Celebrating 20 years of Rage Productions with a look back…

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Boman Irani and the late Sudhir Joshi in I’m Not Bajirao

This week, Rage Productions kicks off its 20th anniversary celebrations with The Bureaucrat. I have missed watching the play (even though it has completed 25 shows already) but I intend to catch it this time. In the meanwhile, here’s the unedited version of an interview I did with Rajit Kapur, Rahul Dacunha and Shernaz Patel as they celebrated 15 years of Rage with a festival of plays in 2009.

Rage started off with seven co-conspirators. What happened to the rest?

Rahul: We shot them…we took a gun and shot them… (all three laugh)

Rajit: You used the word conspirator so that’s what gave him the idea. Anything you give him a lead to and he’ll have an answer… It also depends on each person’s priorities over different periods in life, certain things take priority over something else and in our case somehow everything worked…

Shernaz: I think what Rajju is saying is right it’s not that those who are not part of Rage don’t love theatre or we love it more. But the fact is that all three of us really cannot survive without theatre. Life would be incomplete without theatre; it would not be worth living. Theatre is such an integral part of our basic existence and that holds true for all three of us.

Rahul: Also, it’s not fun doing theatre without each other…

Shernaz: Yes I think because we have each other as sound boards…

Rajit: …as sound boards and we need those healthy discussions, healthy arguments to get the best out of the three of us, out of the group. And theatre is also like any other sport. It’s a team game as much as hockey or cricket, it’s not like you are playing badminton, or chess.

Rahul: Also the great thing about the long run is that you start to evolve. You start off doing a certain kind of play then you move to doing a more Indian kind of play. Then you move to a more teaching format where you do workshops. And there, a team becomes important because it’s not a question of not being able to do it on your own it’s about how a collective works. On your own you’re not able to evolve the same way in theatre. Individually you might be able to evolve as actress, actor, playwright or teacher but when you’re coming together because of your love for theatre that you are pulling in different direction and the same direction…

Sh: And it’s also because each of us have our own strengths. We bring those strengths.

What do you think are Rahul’s or Rajit’s strengths?

Sh: No, no, they have no strength (another round of laughter)

Rj: Basically what is at the bottom of this is the essential sense of trust and I think that it’s very integral to any kind of partnership. In our case, we trust each other’s instincts so much that the trust is actually reliance on each other. When we’re working we know where the other is coming from. So there is an integral foundation of trust that is so strong…

Sh: Also, what’s great about having three people is that it’s not that our other lives have stopped. We’re all doing very different things beyond this but because it’s three our theatre has never had to suffer…If Rajju is on a shoot then I’m there or the way round…

Rj: The show still goes on…

Ra: Another thing that it is important is that doing theatre anywhere in the world especially in Bombay is very difficult. And whoever does it, it doesn’t get easier. There’s not enough money, or there’s not enough venues. Actors and actresses are tempted by cinema. So we’re always challenged. This is what excites us. It is that feeling that we’re able to do this in spite of the odds. We’re able to still get so many actors to work with us. We are able to produce so much work without compromising. We’ve never run a play saying to ourselves we’re doing this play because we need the money. We’ve followed our hearts and our instincts and that’s important especially in a tough business like theatre.

Love Letters is one of Rage Production’s longest running plays. What significance does it hold for you?

Sh: It’s importantly to clarify that it’s not originally our production, it’s a Hosi Vasunia Production and we then took over…

Rj: In fact I would say that partly Love Letters has been the inspiration to form Rage. When we were working on this play we started having discussions about forming our own production. I would give the credit to Love Letters to bring the three of us together.

Ra: What keeps the play going is their dashing good looks!

Rj: (wide grin) It is also the script that has an evergreen quality to it you know. It doesn’t rust away. It’s the beauty of the small things that become the most important and meaningful things in your life. From a personal point of view, as an actor I would say that it is one of the most wonderful experiments I’ve ever done in my life.

Ra: As a director, after so many shows, I’m only the plastic surgeon, making these guys look young! (Rajit rolls over laughing)

Has it been a conscious decision to concentrate on Indian-English plays?

Sh: Not really.

Ra: Certainly! For me Indian is very important and I will not do a foreign play…

Sh: No I’m not saying that it’s not important. I’m saying it wasn’t a conscious decision, where we decided that from now on we’re not going to do such plays. On that front we really evolved wonderfully and it came from (I’m not) Bajirao. When we did Bajirao, honestly we didn’t think it would be this humongous success. We really saw it as a small, little play that will happen at Prithvi (Theatre) and that’s it…

Rj: We never expected such success. It ran for nine years.

Sh: And that I think that’s what got us thinking as to why is the play working. Of course our actors were brilliant but it’s also because people were listening to our own voices.

Ra: It became “our” English. It wasn’t firang English.

