Award-winning actor, writer and director Saurabh Shukla turns a producer with the new play, Jab Khuli Kitaab, which he has also written, directed and starred in. “When I started my career in theatre, there was no concept of producer,” he says. “It was a group activity, so you got into a group and did plays. The last two plays I did in Mumbai — Two To Tango Three To Jive and Barff — were produced by Ashvin Gidwani. The reason is that marketing a play in Mumbai is slightly more technical that it is in Delhi. It was natural that I form a group and I did, calling it Oxymoron. Suddenly, it has hit me that I have become a producer! For me writing and direction are still the most important. I never wanted to act in Jab Khuli Kitaab, because I am already acting in the other two, and it gets complicated when we get shows. Also I have my film career. Whenever you do theatre, you have to make time for it. I must have tried at least fifteen actors, and they all turned it down. Some did not have time, some got cold feet when they realised that it is a commitment of four months, and they may have to let go of a lot of other work.”
So, Shukla ended up playing the lead role of a man whose marriage of 48 years crumbles when his dying wife confesses an instance of infidelity in the past. “As a matter of fact, when I started theatre in Delhi, I never wanted to act. I wanted to direct and make films, which was not possible there. So I chose theatre because I love directing. I started writing because I realised if you want to direct, you have to write.”
When he is directing a play he has written, the actor in him finds a bounce board in everyone around him. “Whatever people may say about the problems of directing themselves, it’s not too complicated. When I am acting, I know if I am missing out something. Then there is my tech team, my assistants, my wife (writer-filmmaker Barnali), and my co-actors, at least the ones who can talk to me, so it’s not too difficult. There are two parts to being a director, one is the choreography of the whole play, the visual language, which I know right from the beginning — where I am going and what I am doing.
The other part is to take the actors to a point where they understand their characters. As an actor it helps that I have written the play and already completed one leg of the journey.”
The genesis of Jab Khuli Kitaab was a conversation with Sunil Palwal, fellow actor from Barff. “Sunil said plays about old people are invariably about loneliness and death, and came up with a situation in which an old couple goes through a divorce. I liked the idea then, and forgot about it. Later I thought about it, and felt there was something in it. Why would a couple want to divorce after 48 years? There are many questions that come up when you start writing a play. Then I stumbled upon a quote from Rumi, that unless there is a crack, light cannot enter, and that became the basis of the play. In a marriage you might think that a crack is bad, but it might actually be good in a strange way because there are no secrets. A person may feel betrayed and hurt by the revelation of infidelity, but after that the relationship is based on truth. I found that quite wonderful. Another question that I may not have articulated in the play, but left to the audience to think about is that can one mistake wipes out everything that was good in a relationship? A lot of marriages do end, but the happy moments, the dignity — where do they go?”
Shukla says that all the three plays that he did in Mumbai were based on relationships. “I have not written about the political situation in the country, I write about people, what they go through, their flaws, their aspirations. I am more interested in human beings and the fact that nobody is all good or all bad. When you criticise or blame someone for something, you are actually revealing more of yourself, and I find that interesting.
As an actor who brings his truth to every part he plays, he believes that all actors are latent writers, and that acting cannot be done in isolation. “If an actor cannot write, he cannot be an actor, if he cannot understand a director’s point of view, he cannot be an actor. All actors may not actually write, but they have that inherent quality, because acting requires reading the part and understanding, analysing and portraying it. There is an exercise actors are taught to do — to imagine themselves in a particular situation, what has gone before, what is going and where it is headed. That is writing. I am not a trained actor, but the path is the same, no matter what the methodology.”
About why he returned to theatre after a successful run as a film actor, he says, “There have been two phases in my career. After Satya, when there was a lull, I did not do theatre; I did it after the success of Barfi and Jolly LLB. Theatre gives you no money, so you have to be funded, or be rich, or be at ground zero, where nothing bothers you. I came to Mumbai in 1993, but till 2011, I didn’t do plays, except a few shows of a Makrand Deshpande play. Filmmaking is a big economic activity. And if there is so much money involved then there are demands, so you cannot be free. Films scan ideas and often reject what has potential. Theatre allows that, because the end goal is not money. You can say, let’s try this and see if it works. In my case, that’s what happened. In 2011, after a few hits, I had enough money to go to Greece for a month. But after I came back from Greece, there would be nothing. If I did theatre, and it worked, it would take me places, and that’s what happened. I went to places I have never been to before and met people I would never have met otherwise. It was a win-win situation.”
The writer is a Mumbai-based critic and columnist