Satish Kaushik and Meghna Malik in Mr. and Mrs. Murarilal. Press Photo.

Satish Kaushik and Meghna Malik in Mr. and Mrs. Murarilal. Press Photo.

With every story he tells and every play he does, producer-director Saif Hyder Hasan takes a risk. To him, that single word marks the challenge his entire theatrical approach poses — one that refuses to let itself off lightly. For Hasan, every single aspect of every play is important. The result, he says, needs to become a story that’s not just enacted, but also designed and performed. It should, above everything else, have that all important popular appeal.

As Hasan prepares to bring his latest production, Mr. and Mrs. Murarilal starring Satish Kaushik and Meghna Malik, to Delhi, he also brings to the stage the discussion on what makes for popular theatre. If boundaries can begin to blur even between the once clearly marked territories of popular and niche cinema, it is perhaps even tougher to mark out the differences in theatre. For Hasan, the word seems to signify the quality of relatability, of mass appeal that doesn’t have to lessen the impact of the story itself. “It’s the same as when people talk about commercial cinema vs. art cinema and niche cinema. Ultimately, all of this boils down to what kind of story you tell and how you want to tell it. I believe that a play like Ek Mulaqaat, which was about Sahir Ludhianvi and Amrita Pritam, was a niche subject also, but it had a popular appeal because we narrated it in a particular way,” says Hasan.

This particular style of theatre that Hasan speaks of is an amalgamation of elements that he calls padding, or eye-candies. He explains, using Mr. and Mrs. Murarilal as an example, “It is basically a play about old-age loneliness, which can be a pretty grim premise, with drab settings. But what I’ve done in this play is padded it up with a lot of fun elements. There is a little bit of comedy, there’s choreography by Sandip Soparrkar, a song by Amit Kumar and Satishji himself, singing and dancing, in a very Elvis Presley-like avatar. The story itself delves into many issues we do not talk too openly about, and yes, there is also a little bit of suspense in the end. It’s a neat little package.”

Hasan’s approach, a kind of coming together of different elements that turn a play into a performance, is in fact, an approach that many theatre artists use today. Amir Raza Hussain’s grand productions, with glittering costumes, larger than life settings and the allure of rich, lush sets is well known, as is Mohammad Ali Baig’s impressive use of historical monuments doubling up as backdrops and settings in his plays. Similarly, Sayeed Alam’s plays have been drawing audiences for years now. It isn’t out of the ordinary for a play to use song and dance sequence, or dramatic props and elements, or even special effects, to boost its appeal with its audience. Sometimes, the actors themselves, especially if they happen to be already popular names on the big screen, help a play plump up the numbers. For Hasan’s upcoming play, Satish Kaushik becomes a big draw, and as an actor who began his career on stage, is excited about it himself. “My three years of training in theatre changed me completely as a person. It helped me find myself. I used to be a very timid person, unable to express what I was feeling. But after NSD, I got the confidence I needed to face the audience, whether it was just a roving camera or a hall full of hundreds of people,” says Kaushik. For him, the move between theatre and screen has also kept his own experimental side alive, so that while admits that some people who come to watch him in plays expect him to deliver the same kind of role he does in mainstream Bollywood comedies, most of them adapt to his new avatars and appreciate them too.

Atul Satya Koushik’s Film and Theatre Society has often cast big Bollywood names in its plays, all of which have seen multiple performance and popular acclaim – Kiran Kumar in “Kahani Teri Meri”, Puneet Issar and Raza Murad in “Raavan ki Ramayan”, Nitish Bharadwaj in “Chakravyuh” just a few examples. To Koushik, this move is not a gimmick, but a deliberate approach. “Some people criticise my plays, say that I always get Bollywood actors. But the point is, the actor isn’t coming to stand on the stage and do nothing, he is performing shoulder to shoulder with the other cast members. Why is it that the move from theatre to movies is applauded but when it’s the other way round, we think it’s a gimmick? Why is the former seen as a promotion and the latter a demotion? Aren’t they sister art forms? There are a lot of movie actors today who want to reach out and try something different and challenging. It is a win-win for everyone. The Delhi audience is star struck as it is, because unfortunately, we don’t have the Hindi film industry here. The Hindi bhashi belt doesn’t have the Hindi movie industry. So when the Bollywood actors come here, people want to go and watch their plays. If it was a promotional gimmick, it would happen once, twice. But if I’m being able to do fifty plus shows, it means that people are relating not just to the actor, but the whole package, the entire play.”