Sh: So that became the turning point and then one thing led to another. So it was just one of those things that evolved. It’s not like we sat down and set goals for ourselves.

Ra: The other thing is that Bajirao is an adaptation of (I’m not) Rappaport. Now the argument is that both plays are about old age. But I’m not convinced that Rappaport would’ve had a nine-year run. It’s about “our” version of old age. In the West they’re sent to an old age home, over here we don’t do that. It’s about the way we treat our old we look after them in our joint family. Those emotions don’t work unless they’re set here.

Sh: I don’t agree and that’s our eternal argument. I think Love Letters works as it is. It would work as well if the character was called Malathy and not Mellissa. But he believes that we would’ve done 500 shows if we’d Indianised it.

Ra: I’m saying that if we’d adapted the same scenario but had she been a rich Parsi lady…

Rj: It would’ve worked better?

Ra: 200 per cent. And if he’d been a Punjabi guy whose father is in the Navy and they’ve gone from place to place. We would’ve had 200 shows. Right now it’s about two people who we don’t know but we love them for what they’re sharing. The moment we know those characters it works on a different level

Sh: But you don’t have to adapt every play…

Ra: I’m not saying you have to but I’m saying an adapted play is more powerful…

How do you resolve such arguments…

Sh: We don’t! (all laugh) He does his thing, I do mine

Rj: It’s just that if anyone of us feels strongly about what they want to do then there’s no question of stopping them.

Tell us about the journey with Writer’s Bloc…

Ra: When we started off most writers were very conscious of the way they wrote English. So they wrote things like ‘Oh hello’ or ‘Fancy meeting you here’. Who talks like this yaar (Shernaz can’t stop laughing) Not even in London do they talk like this. Such writers would come up to us and tell us why don’t you do our play. I don’t know how to tell them that I’d rather do a foreign play which is authentic English rather than do your play which doesn’t sound English. I remember one critic had ripped Bajirao apart because the dialogues were very conversational and I said, “Thank you!” That’s exactly what we wanted to do.

But the flipside was that a lot of writers said their work would simply end up lying on the shelf. In many ways we have to lay Writer’s Bloc at Shernaz’s feet. She really made it happen.

Sh: For us, Writer’s Bloc happened by chance. They (the team from Royal Court Theatre) happened to be passing by Bombay. Rahul happened to meet them and he said we also want training. So they said ok we’ll come to Bombay and train you. It was only meant to be a training programme but we said no, a script is not complete until it is performed. A play has to be given in an actor’s hands, interpreted by a director and viewed by an audience. That is theatre, it’s not like writing a book. Plays are meant to be performed and then the festival happened and everybody came forward. All the directors we approached said yes let’s do it. It wasn’t easy. To build a writer-director relationship is also not that easy. But it was great fun and we saw the results of the efforts in Writers Bloc 2 when we had over 100 entries in Tamil, Bengali, from tiny corners of India.

Ra: Because the young writer now, for whatever its worth, does feel that there is an avenue for their work. In fact, for the third Writer’s Bloc the attempt is to not get new writers but those writers who were part of WB 1 and 2 should write a new script through a more advanced workshop. And the script will eventually be performed.

Sh: All 21 writers might not take part. If the script is not up to the mark then they won’t make it through even if he or she has been a part of WB before. Some of the writers might not even be available. But we’ll make it a ‘Best of Writers Bloc’. We have to raise the benchmark.

With 36 Ghante (at Prithvi Theatre Festival 2005), you pulled off something unheard of in Indian theatre: 12 writers and directors putting a play on stage within 36 hours. How did you manage it?

Rj: Yeah we would like to do it again…

Sh: No I don’t think I want to do it again! It was so magical. There’s no other way to describe it. The logistics of it were crazy.

Ra: But we managed to get the entire theatre community together in just one night!

Sh: It was actually the details of the logistics. It had to be perfect otherwise it would’ve all fallen flat. Making sure we had those 48 actors and 24 actresses and the writers wrote for all the actors. But we just had a blast. It was weird because suddenly in the greenroom there are actors you’ve seen in the cafe but now they’re right here sharing the greenroom with you, speaking different languages. Then there was that whole holding bay in Prithvi House, where groups had to wait till the previous one’s performed. And everyone rushing in to watch the other plays. Each group got only half an hour on stage. It was packed!

Rh: It was like Woodstock.

Sh: How they’d to come and pick all their scripts?

RJ: You couldn’t choose your slots but you could choose your actors…

Sh: What we did was we called up in advance and we said tell us the four actors you’d want to work with. So we had a list in English, Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. The director would come in, pick the script, quickly read and then say I want this one (actor), I want this one! That was fun. And some of the pieces were outstanding.

Rj: And all written in one night…

Sh: And Ramu (Ramanathan), writing on the train…he’s coming from somewhere he’s writing the script on the train…such madness…

Ra: In some ways we enjoy getting the community together. Don’t you agree Shernaz, Rajit?

