World Theatre Day of Manav Kaul on juggling cinema

‘I have tea as well as coffee, and of course, they are different, they have to be, that is why we are having both. The same is the case with theatre and cinema,’ says Manav Kaul.

At the risk of sounding hackneyed, let me start by quoting a famous quote by William Shakespeare because, in my defence, The Bard Of Avon is anything but trite, especially when the topic at hand is theatre. “All the world’s a stage,” he said, “and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”

One of the most prominent performing arts, theatre is a powerful craft that draws a connection between the spectator and the performer, unlike any other art form. Indian theatre is one of the most ancient forms of theatre in the world, and has observed an extensive influence across borders.

Today, as we celebrate the art of theatre, it is essential to understand its spirit that lies in collaboration and experiencing a trajectory of themes and people that are beyond our sphere of influence.

On the occasion of World Theatre Day, Firstpost spoke to theatre director, actor, playwright, author, poet, and filmmaker Manav Kaul about his work in theatre as well as what it means to be an artist. Excerpts from the interview are as follows.

What does theatre mean to you, as an artist, and even more so, as a person?

I’ve been doing theatre for a long time. The first play I did was in 1994, and from then on, it has been this art for me that I’ve grown to love because I’ve been doing theatre for most of my adult life, so by now, it is almost like a part of me. As for me, in every city that I go to, I make it a point to attend a play first. I am in Delhi right now, and I’ve already been to two plays. London, Paris, New York, you name the place, and the first thing I do after going there is watch a play because for me, theatre in every corner of the world is different and extremely local. It is representative of the place’s identity, and provides for cultural relativity so that you know the place better.

If there is one thing you could tell people about theatre, what would it be?

So I firmly believe that you know there’s one section of society that doesn’t give two cents about it, while there’s another section that enjoys it, whether it’s doing it, or watching, which is fine because it’s a personal choice. At the risk of sounding aloof, I am not the kind of person that will tell people to come and watch plays because I think everyone should have respect for everyone’s choices. I do theatre, and if people find it interesting and exciting then they should watch it. If not, they should do something else that interests them.

So does this mean that your connection with theatre is immune to public view?

See, it’s simple for me: I do theatre because I love it. It excites me, not just performing, but also watching it. Theatre is not always about acting. I am also producing plays, making plays, writing them, and doing all sorts of things. Simply put, I am in every sense, a ‘theatre guy!’

You have done a substantial amount of work in theatre and cinema, and while as a craft, they may intersect at some point, the reception of both is quite different. In theatre, there is an immediate reaction which is not the same for cinema. Is that something you have to grapple with as an actor?

Obviously, there’s a difference, but let me give you a simple analogy.

They are a part of the same bigger artform, which is storytelling, and I am a part of it. I enjoy doing both, and I don’t pass judgements of which is better, or what is the difference. I am happy that I can do both, and I want to continue doing both. At the end of the day, both the crafts demand sheer hard work, and I respect that. I respect the way so many people come together to tell a story that they believe in, and I am fortunate and lucky to have been a part of some amazing plays, and some very exciting cinema as well.

You are a writer, a director, and an actor as well, which is great. But does it ever happen that there is a conflict between each of these roles. Like does the writer in you ever get in the way of the actor or the director?

See, on most days all these roles are essentially complimenting each other because in the end, you’re an artist. But of course, it is quite possible that you know what’s on paper doesn’t necessarily translate on screen or on stage, which is where you know, you see some kind of incongruity between let’s say, the writer and director. But it’s nothing major because as an artist, you understand the larger picture, and can in fact use all these skills to create a worthy product.

How does it feel to be doing so many things at once?

Wonderful because it’s the way of life that I’ve chosen for myself, and what’s better than a life that is filled with all kinds of artistic expressions. I do everything: painting, acting, writing, photography, filmmaking, theatre direction and production because I also get bored very easily. Thus I always want to do something new and different. If there’s any other art form that I haven’t done yet then I wish to do that as well.

Since you are doing so many things together, is every day extremely different for you, than the one before?

