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Star guru

Film stars such as Shah Rukh Khan have trained under him. But it's theatre that gets Barry John all animated, discovers MINI ANTHIKAD-CHHIBBER

PHOTO: MURALI KUMAR K.

FOOTLIGHTS IN THE BLOOD Barry John: `For a theatre person to be able to build and run a theatre is a dream'

"Shah Rukh Khan knows that I think he is not the world's greatest actor," says Barry John with the authority of training King Khan. "He joined my Theatre Action Group. The first venture he did with us was a musical called Annie Get Your Gun that we did in collaboration with Lady Sriram College. I think Shah Rukh's main interest was the girls! Actually he came in late and he was part of the chorus. He pretended to sing but he danced very well.

"He was with us for three years and did the drill; you know, every kind of role. He was very good with comedy and excellent with children. He has this high-energy presence. I think the heart of his success is he thoroughly enjoys what he is doing. It is the infectious enthusiasm that he brings to his work and also the intelligence in managing his career, which I assure you, is no mean feat. For an outsider to take over Bollywood and sustain it is incredible."

Phenomenal talent

Barry then talks about another talented actor: "Another person who has struggled like actors are meant to is Manoj Bajpai. Again for a boy from the hinterland in Bihar to make it speaks of immense dedication and focus. He worked with me for 10 years teaching drama to specially-abled children, workshops on theatre as learning, all to sustain himself and feed his love for drama. Manoj is very intense actor — all of which exploded on screen in Satya in his character as Bhiku Mahtre. Shah Rukh is more playful. I would not like to say one is a better actor than the other. Because there are things only Shah Rukh can do and others only Manoj can. But I guess a complete actor is one who can be everything. And no, don't ask me who I think is that complete actor! Okay, maybe Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah."

Barry is not in touch with any of the stars as "they are all busy people. And Shah Rukh is in the stratosphere. In some other place."

In town to play Iago in Othello a Play in Black and White, Barry says: "My first stop when I came to India was Bangalore. It was in 1968. I was teacher of drama. In those days in the U.K., young people before going to university — or as in my case after university — did voluntary service in a so-called developing country. I taught in the Regional Institute of English on Cunningham Road. I naturally gravitated towards theatre and worked with the Bangalore Amateur Dramatics Society and the Bangalore Little Theatre. I moved to Delhi and have got rooted there. I have often been pushed to move to Mumbai as it is the centre of performing arts but I feel that Delhi is where there is a lot to be done and so this is where I should be."

Though Barry admits "one does not do theatre in Delhi to get rich, there was a time in the '70s when theatre was very strong. That was the time of actors like Roshan Seth, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Pankaj Kapoor, B.V. Karanth, Prema Karanth and the whole National School of Drama (NSD) tribe. I formed TAG (Theatre Action Group) in '73 and wound it up after 25 years in '99 as I felt that that phase was over and I also felt what I was doing was kind of colonial. I then started a theatre company and an acting school."

While Barry admits that some of students that come to acting school have "Bollywood gleaming out of their eyes," there are others who take up acting for a variety of reasons. "Management people come for acting classes as it helps build confidence and for presentation skills." Past the golden era of the '70s and "things began to wane in the '80s; the situation now is depressing. There is no infrastructure. The Government is lacking in imagination and the private sector does not care. (Theatre) is expensive, and then there are (logistical) problems like Delhi being so vast. To expect people to drive these great distances to watch a play has become increasingly unrealistic."

Pricey proposition

Theatre in Delhi is a pricey proposition as the rent is too high. "A wonderful theatre like Ranga Shankara charges a rent of only Rs. 2,000 per day while theatres in Delhi charge up to Rs. 30,000! We are very envious of Arundhati (Nag) for what she has done for theatre in Bangalore. For a theatre person to be able to build and run a theatre is a dream, which Arundhati has achieved. Most theatres are built with a concentration on the foyer and the hall but come to the stage and there are such huge blunders. No one seems to have a clue and never thinks of consulting theatre people on what would work for them!"

It was not serendipity that brought Othello... to Bangalore around the same time as Omkara is taking people's breath away at cinema halls. "Othello... is seven years old. We took it to Edinburgh where it got a five-star review and a fringe award. I have not watched Omkara. I liked Maqbool but the reports of the language and the general intensity of Omkara is worrying."

The play, which Barry describes as "a seamless shifting of realities," goes through changes "every time we revive it or a new cast member joins. We improvise, shift the dynamics to keep it alive otherwise it would be deadly boring!"

For the future Barry has a brilliant idea. "We will rehearse in Delhi and perform in Bangalore!"

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