A life on stage is absolutely magical, especially when you sense the power to hold your audience captive
I must have been around 12 when my parents took me for a play at the Town Hall in Bangalore. It was a community event, with the entire Gujarati community of the city present in its silken and suited splendour. Plump Gujarati aunties clutching at their handbags, important-looking businessmen in safari suits smoking their imported cigarettes and a whole load of us middle-class Gujaratis trying to look as grand as the better-off among us.
This gathering was, in fact, waiting for the play to begin. But no one felt hurried or impatient, although it was well past the scheduled time. The doors to the auditorium were yet to open. The foyer could barely contain the feverish socialising and networking. So-and-so was matchmaking for her daughter, while a certain businessman was saying something nasty about a rival.
The chatter didn’t cease even when the doors were flung open and the bell shrilled three times in quick succession to announce the start of the play. All of us eventually made our way to our seats and settled down to small talk with the people sitting nearby.
Finally, the lights went down and the obligatory announcements began. The chatter continued. Then, the curtains were drawn and the stage lights came up to reveal a living room set peopled with colourfully dressed characters. For the first time in my life, I saw how a group of actors on stage could engage a noisy audience and bring them to silence.
The play was about clandestine relationships, which I discovered decades later was a staple of Gujarati theatre. Somebody was having an affair with somebody else’s husband. A gun was being tossed around and the audience chuckled in amusement, as much at what was happening on stage as at their own secret lives. But for this 12-year-old, all that mattered was that there was some kind of magic in the air that was weaving a spell on all of us.
The play lulled us into a comfortable game, where the audience would second-guess what the actors would say next. And the actors were probably second-guessing the audience’s laughter, delivering their punch lines with pistol-shot clarity. But I didn’t know all that then. All I could hear was the appreciative laughter around me.
Suddenly, the actor who was handling the gun turned towards the audience and pointed it at someone in the front row. She fired. The shot rang through the hall, making people jump in their seats. A man in the audience screamed and fell. The curtains came down and the house lights came up. There was a moment of silence before the entire audience broke into an appreciative murmur. I knew then that this is what I wanted to be a part of. If what happens on stage can shut people up, make them forget about the tedium of day-to-day existence, I wanted a part in it.
It took me many more years to actually realise my dream to perform on stage. I joined an amateur group called The Bangalore Little Theatre. It was a skit that we performed as part of a workshop. I was nervous and anxious to do my best, trying hard not to show my state of confusion. There were no curtains but a makeshift stage in a college hall. The few hundred people who were present comprised family and friends of the performers. The play began and I screamed out my lines, trying to elicit a response from the audience. There was none. I was most disappointed and could not understand the lukewarm reception of my efforts. Senior actors shared their wisdom with me afterwards. I had tried too hard to please the audience and the effort showed. I should have focused on my character and the situation I was in. I ought to have paid attention to my fellow actors, etcetera. All of it did not make sense to me then. I was just too sorry for myself, that I could not create the kind of magic that would hold me captive when I sat in the audience watching a well-enacted play. But one thing stayed with me—that I had been too anxious to please the audience. As a result, I was offering them nothing but my anxiety to please.
Months were spent attending workshops by senior members of the group. I was introduced to the craft of theatre, what it takes to be an actor. Physical discipline, an active imagination, group work and, above all, a focus on the right thing. The action on stage and not on the audience. For years I strived to be an actor, and did achieve a modicum of success. I did manage to hold an audience momentarily. But the real magic eluded me still. It took me a while to realise it was not going to happen when I was on stage! It happened from a completely unexpected source.
I had formed a theatre company in Bangalore in the mid-1980s with plays like Euripides’ Hippolytus and some frivolous comedies. When a local paper announced a theatre festival, I did not have a play to offer. The group gathered at my home to discuss what we should do. I had written about ten pages of dialogue for an idea I had been toying with for a while. Encouraged by my friends, I completed the play and put it up for the festival. A packed auditorium and a palpable response to every moment of performance! After the final act, many in the audience came backstage to say how much they’d enjoyed the Indian milieu. That, at last, there were plays in English that reflected our own lives. How tired they were of European classics. This was what I wanted most in my life. The 12-year-old in me came alive once more to be mesmerised by the magic of theatre. Only this time, I was the one holding the magic wand!
There was a moment of realisation. All along, I had not realised that theatre is an artful representation of life. It is this artfulness that people applaud. In traditional theatre, the element of rasa is when the audience and performer comply to lend their imagination in order to be transported to an artistic realm. This was the beginning of my journey into theatre. Everything before that was mere frivolity.
The 21st century brought opportunities to extend my creative expression to other mediums. I was lucky to be able to direct films. I remember while on the sets of Morning Raga, Shabana Azmi talked about how difficult an art it was to write for cinema. She quoted a famous writer who felt that writing a script was like giving birth to a child and then abandoning it. The baby is raised by a band of gypsies who take it around and when you confront your child again, you may not recognise it. Every shot that I took had to be meticulously thought-out and painfully set-up with the objective of technical perfection. At times, it was sheer drudgery. And after a perfect shot, the actors looked to me for appreciation or criticism. They had no idea how they came across in performance because the eye of the camera is so different from the human eye. It struck me then that they would never have the privilege of hearing the sound of an audience. That may be one of the reasons actors of Shabana’s calibre come back to the theatre. As a film director, I understood my vision could only be realised through the technical and artistic efforts of several people, and the actors were just one group that contributed to the making of the film. The reward in filmmaking is in accomplishing the task and having the product appreciated by others. It loses all organic quality as soon as the shots are in the cans. The process beyond that is all technique. Whereas in theatre, it is the reverse. The clinical parts are in the early rehearsals, after which every step brings it closer to being a living entity.
I sit at the back near the sound console and watch the audience enjoy my latest play as a director. Once again, I hear the chatter and buzz of a potential audience. I wait for the lights to dim and the magic to start. It does, and in a moment I know whether we have succeeded in casting that magical spell. Earlier, the tell-tale signs were the laughter and applause. But now I have learnt to value the silence that an audience offers. That silence is as palpable as the most deafening of bells. It is the sound of an audience experiencing a play.