The theatre director is bringing in a new visual language and dynamics through Prasanth Narayanan Kalam.
Chayamukhi, a Sanskrit play with a contemporary theme and characters from the Mahabharata, featuring Mohanlal and Mukesh in the lead in 2008, reflected the talent and craftsmanship of its director, Prasanth Narayanan. The stardust helped the veteran theatre director with the salt and pepper muttonchops, mop of curly hair and a broad smile move center stage. The arc lights lit up his stagecraft and his plays, old and new, which brought to the stage a new visual language and dynamics.
For Prasanth, the world is indeed his stage. A space that he brings alive with characters from mythology, classical plays, literature, and theatre from his oeuvre of more than 60 plays that encompasses Sanskrit theatre, plays for children and contemporary dramas.
“I am a professional. Theatre is my bread and butter. But I must ensure that my artists have a steady income to make ends meet and live well. Only then can I say confidently that theatre is professional,” avers the 46-year-old director.
He adds that nowadays, professional theatre often refers to melodramatic plays that are usually staged along with popular festivals in temples.
“This division between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ theatre must be removed,” he adds.
On the premises of his theatre space — Prasanth Narayanan Kalam at Kannammoola in Thiruvananthapuram — Prasanth is in the midst of rehearsals of Mahasagaram, his play dedicated to litterateur MT Vasudevan Nair.
Makeover for theatre
Formed in 2016, Kalam is his attempt to foster a new theatre culture in Kerala. In addition to crafting plays that stand the test of time, Prasanth hopes to train enthusiasts in theatre. “My motto is ‘art for an effective life management’. At present, Kalam has three wings: Kalam Acting School, Kalam Theatre and Repertory and Kalam Publications and Periodicals, all headed by experienced persons in their respective fields,” he says.
Kalam Repertory has a troupe of 30 actors, five of them salaried actors of the production house while the Acting School offers acting courses.
It was after the premiere of Mahasagaram in 2017 in Kozhikode, Kalam’s first play, those attempts were made to stage it in different places. Finance was a problem. That is when entrepreneur Anil Niketha agreed to sponsor a substantial amount of the production cost. “His gesture helped us to think of new stages. I decided to make it a thoroughly professional, ticketed show with tickets priced at ₹1,000. We invited national award-winning actor Surabhi Lakshmi and actor Bineesh Kodiyeri to be in the cast. My confidence was not misplaced and we had a full house for the show,” he recalls. Asserting that all plays must be ticketed and that theatre should become part of the viewing culture of contemporary viewers, he says that unless there is a change of scene, theatre would find it difficult to attract the right talent and viewers.
Prasanth says marketing of plays has become a necessity. “Thus, in the case of Mahasagaram, we have three teams to stage the play whenever we are invited. The A team will be on stage today but actors like Surabhi and Bineesh are busy actors and may not be available all the time. Not all organizers would be able to afford our A team. In that case, depending on their convenience, our B and C teams can swing into action as each actor knows the play well and can deliver the dialogues even in his/her sleep.”
Looking back at his long innings in theatre, he says his biggest award is when actors who honed their innate talent under his eye make it big in cinema and theatre. Since many of them began as school students, Prasanth had trained them for youth festivals and competitions. “It is a long list. Rosshan Andrrews, Muthumani, Surabhi, Bineesh… Working with children is an exhilarating experience. Theatre helps develop their personality and confidence,” he explains. In the next breath, he adds: “But do you know what is the biggest award I have not got? The fact that many of those who trained under me have never acknowledged the fact.” However, Prasanth does not dwell on the past or nurse regrets. His eyes are on the actors and audiences of tomorrow. “And that is the training that is going on in Kalam,” he says with that beatific smile of his before joining his actors in the thick of rehearsals.
Mahasagaram celebrates the genius of MT Vasudevan Nair and brings on stage 12 of his work. Immortal characters such as Appunni, Kuttyedathi, Velayudhan, Bhima and so on have been given life to in 12 acting styles. They also speak in different dialects. “The entire troupe was made of newcomers when we first staged it. The biggest applause was seeing MT sir smile when he watched the play.”
Kala Savitri, managing director of Kalam, did all the extensive research required for the play and gave me one-line stories to create the play. “I had read all of his works but to stage a play composed of his stories needed a fresh mind and a new perspective,” says Prasanth.
This article originally appeared in TheHindu on October 19, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.