FACE TO FACE
A quarter of a century after it was founded, Prithvi theatre still remains a sought-after venue. HEMANGINI GUPTA talks to Sanjna Kapoor about Prithvi's growth to this status.
Sanjna Kapoor steering Prithvi theatre.
In its 26th year now, Mumbai's Prithvi theatre has provided the platform for some of India's best theatre down the years. Founded by Prithviraj Kapoor, his legacy was handed down generations to Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal and now rests on the shoulders of their daughter, Sanjna Kapoor. This year, performances from the festival will travel to New Delhi and Bangalore as well.
On the eve of the festival's opening Sanjna Kapoor talked about how her family's theatre has sustained and reinvented itself, remaining one of the country's most sought after venues a quarter century after its birth.
THIS year, the Prithvi Theatre festival will focus on the work of Habib Tanvir. What do you intend with this new project?
When one brings a company to a city, they just perform and leave. There are no interactions with people. Theatre festivals have now become common in India, so we wanted to pause and explore it a bit more. We need to get some understanding of a group or playwright, in a wide range of ways, in different shapes and sizes. The idea of working with Habib saab came from last year when delegates could spend some days with him. People saw theatre, and just hung out and talked that's vital.
The association with Tanvir's Jan Natya Manch is very exciting since they will give multiple performances. They are reviving "Agra Bazaar" and we've managed to bully Habib saab into focussing on his scripts. They are getting the final touches now and nine will be published.
Another adventure that is proving bigger than we thought is an exhibition on Tanvir and Naya Theatre to give us an insight into the journey they have undertaken, the processes of their work. It's in the form of panels, exhibited out in the garden and is a fantastic learning experience.
On what basis do you shortlist performances?
We have about 60 requests for performances, but Prithvi has spoilt groups. We have given them too much; we really need to crack the whip now, we need to begin watching all the plays before they perform here.
When my mum passed away, we never really found a replacement for her as Artistic Director. It's a tough proposition because you deal with the realities of untrained actors, a huge city like Mumbai ... you can choose to either have 100 top shows, with the topmost quality or 400 mediocre shows. At our 25th anniversary last year, more than a big hoo-ha, it was a quiet reflection time.
We'd dropped into a sense of complacency and I think that comes from the biggest problem in this kind of theatre space: human resources who will dedicate their minds completely. We are finding such people now.
Prithvi has come to be associated with having "arrived" in theatre circles. You aren't anyone till you've done the mandatory show at Prithvi. How did it come to attain that chaap (stamp)?
That chaap comes a little bit from hype. There's this aura that has been created around Prithvi and it imposes huge responsibilities. It's really scary, and I don't know if that's been our aim.
One has wanted to present excellence and a healthy environment to be a platform for the immediate environment. We weed out the bad... based on what one likes and doesn't like, and also determined by the group's attitudes, approach to survival, longevity, sustainability...
What's scary is that we don't always have fantastic theatre. But that doesn't always matter. We have some 400 shows a year, so it's like a muddy pond with a lotus there's not always quality but at least we provide an opportunity and act as a catalyst.
We want people to aspire (toward excellence) and be inspired by the performances. We create children's workshops just so that children can discern early the good from the bad.
Was the mantle of Prithvi thrust upon you by virtue of your belonging to its founding family?
It happened very gradually. I was always terrified of taking up a huge responsibility. My mother was so much more experienced; she had acted for so long and built the theatre. She had seen much more theatre and was able to discern, since she had the stature and wisdom.
I took the decision initially to do ancillary things; I had a five-point plan the art gallery, children's workshops, redoing the cafe, starting a company (Prithvi Players) and starting a library (which still hasn't been done; our greatest problem is space!).
After our initial sponsor pulled out, we had a huge problem for about four years. We are not good at raising money; I just couldn't sell Prithvi it was so personal to me... I didn't know how to express it. And I was young.
So I quadrupled our events the classical festival, newsletter, workshops for adults and that ended up generating interest in Prithvi.
Various groups started coming together and gradually the responsibility came to me.
With all this administrative work, do you miss acting?
I'm not an actress; I'm the Chief Operations Slave! But I'm going to take my time. I want to do it my way. I'm a very "my way" kind of person.
When I do act, I want to do it all day, not for just three-four hours in the evening. I'm not in a hurry.
I do miss acting but I'm not going to jump into the first project I get. I want to do it when I can sustain it. Right now I'm busy juggling my baby and my big baby (Prithvi).
What are you looking ahead to, personally?
I'm looking to be a good mum. Four years before last year, I lacked personal direction. There was a sense of isolation, of not knowing where to go.
Then last year with the Prithvi anniversary, there was a boost of energy. I think I get the energy to keep Prithvi going from both my grandparents who were actors and managers and my mum was a pretty good manageress who would make people want to work for her.
When I'm charged with an idea, it has to be personal; something I really want to do. I like dreaming up ideas and then seeing them happen, watch them come to life.
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