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.
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.
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.
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…