suruchi Aulakh
I was nervous. I was terribly late for my tête-à-tête with Suruchi Aulakh. The door of her house was covered with a child's artwork. In the centre, was her daughter Ananya's sketch of her mother and herself, smiling the widest smiles ever. Soon enough Suruchi put me to ease. She was warm and forthcoming in the conversation that followed. The actress has been an integral part of Mumbai theatre for nearly two decades. She has worked with significant directors- from Naseeruddin Shah to Sunil Shanbag and has collaborated with new writers and theatre groups. She also runs her own company.

 By Gaurangi Dang

Gaurangi Dang (GD): Tell us about yourself.

Suruchi Aulakh (SA): I was born and brought up in Bombay. Then when I was in the ninth grade, I went to this boarding school called Rishi Valley in Andhra Pradesh. In a way Rishi Valley is like a regular ICSE school. You have to write your ISC and ICSE exams
like regular board students. But the school is set in a beautiful space and there are things that it chooses to do differently. Later I wrote my SAT exam and went to the USA. It was incredible and I would recommend a liberal arts education to everybody. It's amazing what education backed by passion and funding can do to the culture of education. Every semester you have to take about five to six courses, which could span from philosophy to science. So you get to learn about everything and then do interesting things like a double major. For instance I'm a double major in Philosophy and Theatre whereas my sister did English and Pre-med. When I came back, I was amazed to hear things like, ''Oh, there were only twenty seats in Sociology, so now I'm doing Economics.'' That's playing with your whole life because the cut-offs in our education system are so high.

GD: How did you decide on acting as a profession?

SA: I think I was extremely sure that this is what I wanted to do from a very young age. I was one of those kids who would always be performing. I was in the colony plays, in the drama club at school, the one who was constantly forcing my siblings and cousins to act and bossing them around. I had started learning Bharatnatyam at the age of five, so there was a very strong leaning towards the arts from a very young age. Infact, often my first response to things is to dance.

So, I always knew, but there came a time when I had to muster the courage to tell my parents. It was an immediate 'No' from their side and so we left it at that for a while. Then when I graduated from college, I just knew that this was what I wanted to do. Acting came as naturally to me as breathing. So I mustered the courage one more time and told my parents. This time I wasn't asking. I was letting them know that this was what I had decided on.

GD: And, then?

SA: It was very hard because not only was I choosing a profession in which there was very little money, but also because I had just returned from the US, and I honestly didn't know how to survive here. I had been in a boarding school and then had gone straight to the US. Also, by this time my parents had moved to the US, so I had no family left in the city.

The first play that I ever worked on was a Gujarati commercial play. A friend of mine had gotten me the gig. At my first day of rehearsal, I realized that the atmosphere was a tad strange; it was very different from what I thought it would be. I eventually recognize one of the people at rehearsal because she was this really famous dancer from the 80s named Prema Narayanan. Then I realized that the man in front of me was Anant Mahadevan who was this famous film and TV actor, and the other actress was Ami Trivedi, who is very well known in Gujarati theatre. The play was a masala entertainer about a man, his wife and his secretary.

Simultaneously, I had started working with Vikram (Kapadia), and back then I had no idea about theatre in the city. I didn't know that there was something called a 'commercial' play vs. a 'experimental' play. I didn't know anything. I was just happy to be working, and then this Gujarati play started travelling a lot and I ended up earning so much from it. The play was called DING, DONG, DEAD. It was the kind of play that had a sound effect for every step my character took. The director was Feroz Bhagat, whom I later found out, was called 'Bang Bang' director because he liked to use a lot of special effects. It was quite an experience, but I loved those people.

I remember being ill for a really long time but I continued to labour on. It was hard but it was also exhilarating because I got to work with incredible people right from the very beginning. I got to work with Sunil (Shanbag), Naseer (Naseerudin Shah), and Makrand (Deshpande) so that high, kind of made up for all the poverty and hunger and for being cut off from the family.

GD: How did you end up working for all these people?

