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Prithvi, pioneer in theatre



Jennifer Kapoor and Shashi Kapoor.

AS PRITHVI, the heartbeat of Mumbai's theatre world completes 25 years, the celebrations include a 10-day long festival of plays from November 1.

In 1978, the year after my arrival in Bombay, not many roads led to suburban Juhu where Prithvi theatre was taking shape.

Theatre in the city then was confined to highbrow English plays, bawdy Gujarati performances and low-key Marathi drama. These were staged at the few South Bombay theatres, while small playhouses in Dadar patronised the Marathi plays.

Prithvi generated a lot of curiosity but during the initial months it did not attract audiences.

Of course, people knew about the original `Prithvi' theatre group of actor Prithviraj Kapoor who was unsuccessful in building a permanent theatre to popularise Hindi plays.

This job was taken up by son Shashi Kapoor and daughter-in-law, Jennifer, who lived for theatre. Ask any of today's theatrewallas. They agree that Prithvi would not have come up but for Jennifer's dedication and dynamism.

An unknown factor to both producers and audiences, Prithvi began with the motto, `Play karna hai? Kar lo!' Pushed by Jennifer, Naseer, Om Puri and Benjamin Gilani staged Prithvi's first play, "Udhvastha Dharmashala".

Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) followed with the political satire, "Bakri". Actor-director Om Katare acknowledges he was `Prithvi born'. He remembers how Jennifer watched all his plays, cajoled, guided and scolded him to give his best.

Yet life was not easy. Good theatre was yet to catch on. Recollects Prithvi veteran Dinesh Thakur of `ANK' group, ``About 30 people came to watch my first play at Prithvi, `Bakthi Ithihas' ''. Selling tickets was not easy.

Often Thakur and members of his troupe were at traffic signals and bus stops cajoling people to buy tickets and watch plays. ``People responded personally because I was quite popular in films in those days,'' laughs Thakur.

Details of bus routes were printed on the reverse of the tickets, which had to be printed by the individual groups. ``Prithvi had no canteen then, tea and coffee were made on a make-shift basis, but we offered free tea, coffee and soft drinks as further inducements to people,'' says Thakur.

Jennifer goaded Thakur and other performers reminding them that the theatre was meant for audiences and not mere experimentation, which should be confined to rehearsals. A public show should be for everyone to watch and enjoy, she reminded them. Yet the audience response was slow to catch on.

Ratna Pathak Shah of the `Motley' group remembers the time when their "Waiting for Godot" was performed before four or five persons! The performing groups passed around the hat among the audience for some extra cash and were thrilled when on a couple of occasions, Rs 20 notes were found in the collection.

The tide turned from the mid 1980s when audiences began to trickle in. The `Prithvi Café' and its famous Irish Coffee were the other attractions.

Slowly, `House Full' boards were in evidence. ``The 21st show of our comedy `Hai Mera Dil' was house full and what a thrill it was!'' recollects Dinesh Thakur. ANK began staging annual festivals of its plays, once performing for 23 days at a stretch.

The festivals still continue, ANK has so far staged more than 4500 shows at Prithvi.

``The Kapoor clan would be there in full strength, but they would enter only after buying tickets,'' says Thakur. ``Shashi Kapoor came backstage with a big bouquet but the main driving force was Jennifer.''

It was not just the Irish Coffee and the varied menu at the Café which attracted audiences. At last, there was an outlet for good, decent Hindi plays, which had languished for lack of support.

Producer-director-actor Feroz Khan, then fresh from college, functioned as the Creative Director helping Jennifer to choose the right kind of plays and organising the festivals from 1983 onwards.

Hindi theatre was then known as Satyadev Dubey theatre, Dinesh Thakur theatre, Nadira Babbar theatre and so on. Under the umbrella of Prithvi, all these came to be known as the `Prithvi theatre'.

``Prithvi began to develop an audience of its own, irrespective of the individual plays or the producers,'' pointed out Feroz. ``Finally, the theatre had an identity of its own and this was what Jennifer had wanted.''

The annual festivals helped to develop the Prithvi audiences.

Popular theatre was different from good theatre, pointed out Feroz.

Prithvi never went for the sex-filled Gujarati plays, full of dialogue with double meaning. The management had the guts to stage bold, new-look plays.

A spoof, "Shakespeare ki Ram Leela" was interrupted by Hindu fanatical groups, who quietly dispersed after Feroz explained to them the details of the plot and dialogue of which they were not aware. ``Some mischief makers had instigated them because of the title of the play,'' laughs Feroz.

However, there were too few good plays and an abundance of mediocrity and the selection process was difficult, admitted Feroz. Jennifer had no sympathy for self-indulgent experimental plays or commercial crap. She often stressed the special role of Prithvi theatre. It was a facilitator, not a pro-Active one and it did not commission plays.

On the last day of the 1983 festival, Feroz learnt that Jennifer would be leaving for England for treatment of cancer. She returned to India for some time, frail but full of enthusiasm for a performance of `The Old World' by her parents and then went back for further treatment. Sometime later, on a visit to Zambia, Feroz had the urge to ring up Jennifer and talk to her.

Overcoming communication problems, he established contact on the phone only to be told she had just passed away. ``To this day, I don't know why I made that call,'' muses Feroz. ``Call it intuition.''

For Feroz, Dinesh Thakur, Naseer and others, Jennifer continues to be Prithvi. ``I feel her presence whenever we perform at her theatre,'' declared Dinesh Thakur. Come the golden jubilee of Prithvi, the same spirit will continue among the next generation of theatrewallas.

V. GANGADHAR

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