Theatre Speaks

Joy Sengupta
Actor, Director
[English/Hindi Theatre ]

Which is the last good play you saw and why?

On Mumbai stage, the last interesting play that I saw was SHIKHANDI, the devised piece by Faezeh Jalali....a complex theme of transgender identities in mythological context, visualized through a stylized and physical theatre form; and Abhishek Majumdars's MUKTIDHAM, a highly provocative yet meditative look at the politics of religion in ancient India. Internationally, the NT Live at home screening of JANE EYRE blew my senses away by its minimalist- metaphorical aesthetics, to visualize the emotional fervour of the classic Emily Bronte literature.

Your favourite adda to see a play...

Prithvi Theatre, with its architecture, aesthetics, atmosphere, energy and most of all, pedigree, is my favourite adda for any form of cultural exchange.

Your favourite playwright...

I have several favourites, but in Indian context, Vijay Tendulkar with his topical versatility, ranging from GHASHIRAM KOTWAL to SHANTATA! COURT CHALU AAHE to MITRACHI Gosht and Badar Sircar with his diversity of forms, from PAGLA GHODA to EVAM INDRAJEET to JULOOS, deserve all the adulation.

Internationally, I regard Tom Stoppard very highly

Your favourite play character...

From what I have done, the character of MK Gandhi in SAMMY (huge thanks to director-producer Lillete Dubey's conviction) holds a very big place in my consciousness. Of what I have seen or read Iago from OTHELLO, intrigued me, with his singular pursuit of destroying the happiness of people who were his well wishers.

A play you would like to see filmed. Why?

A very odd choice amongst the Indian plays, is a relatively under appreciated play that I did in the recent past--- Girish Karnad's BOILED BEANS IN TOAST ( Dir: Lillete Dubey)-- a pithy look at globalization, urbanization, misplaced notions of development and and migration of labour in the shadow of insider-outsider urban attitude.
This play was fragmented in its action and kaleidoscopic in its vision and will translate very well in the indie cinema space.

Amongst international plays Stoppard's Rock & Roll, is a brilliant experiment of using the underground music of a Czechoslovak rock group as a mirror to the Prague Spring Uprising and the conflict it fuelled in the British Left can be a grungy yet philosophical cinematic document, under someone like Michael Winterbottom's direction.

A novel/short story you would like to see on stage? Why?

The short stories from Jhumpa Lahiri's INTERPRETER OF MALADIES, especially the story of a loadshedding one night in the life of a non-communicative couple, or Mrs. Chatterjee's attempt to learn driving to fit into American culture, are so emotive and full of inner and external conflicts and present a dramatic challenge.

The most hilarious play you have seen...

Most of the satires written in the 70s were howlariously stimulating.....the one which comes to mind is Ranjit Kapoor's EK GHODA TEEN SAWAAR, Barry John's production of BAGHDAD KA GULAM (Raghuvir Yadav in the title character in this adaptation of SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS) was really rip roaring. In recent times, Atul Kumar's folksy Shakespearean PIYA BEHRUPIYA was hilariously innovative.

A play which is over-hyped...

Most of the contemporary plays written and performed in present times are overhyped, because post the golden period of playwriting -- early 60s to the late 80s -- from KALLOL to AGRA BAZAAR to ADHE ADHURE to TUGHLAQ TO ANDHA YUG to PRATIBIMB to NATHABOTI ANATHBAT, etc etc etc, I haven't seen plays/ theatre of that topicality, universality and depth.

An important play, but ignored...

A play I had seen, NSD Repertory perform in the 90s, Dudhnath Singh's YAMGATHA, directed by Bhanu Bharati -- tribal prince PURVUA'S rebellion against INDRAA (a subaltern interpretation of a myth, countering the Aryan perspective), is a radical play in its tone structure...yet, I haven't heard about any other production of it.....sad.

A play character you would like to "dialogue" with...

A favourite performance of a play I was involved in, Chekov's THREE SISTERS, had me playing Baron Tuzhenbach opposite the idealistic Irina, the girl he was in love character dies before knowing what's in Irina's heart....would be nice to converse with her and know the secrets of her heart.

I would also like to talk to / converse with, Brutus in Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR and convince him of his potential to lead Rome, not as a murderer, but as a diplomat.

A passage from an important play that you can recite...


A classical play that you should have read...

ABHIGYAN SHAKUNTALAM as an Indian content and LYSISTRATA as a western content.

A play that changed your perception about the theatre....

When I saw Badal Sircar's JULOOS ( MICHIL in bengali) on a Durga Puja stage in Delhi, even as a kid, I was stuck by this fluid form, emerging from the crowd and taking place without any set or costume or music. It was exhilarating and shaped my perception of Theatre as a primitive yet modern, dramatic yet political form.

How do you regard the Mumbai theatre scene?

Mumbai is probably the most active and patronizing city for theatre, with a burgeoning group of new generation of theatre enthusiasts. But along with it, one often rues the lack of depth, density of content and dramaturgy (with many possible exceptions like my all time favourite SEX, MORALITY & CENSORSHIP ). It tends to be, often, too crowd pleasing.

Have you read any interesting books/articles concerning the theatre? Why did you find them interesting?

Currently I am reading HALLABOL the journey of Revolutionary Theatre artiste Safdar Hashmi, who was also my mentor, yet, there were many facets of history around his life, that I was unaware of....which is enlightening, from a cultural movement point of view

If you have ever been a part of a theatre production/s, can you recall an event that was insightful, significant or simply humorous?

In my very cocky theatre circuit days during college, once for BITS Pilani Festival (where we had won the previous year with an experimental play) we decided to do something even more experimental --- AJATGHAR -- a two-actor play ( Naseeruddin Shah and TP Jain had done the first production). So we landed in Pilani (automatically selected) without putting in enough rehearsal and grind, confident that we will fly, purely on talent and some divine blessing; instead, it became a nightmare of nerves, forgotten passages, botched up cues, terrible stage craft, etc. We came third, but I have never been so embarrassed ever, as I learnt the lesson, that, hard hard hard work in the rehearsal space, is irreplaceable ....

Can you think of a foreign production that you found remarkable? Why?

Two foreign productions which I saw on NT Live just left me gasping--THE LEHMAN BROTHERS (Sam Mendes)--a three-and-a-half, epic dramaturgy, (with three inspiring actors/ narrators and a bunch of boxes in a revolving glass cage), chronicling 120 years and three generations and a plethora of characters, simultaneously highlighting the history of American capitalism, from 19th century production economy to 21st century virtual economy and its neccessary evils, through the journey of three Jewish immigrants to America and their adventures in winning and losing the turf of success.

The second one was FRANKENSTEIN' by Danny Boyle (featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, which was an orgy of imagination and craft, empathy and dilemma of emotions and titanic performances, both individual and ensemble.

Another one I must mention, which I witnessed on Broadway (on a very expensive ticket) -- COPENHAGEN---unlike any Broadway production, this play had no set, no change of costumes, just three actors and three chairs, creating Time, Space and Images out of a very very dense scientific jargon, while unearthing the universal conflict of science for science's sake, or science for the good of the mankind.

Your favourite director/actor/music or set designer...

My favourite directors internationally are, Peter Hall ( saw his GLASS MENAGERIE in the West End) and Sam Mendes (saw his CABARET in Studio 55, Broadway) and Nicholas Hytner (a gender and race bending, MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM).

In India, HABIB TANVIR, with his minimalist craft of bringing politics and pageantry, folk and modernism, grassroots and high art, together, redefined the very concept of what People's Theatre should be like.

Another director whose visual sense and dramatic vision combine very entertainingly to create sometimes spectacular and sometimes raw, but always provocative theatre is MK Raina.

Amongst Actors, some of the performances which have remained etched in my memory-- Sreeram Lagoo in UDHWAST DHARMSHALA, (on a chair throughout, only profile to the audience, just voice and simple gestures creating magnetism of ideas); Naseeruddin Shah in WAITING FOR GODOT (the energy, the verve, the enjoyment brought into a non-active, gibberish and tedious dramaturgy, communicating the Hopelessness and Hopefulness, in equal measure) .

Asit Mukherjee in a Bengali adaptation of Arthur Miller's THE PRICE ( NILAM NILAM), opened my eyes, to the possibility of Naturalism on stage, while being so dramaticaly effective and true to the playwright's spirit....bravura performance and my benchmark.

Finally IRRFAN KHAN in an adaptation of Maxim Gorky's LOWER DEPTHS ( TALGHAR, an NSD production) was mesmeric in a relatively non verbal, monotonic, minimal motional, performance of such sub textual richness, it's still bewildering, after so many years.

Special mention, Manoj Bajpayee's characterization of the traditional Male in Female garb, dancers, exploited and celebrated, in equal measure, in the play NETUWA; Deepak Tiwari's virtuoso folksy performance in the title role in CHARANDAS CHOR, is the highest template in Indian traditional performative idiom (song, dance, clownery, narration, drama) and not to forget Raghuveer Yadav's mastery over farcical craft, in BAGHDAD KA GHULAM is world class in timing, energy and impact.

In music, my all time favourite is Bhaskar Chandavarkar of GHASHIRAM KOTWAL fame, followed by B.V. Karanth (THREE PENNY OPERA) and Mohan Upreti (THE MOTHER)--these people transformed Theatre Music into definitive Art and not just communicative projection.

In set/ stage design, Ebrahim Alkazi was a master of transforming a space, tiny or expansive, indoor or outdoor, into theatre magic

A significant Indian production that you may have witnessed...

There would be very well known and another, very little....Habib Tanveer's CHARANDAS CHOR, a mythical folk satire on morality and class conflict, and Anamika Haskar's epic for NSD 2nd year--- RAJ SE SWARAJ (written by Rati Bartholomew and Shamik Bandopadhyay) -- an outstanding theatre mise en scene on the dreaded and misused 19th century Dramatic Performance Act, bringing a collage of historical performances in defiance and looking at cultural imperialism in the 20th century.

Life in the theatre without the humble batata-wada or the cutting chai... or can you recall the best gastronomic experience you've had in the precincts of the theatre to date?

Our rehearsals in our amateur group theatre days was to survive on the humble bread pakora and chai, at Mandi House, Delhi. In Mumbai, I look forward to the bhelpuri outside Prithvi Theatre and Kheema pav and Irish Coffee inside; the ham and roast puff sandwich at St Andrews's; the chicken roll at Sophia, and the chutney sandwich with cold coffee at NCPA.
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