SA: There was a whole bunch of us who were doing theatre at that time. Divya Jagdale, Sheeba Chaddha, Heeba Shah, Jaimini Pathak, Joy Fernandes, Manav Kaul, Atul Kulkarni, Atul Kumar. We all started working around the same time. Some of the people from our time chose not to continue with theatre and others moved on to film and television. I started backstage. I was working for a Hindi adaptation of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM that was being staged at Prithvi. Back then there weren't a lot of restrictions at Prithvi, and so post the show, we'd have these long and elaborate discussions that would go into the night; also because we had very little money to go elsewhere. Then there was an opening in the play and I stepped in to play the part. Jaimini Pathak was a part of this production and he was also working for Sunil Shanbag at the time. Jamini and I had become good friends and I'd often spend time at his rehearsals. Around this time Sunil was starting work on a Manto short story, so he called me in for a script reading and that's how I started working in DO QAUME.

GD: Among the various roles you have played, you are known for your work in in Vikram Kapadia's production of ROMEO AND JULIET, in Sunil Shanbag's DO QAUME and as 'Sashiji' in Ramu Ramanathan's play 3, SAKINA MANZIL. All three pieces are about unrequited love. How did you prepare for these characters?

SA: You know at that time we didn't really follow a particular methodology or system like the kind that you learn at a Drama School. The preparation simply came from showing up everyday at rehearsal and reading. Most of the directors back then weren't even aware of particular methods because none of them were trained in that manner. So they just expected you to come and read a lot, and through the reading discover the character and then go onto the floor with it. What happened with ROMEO AND JULIET was pretty interesting because I was actually working backstage on the production for a very long time. I had this idea in my head, which I need not have had, that I was a fresher, and it was required of me to do backstage work. So I had watched Devika (Shahani) play the part of Juliet for very long and had pretty much imbibed the part by the time I got around to playing it. I absolutely loved playing the part of Juliet. She was this feisty girl who had far too much happen to her in far too little time. Vikram and I would have discussions over the sexuality of her character, what she was going through and especially the ending and how she would kill herself. There wasn't really a specific notion of methodology that we followed. It was mostly constant re-readings of the text. That's how we discovered new things. Also, my directors were wonderful because they were open towards me coming back each day and trying something new.

With DO QUAME I was so new and fresh off the boat, that the entire process was very organic. I'd play it as it came to me. I had two male co-actors rehearsing the same part and each of them would bring out something new in me. With Shashi's character, I was extremely privileged because Ramu wrote the part for me and allowed me the liberty to put my inputs into the character. There are parts of my grandmother in her, like her habit of collecting ribbons. The unrequited love bit was the hardest for me to achieve. There was this bit on page 35 of the script where I'd get stuck everytime, and couldn't go beyond because I'd simply be bawling by then. Jaimini was directing the play and he'd get so fed up with me everytime, but I couldn't help myself because the play was so emotional. This went on for about a month before I could finally move past it.

All three roles are amazing for an actress, because they are characters where the actress gets the good meaty lines. Otherwise in most plays, there just aren't strong enough parts written for women. I was working with Sunil, and then I got a chance to work with Naseer and Makrand. I did AIRAVAT with Makrand whose process is the polar opposite of that of Sunil's for he writes on the fly. He's constantly trying and evolving the piece even on the day of the show. He's handing new lines to you right before you have to go on because he's a complete tripper. In every show the play would change because sometimes the actors would simply be improvising on stage. It was incredible because he has this amazing vision. It's surreal, it's magical and he manages to create dramatic images through it that often stay with you long after the show is over. I absolutely loved it.

At that time, it was really frowned upon to work with other groups. We were pushing boundaries, because you'd have to stand up to your director and tell them ''No, I'd like to work with someone else.'' It was unheard of, and it was around this time that ANDROCLES AND THE LION happened with Naseer and some of us got cast in it and that led to a huge battle. Of course now a lot has changed because people stand up even though they run the risk of being thrown out of the repertory. You know back then we did theatre for the pure love of it because you were really being paid nothing. The size of an audience on a weekday was twenty to thirty people and if it was a good night, we could get in ninety people to watch a play. I remember very few people would turn up for Mak's( Makrand Deshpande) plays and sometimes only ten would remain after the interval. Of course it's a lot different now.

