For an able act
Veteran theatre director Roysten Abel prepares for a busy season on stage, even as he launches into commercial cinema.
Photo: Vipin Chandran
PLAIN SPEAK Roysten Abel says art cinema is like preaching to the converted.
Roysten Abel ko gussa kyun aata hai? What makes Roysten Abel, the Delhi-based theatre director from Kerala,indignant? That his home state does not nurture contemporary drama, for that's a genre where he has created a niche for himself. But Delhi is the place for theatre, according to him. "Strangely, it is Delhi that's the place for theatre. Mumbai may be more live, but theatre happens there only in instalments. Delhi, I feel is the place for it. It gives one the isolation one needs," says the National School of Drama alumnus.
As if to woo audiences in his home state, Abel plans to direct a Malayalam film. Just back from Kochi, where he was working on the project, he says, "Commercial cinema is the only way to make films. Look at the great masters, Fellini, Kurosawa, and Bergman. They were all huge commercial successes to begin with. Art house cinema is for a select audience. It is like preaching to the converted."
Abel's first film, scripted and directed by him, In Othello is currently being screened in Singapore, doing the festival circuit. But it is theatre that is hitherto synonymous with Abel as his plays, "Othello: A play in Black and White" (1999), "The spirit of Anne Frank" (2003), "The Brainchild" (2005) do the national and international circuits, from Delhi to Barcelona.
His "School for Wives", a 300-year-old farce by Moliere, opens at the India Habitat Centre next month, and "Mother I did never ate the butter" is to be presented in December. "School for Wives is about how women are taught to be groomed. It has women cross-dressing. It has a 20-year-old playing the role of a 50-year-old, it's on gender reorientation, and `Mother I ... butter' is a small budget play. It has no money in it but it is a beautiful play," says Abel, who is all set to try is hand at commercial cinema.
It was his "The Spirit of Anne Frank", with Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das and Zohra Sehgal, produced in the years after the Gujarat riots, that made people sit up and take note of his message.
"The play had to be about camaraderie and love. I was adamant it should have no propaganda." Abel recounts that the first show staged at Ahmedabad had Vishwa Hindu Parishad zealots in the front row to pass the play as an apprehensive audience watched it. The play was, however, well received. "Shabana and Nandita were tense, but as the play ended I was congratulated by a moved audience and by the VHP too."
So is politics fodder for theatre? "There cannot be an answer politically for the human race. Theatre will not even draw from it. What can you draw from Bush?" he says cynically. "But there are greater things theatre can achieve. It can connect the innermost vulnerabilities of people," says the director who describes his work as originating from "ideas and a bunch of actors". As for his relationship with veteran actress Zohra Segal, says Abel, "Zohra apa and I share the best relationship. She is a phenomenal woman and even at 92, she's the biggest badmash. I can never forget her, for on the first day of rehearsal she wore a mundu neriyathu because I am a Malayali."
And is Broadway a faraway dream for him? "Broadway is fun, but it is a huge racket. No, it's not my aim," says Abel who shuttles between the Europe and Delhi theatre scene. Commissioned to direct a play on Fellini in his hometown Rimini, Abel says, "I seldom pick up scripts and do a play. My plays are an ensemble of everyone's effort." And perhaps that is what brings the crowds to watch them.
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