While editing text for something about the National Awards, I found that a lot of actors who have won in the past (Utpal Dutt, Uttam Kumar, Sanjeev Kumar, Gopi, Shashi Kapoor, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Kamal Haasan, Mohanlal, Nana Patekar, Rajit Kapoor to name a few) have started their careers on the stage.
In Mumbai too, some of the best actors have had their roots in theatre—Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Naseeruddin Shah, Nana Patekar, Paresh Rawal, Boman Irani, and so on; plus the Kapoor seniors (Raj, Shammi, Shashi) too, who all started with Prithviraj Kapoor’s repertory company. (There are actresses too, but this piece is about actors.)
When discussing this with a theatre friend, he pointed out that considering their theatre backgrounds, isn’t it odd that except for Shashi Kapoor, who established a great institution like Prithvi Theatre, no other actor has done anything for theatre in Mumbai?
Now it may be an arguable point, but a city’s cultural heath is judged more by its performing arts than its commercial cinema. And for an actor to keep the rust off, doing plays is the best exercise—so many top stars in Hollywood and Europe periodically return to the stage. It is an ego-equaliser when people can boo and cheer live, without the several barriers of protection—staff, publicity hype, (often) rigged awards and a pliable media. Our stars think by dancing to their hits on stage for adoring NRIs or at weddings for easy cash, they connect with their fans. How many of them have the courage to test their talent before a live audience?
That apart, at least Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan have loads of money, a lot of it invested in real estate and islands of luxury, can they not spare a little to set up one or two more Prithvi-like small theatres? This one small space in Juhu, is a buzzing hive of cultural activity and talent—and all this without any largesse from the government; sometimes without corporate backing either. Imagine, if there were more centre of art and culture like this, what a spurt of creativity there would be in the city.
With the high level of self-interest in our stars, this is not likely to happen, but as a theatre and film lover, there’s no harm in dreaming.