Free Press Journal

When the stars come out to play…


Film stars are creating magic on stage, now more than ever. NICHOLA PAIS goes backstage to trace the trend.

Step into a darkened auditorium and you would be forgiven for thinking you had strayed into a movie theatre – there’s Neena Gupta and Anupam Kher moving the audience to tears. Naseeruddin Shah astounding, like only he can.ShabanaAzmi leaving them speechless. And ShekharSuman and Deepti Naval transporting them to a love that never died…Yes, it is starry times for theatre for sure, as increasing numbers of film actors create magic on the floorboards… and much-needed moolah for the relatively small but immensely powerful medium. Of course, no one’s complaining!

There is no sidelining the fact that stars, even not quite the A-list variety, guarantee eyeballs and translate into bottoms on seats. “Film actors on stage bring an added thrill,” says Shekhar Suman, who has been wowing audiences in the play based on the Sahir Ludhianvi – Amrita Pritam love story, ‘Ek Mulaqat’. “When film actors come on stage obviously they are known, people would like to see them in flesh and blood and the initial reaction when you step on stage is one of relation. The connect is already there. Even after the show ends, they want to give you a standing ovation and then stand there waiting for you to talk to them. Film actors have a great advantage because of their background, their status of being a film star and the glamour that comes with it. Even people who don’t normally patronise theatre, like to come and watch when there is a big name.”

For sure, Tanisha Mukerji does not whip up as much excitement on the small screen as she does playing herself in the courtroom comedy, ‘The Jury’. And the thrill can be addictive. Sharman Joshi, whose film career is not exactly all guns blazing, is rediscovering the “real treat” it is to perform in front of a real audience and receive instantaneous feedback. The actor, who has been drawing in crowds with his ‘Raju Raja Ram Aur Main’ in which he plays four varied parts, calls the theatre experience “a sort of rehab programme…a cleansing process for me as an actor, to improve myself and learn more about the craft.”

Anupam Kher has been inundated by love and praise and respect (all of which he faithfully shares on Twitter) courtesy his play ‘Mera Woh Matlab Nahi Tha’. Written and directed by RakeshBedi, the play shows ex-lovers, played by Kher and Neena Gupta deciding to meet after 35 long years, to discover the truth behind their separation. “This play is all about first love,” avers Rakesh. “First love is an emotion that nobody forgets, irrespective of what age you are, which caste you belong to, which country you hail from. It is a small chingari, a small flame which keeps burning within you. It just needs a tiny spark to flare up, at any time.”

The response that the play has received in India and abroad has been nothing less than a conflagration. “The shows in USA are seeing an unprecedented response,” says Bedi to us, while on tour there. “It has never happened for Hindi theatre that the three centres where we have already staged ‘Mera…’ all want the play again!I’m talking from Chicago right now, before we move to New York. Yesterday the house had 1900 people, full to capacity including the balcony. There were people going crazy, clapping, laughing, crying and after the show, they had another show announced in the same city!”

Rakesh admits that Kher and Gupta enacting the lead roles is a huge chunk of the craze. “Since they are accomplished actors they already have their fan following who want to come and see them perform. I’m a big hit too in the play, and I always get a great response,” adds the actor-director.

Witnessing the power of a great actor in action is a searing experience – and not only for the audience. AlyquePadamsee, who directs ShabanaAzmi in ‘Broken Images’, shares, “I first met Shabana when she was six years old while I was directing her mother ShaukatAzmi over 50 years ago. While directing Shabana, flashes of Shaukat‘s expressions were like sudden flashbacks. What amazed me was Shabana’s discipline. She was never late for a single rehearsal. Her concentration was intense. Our first month of sessions focused only on understanding the script and its underlying meanings.

“Shabana has an emotional intensity that is frightening. When she is in the role, she is a completely different person. And then when we had a break for a cup of tea, she became her usual charming self. Shabana’s greatness includes being in touch with her emotional inner self when on stage…and, at the same time, when things go wrong and she needs to be an unemotional practical person, she can do a switch. For instance, in one show her foot accidentally kicked out the TV cable which was key to her video character. She instantly went behind the TV set and pushed the plug back in and continued her dialogue without a break. Miss Cool-as-Cucumber!  This sort of double concentration is never required of a movie actress. In the theatre you have to be 100% in character and yet be aware of the practical needs of moving into the spotlight which has accidentally shifted.