It is, and that’s how I like it because I have to wake up every morning and feel excited to do what I am going to do. If I am going to be doing the same thing every day then the predictability is going to kill me. So I have designed my life in such a way that I am not stuck in a rut.

Your first play Shakkar Ke Paanch Daane was on a common man’s life, and had a philosophical as well as tragic tone to it. Despite that, it also had this odd sense of humour to make it light for the viewers. Is that a conscious effort, to put yourself in the audience’s shoes and anticipate the reaction?

Absolutely not. I’ve no interest in what the audience thinks because as a quintessential artist, my process is inwards and outwards. My thought behind this is that I love humour, and also because every philosophical discussion should and does have an underlying current of humour to it. In fact, Ilhaam, which is an extremely dark play that I’ve done, as well as Peele Scooter Wala Aadmi, have a sense of humour to them, because it appeals to my sensibilities, and that is the way I see life. The audience doesn’t come to my mind because firstly, it’s always going to be a gamble, and secondly, if you’re true to your core then there will be people who’ll find it interesting, and even if there aren’t, it’s okay because you’ve told the story in a manner that you found to be right, which is important.

Natyashastra states, “entertainment is merely an effect of performing arts, not the primary goal.” Tell me what does entertainment mean for you?

Speaking very frankly, entertaining others is great, and it’s a privilege. But for me, the most important thing is to have fun. If I am not entertained by what I am doing, how will others be? So I have to be entertained, and for me, living is entertainment. I don’t want to be entertained in the future. I don’t want to be entertained by thinking about whether you’ll be entertained. I want to be entertained by what I am doing at that moment.

You started your own theatre group Aranya in 2003. Tell us something about it?

It was actually very instinctive. There was no plan or anything. We wanted to do a play that I’d written, Shakkar Ke Paanch Daane, and someone told me that you need to open a group. So I said this is my group, these are the people, after which they said, that you’ll have to name it, and I was reading Antim Aranya by Nirmal Verma then, so I named it Aranya. All in all, there was an extremely childlike innocence to it because I wanted to do one play and leave, but then while doing this, I wrote another play, Peele Scooter Wala Aadmi, so I decided that I’ll do this, and then leave, but then another play happened like that, and soon I’d done 12-13 plays. So we were basically moving forward very impulsively.

You mentioned Nirmal Verma, and I have heard that he, along with Vinod Kumar Shukla, Charles Bukowski, and Franz Kafka, has been a big influence on you. Is that right?

Yes. But that said, I am influenced by every writer. Nirmal Verma and Vinod Kumar Shukla are of course the greatest that we have in Hindi so it’s natural to be influenced by them. But speaking in a broader sense, it is the art of writing that inspires me, which is every writer in my eyes is a star. In fact, my play Red Sparrow is about famous writers and legendary characters of literature. In a way, it’s an ode to these people. It has Kafka, Bukowski, Kafka’s father, Vinod Kumar, Nirmal Verma, Rumi, and more. It has a comic book touch to it, where these writers are having fun and doing bizarre things. So writing and writers have always been something that impacted me greatly.

You made the Hindi adaption of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos. So speaking of adaptations, would you like to adapt Shakespeare’s plays one day, since he is of course the greatest playwright in history?

Oh yes! Most definitely. In fact, at one point in time, I was writing a play about Shakespeare’s life because I wanted to give a tribute to this man who revolutionised theatre and literature. It’s half-written, and maybe someday, I might finish it.

Hindi Theatre has a niche audience while cinema has a mass appeal. Is that something that bothers you? Do you wish to give it a place in popular culture?

I’ve no interest in that because I don’t do theatre or cinema with an agenda to take it somewhere. For me, any sort of art is very personal, and it is immune to external response. This desire to do something to make your work more popular is I feel foolish because the ones interested in theatre will come and see, no matter how ‘niche’ it is. You can’t go roaming around, promoting it. Why should everything be painted in a commercial colour? What’s for the masses is for the masses, and what’s niche is niche. Let’s leave it to that, and stop trying to make everything for everyone because it’s not possible.

Takshi Mehta is a freelance journalist and writer. She firmly believes that we are what we stand up for, and thus you’ll always find her wielding a pen.

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