Sh: Ya, ya..totally!

Rj: (breaking out of his reverie) Hmmm…

Ra: It comes down to this simple thing. It’s a bunch of guys who are into different things but they have the same desire to excel in theatre. They come together under the same banner – whether its Writer’s Bloc or 36 Ghante – it just creates a special bond. And here there were people from all four languages. There was one moment, in the morning, at Birla School, where everyone was rehearsing, I looked around and everybody was spread out in classrooms getting their actors together and planning…

Sh: It was like going back to school because everyone was in different classrooms running from here to there, getting cracked up. People getting nervous about their performance…

Rj: There was Konkona Sen Sharma who also came…

Sh: But the most chilled out were the Gujarati actors…

Ra: There was one story I’d heard that for some reason there were 8 actresses, all from the same TV serial who actually asked their director for a day off for 36 Ghante…

Sh: (laughing) Really? I didn’t know this…

Sh: There were about 300-odd people squeezed inside Prithvi…

Rj: There were also plays that went beyond the time limit…

Sh: Yes, they were meant to be ten minutes but they went on for 20-25 minutes. Chetan’s play on Dubeyji was like for half an hour…

What is the keeda in you that makes you do this sort of stuff?

Ra: At the end of the day people like theatre. They like to go watch a play and clap unlike in a movie, which may have much bigger appeal where you’re a passive participant. When you hear laugh-out-loud laughter in I’m not Bajirao, it is indeed infectious. When you come out there and taking a bow in front of an audience that is standing up for you. How can you not want to do it again?

Sh: I think, for me, what’s great is that there is so much more to be done. It’s not like you’ve reached some pinnacle where everything is done. To me that’s a huge thrill

Ra: Also it’s an evolving audience, an evolving city. I don’t know if people know we’ve done I’m not Bajirao. 1996 was a long time ago for most kids today. They know us from Class Of 84 onwards.

Sh: Love Letters has a whole new generation of audience now.

What is the one moment through the journey with Rage that’ll stay with you forever?

Rj: I don’t think I can point out a particular moment. There are various moments – it could be the night of 36 Ghante, it could be the opening night of Writer’s Bloc, it could be when we finished 10 years of Rage. There are so many moments that come to mind.

Ra: For me, it was the opening night of I’m not Bajirao. We honestly did not know how the play would do. Here were these guys sitting on a park bench, yapping. There is no way that kind of play should have such a run actually. Shernaz and I were sitting there in the audience and the first joke that Boman (Irani) says and there was this wave of laughter that spread across. That was the moment for me when I knew that we were onto a good thing.

Sh: Like Rajju, I can’t think of one moment. But I feel blessed that all my friends are from theatre. The kind of people one has gotten close to, one has interacted with, where age doesn’t even matter, where you’ve got a really close friend who’s 24 and another who is 60. And I think that is something I’ve never felt anywhere else. The sense of bonding that we have; if something goes wrong there are 20 people I can call and they’ll be there. Not expecting anything or wanting credit or money. Just because they love theatre as much as you do. The kind of passion and love that theatre people have for theatre, I don’t think it’s there in any other field. Even now if you come backstage there’s Arghya (Lahiri) and Nadir (Khan), these are people we didn’t know five years ago and today we can’t live without them. It’s just fantastic how we keep going like that. And there’ll be a whole generation after them and it’ll just go on…

Where does Rage Productions go from here?

Ra: St. Andrews Backstage… (since the festival was being held there)

Rj: We have to find the fifth gear to this car, four gears are not enough.

Sh: (confused) Fifth gear? What does that mean? Which is the fifth gear?

Rj: (starting to explain) A car usually has…never mind… (another round of laughter) In the next 15 years, we would have found more roads to travel on… Of course we want to do different things. Sometimes people think that we restrict ourselves to so-called English theatre but we do want to do more things. We can really handle large-scale events particularly because of the input of all three of us at a creative level. We would like to perform in smaller cities.

Ra: Yes. Some of the smaller cities, like Jaipur, Chandigarh, and Jalandhar that were big in theatre have waned.

Rj: And when we do a show there audiences keep asking us to come back again soon. Parents would rather that their children get involved in theatre than hang out at the pub all the time…

Ra: (insisting on having the last word) I’m in it because of the casting couch thing.

Rj: When you write about this just underline this statement and please give his cell number next to it so that he gets all the calls. You can give his address too so that they all start queuing up outside.

Ra: But that is the only reason I’m in theatre. I’m starting a friendship club.

Rj: Remove your nameplate from the door and write casting couch there. You can become the Subhash Guy of theatre!

This interview was conducted for and first published in Midday on 2009-03-04 under the headline ‘Don’t hand these three a gun’

Catch The Bureaucrat, One On One and Love Letters this week (March 8 – 10, 2013) at Prithvi Theatre.

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