And for Koushik, it is important that the play reaches the masses. Speaking about the idea of popular theatre, he says, “Any art is defined as something that’s practised in private and exhibited in public. If it has to qualify as art it has to reach out to the masses. I have never believed in theatre, that is only for the sake of the whims and fancies of the director and doesn’t relate to the audience at all. These kinds of plays may be suited in an academic institution but plays meant for the public have to strike a chord with them. Then only can it be called a popular theatre.” The subject and the story, of course, is the primary focus, and Koushik says that it is important for a play that is catering to the masses to pick a subject that its audience can relate to — social issues, ideas, aspirations, and dreams of the people. At the same time, Koushik feels that the content of the play has to be presented in a visually appealing, almost flamboyant manner, a manner that can enchant the audience

The need to give their audience something more than just a simple story told simply, is tied up with the commercial aspect of theatre. In fact, Koushik defines popular theatre as theatre that remains popular even if it is a ticketed event. “I’ve seen free of cost shows organised by the government where people do go, but only so that they can sit in an air-conditioned hall for two hours.”

And with these tickets comes a kind of responsibility. “Today, the auditorium prices are extremely high. If the hall is charging me a lakh per day, I am going to charge the audience; after all where else will my money come from? And if I charge them high prices for the tickets, then I cannot be showing them niche theatre. So even when I do niche subjects, I try to do it in a populous way. I try to use big sets, there is music, singers coming in, actors who the audience knows — Satish Kaushik, Deepti Naval, Sonali Kulkarni, Shekhar Sumar,” says Hasan. Explaining further, he talks about introducing elements like dry ice, a specially designed costume, original music, etc. “The audience in cities like Delhi and Bombay are exposed to international performances today, and while we obviously can’t touch them in terms of budget, we can innovate. That way, the person spending two, three thousand on a ticket will feel like the production has been worth the money he or she paid.” Hasan adds that he is also one of the only producer-directors using original music in his plays. “I spend time in the studios, recording room, with my music director Parivesh Singh and the singers. I’ve used singers like Kumar Sanu, Amit Kumar, Shail Hada. Yes, it’s commercial, but not in the way a commercial is used, as if it’s something bad, or wrong.”

There is, according to Koushik, an upside to this ‘commercial’ aspect too. “It is when you start looking at the theatre as a viable career option that it needs to become popular from a commercial point of view. That is when it has to try to become a self-sustaining art, instead of just a stairway to movies and TV. If it becomes commercially viable, you can generate enough funds to pay the actors, the crew, cover the production cost and auditorium costs,” he says.

Koushik also isn’t convinced about the often repeated issue of inordinately high auditorium rentals in Delhi. “Yes, venues are costly but not in a humongous way— they are overpriced by a margin compared to other venues in the country and the world.” While always finding funds for a venue is not always easy, Koushik is also against heavy subsidising.

Of course, the kind of money that a show like Hasan’s or Koushik’s demands is a risk, but it’s a risk these directors are willing to take. “I might lose money, but it’s part of the game. I am just trying to tell a story the way I know how. I want to tell an emotional story in an interesting way. So far it’s working. I won’t say I’m making any money on it, but people are watching my plays. Even Murarilal has got repeat audiences for its shows,” says Hasan.

Koushik also feels that as an art form, the theatre is already successful. “Yes, maybe just ticketed shows can’t earn you enough money, and breaking even just with those isn’t possible, but then there are corporate shows where companies want you to perform for their employees, NGO’s inviting you for performances, festivals, etc. At these places, you don’t incur too much cost but only get revenue. So if you look at theatre as a complete package, as a multidimensional business, it can be sustainable. Yes, there might not be crores in it, but it can easily be a respectable way to earn your livelihood. You just need a commercial approach and make sure that the content we are putting out there is worth the 1000 rupees’ ticket we are charging the audience. If it is, people will come.”

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