Thursday, 1 May 2008

A midsummer evening’s dream

Act One
Grizzled narrator ambles in, props butt against large black cube, the only prop on stage.
Narrator: Back in the day, I appeared in a musical, and got to see a few Bombay theatres from what has always been the right side of the proscenium for me. Later, performance put aside, I did reviews, visited pretty much every theatre in the city. And, despite my early pash for stages large enough to swing a cat (or Cats) in, I fell madly in love with little Prithvi, the first of its kind that I’d ever set foot in. One day, I said, one day..
Editor, off-stage: Get on with it, dammit!
Narrator: Enough about me. A little background to, heh, set the stage?
Lights fade.

Act Two
A clock face is projected on to the backdrop, its hands spinning backwards. Dissolve to sepia-tinted vignettes. A rich, warm voice, Naseerbhai for choice, speaks..
Father Time: In the 1940s, Prithviraj Kapoor strode majestically across our silver screens. He was also actor-manager of his touring theatre group, Prithvi Theatres. And he founded a film dynasty: his sons, Raj, and then Shammi, moved quickly from stage to massively successful film careers. As did the youngest, Shashi; but not before falling, hard, for the beauteous Jennifer, lead actress of Shakespeareana, the travelling theatre company led by her father, Geoffrey Kendall. The story goes thus: at the now-defunct Royal Opera House in Bombay, Shashi peeped through the curtains at the audience, and saw “this fabulous looking girl who looked Russian.” Shakespeareana had the next run after Prithvi vacated; so she was at a loose end. Shashi worked up the nerve to first ask Jennifer out, then propose to her, and eventually, despite initial parental disapproval, marry her.
In 1975, the couple set up the Shri Prithviraj Kapoor Memorial Trust (the patriarch’s died in ’72) and then, in ’78, Prithvi Theatre, on land the old gentleman had once leased, intending to set up his own theatre.
A voice from the audience chimes in. Spotlight on pretty lady sitting on the steps near the exit.
Sanjna Kapoor: I remember a peculiar L-shaped building completely unsuitable for theatre. My grandfather eventually used it to store costumes! The trips out to Juhu were wonderful; I played on the beach with my dog while my mother pored over plans with the architect. Prithvi opened when I was ten. I used to fall asleep in the sofas in the last row! I turned sixteen during the first Festival my mother organised.
She ran Prithvi until she died in 1984. Then my brother Kunal, and Feroze Khan, kept it running smoothly. I apprenticed under them, learnt a lot, and in 1990, I joined in.

Act Three
The narrator saunters back into the spotlight like he owns the damn thing.
Narrator: Prithvi is a ‘little’ theatre, seating 200 on three sides of a ‘thrust’ stage that places the action intimately close to the audience. Despite its tucked-away-in-Juhu location, convenient only for residents of the not-too-far-flung western suburbs, almost every actor of consequence who has set foot in the city has passed through its green room, every theatre lover in the city has applauded here at least a few times. Prithvi also hosts workshops, exhibitions, films, music, and poetry. Integral adjuncts are a wee bookshop, and Prithvi Cafe, hang-out not just for the after-theatre crowd and off-duty actors but also for the suburban folk acquiring cool cred over coffee. Sanjna, fortified by two strong theatre bloodlines and a deep love of the stage, has kept it going—and growing—against the depredations of weekend movies on TV, 24/7 channels, video (and VCD, LD and DVD) libraries, and if that wasn’t enough, multiplexes, malls and downloadable entertainment.
The spotlight shifts again, to the last row, where Sanjna sits, smiling..
Sanjna: I don’t fall asleep in the last row anymore. At least not lying down! (She continues, more seriously..) We have kept Prithvi affordable, both for the players (charges go as low as seven rupees per ticket sold, basic lights and sound free) and audiences (you get 50 rupee tickets on Tuesdays and Wednesdays). Sponsorship has kept us going. The Trust, a non-profit, is building up its own corpus. Donations are welcome; you’ll find details at We have great plans for the thirtieth anniversary. I don’t want to let out too much just yet, but it will be a mix of local, national and international theatre, and I wish my days had thirty-six hours!

Curtain Call
The narrator stands on the black cube, beating his chest, Tarzan-style, and simpering coyly. Simultaneously. Obviously we’ll need a virtuoso performer.
Narrator: Recently, an old, secret dream came true: I was centre-stage at Prithvi. Not quite in the way I dreamt of, all those years ago; it wasn’t a play, it was an evening of poetry, and I was the obscure newbie reading with a half-dozen luminaries; and no, it wasn’t packed to the rafters with screaming groupies. But they clapped. And it was sweet, so sweet.

Published in Outlook Traveller, May 2008.


No comments: