Center Stage

By Sonya Rehman

Having been a part of the theatre scene in India since the 80s, Preeta Mathur Thakur, the President of the prominent theatre group, Ank, in Mumbai, speaks with Masala! about her upcoming play, Jis Lahore Nahin Dekhya (to be held in Dubai this month), the evolution of theatre in India, and playing a role that took her out of her comfort zone.

A scene from the play, Jis Lahore Nahin Dekhya
A scene from the play, Jis Lahore Nahin Dekhya

Did you always want to be a thespian?

Yes. Since I can remember, the stage has always held a fascination for me. It was as if I wanted to live many lives in this one life. Through school and college I can remember my academic years with the plays we put up annually. Theatre really is  a way  of  life  which  demands  a lot of  commitment, sensitivity and  discipline, and  I  do believe a good  actor has to  be  a  good human  being.

 Please tell me a little about the first play you performed in…

My family has a totally  academic  background, and although  I  was indulged  in  school and  college,  when  it  came  to choosing  a  career, my  father  put his  foot  down.  Much  as  I would  have  liked  to  study acting,  when I came  to  Mumbai  from Jaipur (I belong to Rajasthan) it  was  not  as  a trained  actor, but with  an  MBA degree and  a job.  I had  to learn hands-on and wasted no time  in joining IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association, Mumbai) – one  of  the oldest Theatre groups of India. My  first play on the professional  stage  was  a walk-on part as part of  a crowd in IPTA’s famous play BAKRI. It was obviously a small role, but my first performance on  the Prithvi stage made me feel alive. I did  many small roles and some big ones with IPTA. Working with greats like A K Hangal, M S Sathyu, Sudhir Pandey, Rakesh Bedi and Mushtaq Khan was a big learning experience, but it was not until  I had joined Dinesh Thakur’s Ank, that I could really realize  my potential as an actor.

A scene from the play, Jis Lahore Nahin Dekhya - staged in Mumbai
A scene from the play, Jis Lahore Nahin Dekhya – staged in Mumbai

What was the theatre scene like at the time?

At that time Hindi theatre in Mumbai had IPTA, Dinesh Thakur’s Ank, Nadira Babbar’s Ekjute and Om Katare’s Yatri and Prithvi. Prithvi  Theatre was Prithviraj Kapoor’s  dream  made  possible  by Jennifer  and  Shashi Kapoor, and  it  gave a great fillip  to Hindi theatre in Mumbai.  Marathi and Gujarati theatre already had their own space and audience.  Prithvi Theatre gave Hindi theatre a space to call its  own,  and  the  four  groups  worked  hard  to  bring  in  the audiences.  Satyadev Dubeyji was already  doing a lot of experimental  work  in  both  Hindi  and  Marathi  but  what was  needed  was  to  bring  in  the  mainstream  audiences.  Theatre had   to be  entertaining as  well  as enriching.

In your opinion, how has theatre evolved in India?

Regional  and  folk  theatre  has  always  had  a  fundamental  and  traditional  basis  in  India.  What  has  really  evolved  is the modern  urban  theatre  which  not  only  talks  about the  middle  class,  their  values  and  humour, but  borrows  generously  from traditional  themes and  forms.

The play, Jis Lahore Nahin Dekhya, is counted as one of the most significant plays in the country in the past decade – as the lead actress in this production, what makes this play strike a chord with the audience?

The play  strikes a very  emotional chord with  the  audience.  It is  an  emotional  force  that  strikes  you  in  the  face and  from   which  there  is  no escape. The emotion takes you in its grip, gradually, there is  not  just sadness, there  is  humour, happiness,  belonging and love…all the  elements of true theatre.

Preeta Mathur Thakur
Preeta Mathur Thakur

Can productions like Jis Lahore Nahin Dekhya help in evoking a sense of solidarity between both nations?  

No play,  performance or work of art can  really succeed in  changing  a  society but  it can definitely  sensitize  people  by  putting  across  a different, alternate  point of  view.  A sane, responsible, more humane and  more mature  view of  the world  is definitely the need of the hour  and productions  like Jis Lahore Nahin Dekhya  can help people be more understanding  and  more  accommodating  towards each other.

How did you and the cast rehearse? What was the process like?

Rehearsing for the play was like  a complete theatre workshop. There were many actors who  were handling such  roles  for  the first time.  The  whole  process  was  suffused  with a  missionary  zeal. Dineshji had been  anguished  and  extremely disturbed  with what had happened in  Gujarat. As an  artist, he had to do something to bring  back  the voice of sanity, and  that  something  was his production of Jis Lahore Nahin Dekhya.

Was it challenging?

The play was  a  challenge  for  the  entire  cast.  Dineshji had been  very  demanding. He had  cast us totally  unlike the manner in  which  we  had wanted  to be  cast.  I for  one, had  wanted  to do  the begum’s role, definitely not  the old  woman, and that too, speaking Punjabi – a language I did not know at all!  He  threw  us out of  our comfort  zones – off the deep end – we had no  option but to  learn  to  swim. A week before the play  was  to  open,  he  told me  I had  to  develop  certain  mannerisms. When I protested that it was not possible, he  only  smiled  and I knew I had to get those  mannerisms in  place!

For audiences who will be watching Jis Lahore Nahin Dekhya for the first time in Dubai, what can they expect?

For  those  who  have witnessed one of  the  greatest migrations of people in  the subcontinent,  it  will  be  a reliving,  and for  those who  have  not,  it  will be  the  retelling of  a  most  poignant and  emotional part  of  our shared history which continues to  impact our  lives even today.

Who is Rataan ki Maa? Tell me about your role…

Rattan ki Maa is an old woman who  has  lost  everything that was  dear to  her, everything that was material, love of family,  friends and relatives but she has not lost  her spirit, her capacity  to live, love and  give.  She rises above disillusionment to accept,  understand  and  love  once  again! I don’t know…maybe I knew somebody like her, maybe someone in the family, some aunt, some memory.  Also, I had seen and experienced some old Parsi women – they lived alone and would die alone but they were ready to help anybody who needed help. They were not rich  but ready  to share what they had.  Maybe they seeped into my consciousness and appeared as Rataan ki Maa…

Masala! Magazine

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