GD: You've also spent time producing work. How has that been for you?

SA: Jaimini and I formed our own company called Working Title Productions. The idea behind it was to produce contemporary writing in English. It was a lucky thing that we found Ramu (Ramanathan) because I believe he is one of the best playwrights of our country, writing in English. We tried to find diverse new voices but we didn't really find any but we were open to working with new people on each production. So that was the start of our group. It was thrilling, it was exciting, it was gut wrenching, it was heartbreaking; it was everything theatre should be and is. It was hard to get people together and get the money in but we started making money when we started travelling with our shows. You don't really make money by doing theatre in the city, infact you only earn when you travel. When you travel, everything is taken care of by the organiser, so they pay for your travel and then pay you a performance fee. I think Jaimini and I were both doing TV on the side at first, but then we got extremely busy with the company and that took up all our time. The company is still running and I believe doing really well. I now have my own company called Jhoom. We do a lot of workshops with children and corporates.

GD: Tell us more about Jhoom.

SA: When Anna was born, I just wanted to be with her. So I made the choice of not doing a lot of work for seven or eight years because the life of an actor is crazy and I did not wish to subject her to that. I spent a lot of time in those years doing workshops. I worked with Pomegranate, Theatre Professionals, various NGOs and with many other schools. Eventually, everybody wanted to sign contracts, and that would mean having to commit to work for at least two to three years. I didn't wish to do that so instead I formed my own company and chose to continue working for myself.

I had so many ideas in my head that I yearned to be implemented that I finally decided to make my way back to doing theatre. We started with RE-LAY which was directed by Faezeh Jalali and then THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF LOUIS DE ROUGEMONT by Deesh Mariwala. Now we're traveling with ISHQ AHAA, which had shows at Prithvi last month. I was lucky to meet Faezeh, because there are some people that you resonate with, and for me she is one of them. Working on 7/7/7 was a truly delightful experience for me as an actor, because all we had were the central character's memoirs and we created scenes and subsequently the play through them. Infact, we're now working on a new project together. It's a dance-based production.

GD: Who are the people that have influenced you?

SA: It may sound odd but Smita Patil. Actually, both Shabana (Azmi) and Smita. As I watched them act, the idea crystallised in my head that this is what I wanted to do. I had this really elaborate idea all planned out, that I would run away from school after the tenth grade. I was going to camp under Shabana Azmi's house, till she'd realize how capable I was and then she'd take me in and nurture me.

It was so funny because I remember my younger sister and all my friends sitting under the tree back at boarding school, trying to figure out a nice way to tell me not to go through with it. I know it sounds silly because I've never met either of them, but they made acting seem like a feasible reality for someone like me, and made me want take a chance for myself.

GD: Pick your favourite character among the ones you have played.

SA: Obviously, Shashi (3 SAKINA MANZIL). I also loved playing Juliet (Vikram Kapadia's production) and Rehaynneh Jabbari in 07/07/07 (directed by Faezeh Jalali).

GD: If you had to pick between theatre and film, which would it be?

SA: I love film and I really enjoy being in front of the camera because of the intimacy it has. When I started out, there just wasn't enough alternative cinema happening. I didn't fit the prototype to be a mainstream cinema actress. That was the era of Aishwarya, Karishma and Madhuri. I knew a few friends who worked in some big films and they absolutely hated it because they were terribly treated. Either you're the hero or the heroine, or else you don't matter. With theatre you're a part of the whole process and that's what I love about it. I get to try new roles, pick my costumes and props, and just constantly evolve my character.

GD: You've worked with several good actors. What are the drills that actors follow on the day of the show?

SA: Honestly, most of them do very little. It's you Drama School kids that are going crazy and running around warming up, whereas most other actors are just hanging out and chilling. Some actors go have a smoke; others feel the need to really use the loo. You could find a lot of actors in line outside the loo.

*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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