Prithvi@40: The enduring legacy of one of Mumbai's best-known theatres

Young Amrish Puri
Kunal Kapoor stares quizzically when you ask him about the business of running Prithvi Theatre, a 40-year-old institution that has become an iconic subset of Mumbai’s cultural legacy and the country’s theatrical heritage. “There is no business. Period. No question of a business model or any such thing,” says Kapoor who runs the show at Prithvi, a theatre that his parents, Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor, set up in the 1970s.

For the former adman and member of a large film family that spans several generations, the theatre is a labour of love, one his grandfather envisioned and his parents nurtured. He took over the running of the place from his sister, Sanjna, in 2012. Although he was always around, that was when he decided to get more hands-on and his sister moved on to work with her travelling theatre company, Junoon.

Business or running the theatre for a profit, desirable though it may be, is not Prithvi's raison d’étre.  “Ask why Prithvi was built?” he says. The theatre that saw the curtains go up the first time on November 5, 1978, was meant to revive the arts and audience interest in drama. Shashi and Jennifer, both successful actors on the big screen, were theatre lovers and wanted a small space that would nurture the fraternity of actors, writers, technicians among others. At the heart of the endeavour was a desire to build a place that was affordable for performers and audiences.

Kapoor speaks slowly, his accent clipped and his voice a hoarse whisper — the effect of nights of partying or perhaps the thick smoke that hangs over the city at this time of the year. He says that right from the start it was decided that the rate structure had to be in favour of the performing groups, not the landlord. “That is the DNA of Prithvi Theatre.”

Jennifer Kapoor, who ran the place since its inception till she passed away in 1984, is known to have encouraged many young actors, drawing them out of their dark corners to take the spotlight at Prithvi. Her oeuvre was impeccable and her generosity is still the toast of the theatre community in town. Naseeruddin Shah, Amrish Puri, Om Puri, Ratna Pathak Shah, Sunil Shanbag, Makarand Deshpande and many others, you name a theatre doyen and there will be Prithvi on their timeline.

Naseeruddin Shah, who was in the first play staged at Prithvi (The Truth, directed by Ratna Pathak Shah, which will be shown at the  Prithvi Theatre Festival (on till November 12).

 
The south-side view of the theatre

 

The acknowledgement that Prithvi has had a role to play beyond the confines of its 200-seater auditorium is what gives Kapoor most pleasure. He points to Arundhati Nag and her theatre in Ranga Shankara in Bengaluru. In his opinion, it is the only other place dedicated to the art and the craft of theatre. Nag has said on many occasions that Prithvi is her inspiration.

For Kapoor, the arts are the hallmark of an evolved civilisation — whether it was the Greeks, the Romans or the Aztecs. What happens when you don’t have the arts? “I have just two examples for that: Genghis Khan and the Taliban,” he says.

Kapoor wants to build Prithvi into an institution that outlives his generation and the next. But what he would like most of all is more sensitivity from the government and from corporate patrons. The theatre gets no government grant and corporate sponsorships are hard to come by, primarily because they are tied to numerous invisible strings.

The team that runs Prithvi theatre and the annual festival is selective about sponsors and picky about the deals they strike. For one, the sponsor does not get naming rights over the festival; it is always the Prithvi Theatre Festival. The 2018 festival is sponsored by Bank of Baroda, but unlike the Indian Premier League or the short film festival (MAMI) that has the sponsor's name tagged to its label, the Prithvi festival keeps its identity. Even during one of its longest running associations with Orange (now Vodafone), it was always the Prithvi festival. Sponsors are reluctant to accept such an arrangement and many get tangled up in driving a bargain around footfalls or return on investment. They seek a tangible return for what is largely an intangible benefit.

Kapoor minces no words. “To think you can survive without art is stupidity.”

He quotes his grandfather, Prithviraj Kapoor, who spoke in Parliament in 1955 and reportedly said that theatre is the greatest temple. He believed that this is a place where religion, class or caste does not matter. “We laugh together, we cry together and that is the beauty of the arts,” says Kapoor.

The idea behind building the theatre was to create a place where people came to be entertained and informed and, perhaps, also enlightened. And at the same time a place where actors, directors, artistes found their métier and rejoiced in art.

Sanjna and Jennifer Kapoor at Prithvi Theatre

When Prithvi Theatre opened, the price of a ticket was Rs 10 and every time a ticket was sold, the performing group contributed one rupee to the theatre. That ratio is respected even today (tickets are now priced between Rs 250 and Rs 500) and the entire box office collection goes to the theatre group, says Kapoor.

“We don’t rent out the theatre. No XYZ can hire us because he wants to hold a talk show on some religious concepts. We decide who performs here and we don’t rent out by the hour. We are not a brothel,” Kapoor says with a flourish.

The city could do with at least 25-30 more such spaces, he believes. There is an audience and there are enough performers to fill up the stage. But the economics makes it unviable.

“We have a very small team, just 15-16 people. A similar theatre in London has 138 employees,” says Kapoor.

Prithvi is never dark. Except for Mondays, the day for maintenance and other sundry issues, there is a show every day, and on certain days, more than one show a day. The show, after all, must go on, he says, smiling at the cliché.

Packing it for four decades

 

  • Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor founded Prithvi Theatre in 1978.
  • The theatre was a tribute to Prithviraj Kapoor who had died in 1972 and a hat tip to Jennifer’s parents, Geoffrey and Laura Kendal, who ran Shakespearana, a travelling theatre company.
  • Before finding a home in Juhu, a suburb that borders the sea in the western part of Mumbai, Prithvi Theatre was a drama company. It was formed by Prithviraj Kapoor in 1944 and ran till 1960 when dwindling funds forced a shutdown.
  • The first play performed under the aegis of Prithvi Theatre, the drama company, was Shakuntala by Kalidas but the elder Kapoor felt that doing mythologicals was not really his forte or purpose.
  • The company employed playwrights and they wrote seven original plays that were performed in 112 towns across the country.
  • Deewar, a play written by Inder Raj Anand and Prithviraj Kapoor, is being restaged as part of the 40th year celebrations. It was first staged in 1945 and uses the metaphor of a family being torn apart to talk about the then growing divide within the country under British rule.
  • The first play to be staged at the theatre was Udhwastha Dharmashala about a radical left-wing professor persecuted by his university. Written by G P Deshpande, a professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and directed by Satyadev Dubey, the play had Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Benjamin Gilani among its cast.


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