Umesh Shukla Interview
After attaining success in films and television, writer, director, actor and producer Umesh Shukla keeps returning to the stage. "I don't think I will ever be able to give up theatre,” he says. Starting up the theatre in college, where he participated in inter-collegiate drama competitions—the best training ground for stage aspirants--and learnt from the best like the late Mahendra Joshi, Paresh Pawal and Manoj Shah.

He comes from a family of priests, who conduct poojas in people's homes, and says that till he graduated from college, he used to conduct poojas too. "I grew up in Bhuleshwar,” he says, referring to a densely populated area in South Mumbai, "in the chawl culture. There was no connection at all with theatre, and I have no formal training—I learnt on the job, by trial and error."

After directing one of the biggest hits in Gujarati theatre—KANJI VIRUDDH KANJI—and being involved with many other successful productions as producer, writer or director, at present, he has two productions running successfully in Mumbai—the Hindi version of Saumya Joshi's Gujarati hit WELCOME ZINDAGI and MADHURI DIXIT.

 By Deepa Gahlot

At a time when Hindi theatre is going through a tough time, why did you decide to do a Hindi play?

Not just Hindi, all theatre is doing badly after the pandemic. Everything really changed, audiences want to watch OTT and things are very difficult. Being from theatre backgrounds, Saumya and I believed that if we do something good, people will definitely come back; people are starting to tire of OTT, and good content will draw them back to the theatre. WELCOME ZINDAGI opened to a terrific response, and MADHURI DIXIT is the number one play now. It is a very different play and has no stars. It's the content that is working.

You have a long-standing professional partnership with Saumya Joshi, how did that come about?

We do all our work together! When I did KANJI VIRUDDH KANJI, I heard Saumya had done a one-act play DOST, AIN CHOKAS NAGAR VASTU HATU. I wondered, one-act play ka kya itna garmi, and one weekend I went to see it. Saumya is younger than me, but I thought I should make him my guru. I am a big fan, and I told him whatever you are going to do next, let me know. The he came to see KANJI, and we saw that our sensibilities matched. We believed, theatre ho to aisa ho, alag ho, to maza aaye. We gelled very well and have been working together very well too. Then he was doing WELCOME ZINDAGI in Gujarati in Ahmedabad and had completed rehearsals. Bharat Thakkar, who was with me in theatre, along with Bhavesh Mandalia and Hemal Thakkar, we all went to see it in Ahmedabad. There was no audience, just the four of us, watching a rehearsal, and we were blown away. We just had to get the play to Mumbai. It was challenging, because all the actors were new, and not stars. How would people accept it? But it was so good, the writing, direction, performances. It was set in a lower middle class home, the men wore pyjama kurtas and the woman, wore a maxi—you know, the kind that women wear at home. Gujarati theatre at the time was full of chakachaundh and the questions used to be, where did you get the saris from, where did you get the suits stitched. There was some good work happening in parallel theatre, but mainstream, theatre was larger than life, not realistic. And WELCOME ZINDAGI was a realistic play. But it became such a big hit that all records were broken. When Paresh Rawal saw it, he said that it was like Saumya had slapped us all awake, such a lesson he has given us. It was a rage!

So, we decided to work together going forward. I told Saumya, whatever he wanted to do, to come to me with a budget, and even if I didn't have the money, I would find it. We did 102 NOT OUT, AAJ JAANE KI ZIDD NA KARO and other productions.

KANJI VIRUDDH KANJI has been your biggest hit?

As a director, yes. There were other hits like KAMAL PATEL VERSUS DHAMAAL PATEL, HAILA RAMILA PACHHI AAVI, TAME MANE GAMO CHHO, NATU I LOVE YOU. But KANJI was different, after a long time there was a play that was liked by audiences and critics. It was done as KISHAN VERSUS KANHAIYA in Hindi by Paresh Rawal, in Marathi, Kannada, Tamil. After the show, people would stand outside, not to meet the actors, but to discuss the play. They would be talking about whether to cancel a pooja, whether they should go to Siddhi Vinayak Temple, whether they should fast… that's when we realized the impact of the play. A 75-year-old couple wanted to tough the director's feet, saying that if I had done this play 25 years back, their lives would have turned out very differently. It made me question my own work, what I had done before, what I would do next. When I saw WELCOME ZINDAGI, I felt we know nothing!

You don't act any longer?

I started theatre doing backstage, then did roles. I remember doing a play in English—PSYCHO, in which I played mother and son and that was challenging for me, because I am studied in Gujarati medium. I didn't think I was that good an actor. I was always inclined towards writing and direction. I also found acting—particularly in films—boring.

A few big theatre spectacles have done well recently, do you thing that's the way to get audiences back?

I have a couple of scripts like that. I have been exploring ideas with Saumya, to do something at that level.

After successfully making the transition to films and making hits, what keeps you returning to theatre?

Theatre is where my craft keeps getting sharpened. Getting that instant reaction makes a difference. I feel any subject can first be explored in theatre, because I get all kinds of crowd. It is difficult for me to give up theatre. You know, for about three years, I was unable to do theatre. Every Sunday, I had such a craving, that I would go to see a play, and then I would hold on to the curtain and pray, bring me back here. When I don't have time to direct, I write. Like I adapted MADHURI DIXIT, and changed it to suit the Gujarati sensibility, of course, with the original Marathi writer's (Abhijeet Guru) permission.

Gujarati theatre producers often say that they are losing audiences, because young people no longer watch their plays.

Saumya and I have been attempting to get back the youth. The problem is that are no Gujarati medium schools any more. In the family, people speak in English or Hindi. They don't speak of read Gujarati, don't get Gujarati newspapers at home. That's why the young audience is disconnected. It is a very shocking thing for us. During the lockdown, I tried to teach Gujarati to people, I distributed books. Not just because they should come to see my plays, but because there is so much great literature; if they read, they will be aware of it. So, yes it is a concern, and we are working towards solving it.

Two of your plays, KANJI VIRUDDH KANJI and 102 NOT OUT have been turned into successful did you visualize them for the screen?

Both the mediums are equally challenging. In a play, you know you have to culminate it in 8-9 scenes, there is no fixed grammar to it, but we have to demarcate certain things. Films have a different potential. In films, there is a term, suspension of disbelief, in theatre, the audience is the fourth wall, cinema is 360 degrees. Both are equally challenging, both are equally exciting. In KANJI, there were eight sequences in the film Oh My God, there were 118, so there's a vast difference. Some people believe that if you go from stage to film, then you have to open it up. But it is not all about opening up walls. It depends on the requirement of the subject. In 102 Not Out, the character wants to stay within four walls, he does not want to come out, and that was the challenge. The claustrophobic environment that the person wants to live in, how to open that up, how to expand the canvas? So cinema has its own language, you have to work with the content. In Oh My God I had the liberty to take it to different locations. OMG had a universal appeal, if you question the existence of God, when every home, every car, every wallet has a religious symbol, you question their belief.

Will WELCOME ZINDAGI AND MADHURI DIXIT also be turned to film?

Definitely. Welcome Zindagi will be very different and very interesting. We are planning something

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