It is a common complaint in theatre circles in India that there’s no money in it, and that is not a baseless statement. Theatre goers are much less in number when compared to cinema, ticket prices have to be modulated, rehearsal spaces are few and stage rentals are sky high. Making a career out of just theatre acting or production is therefore a rarity. While most productions in Mumbai fizzle out after 10 or 20 shows, there is only one man who stands tall above the others, running hundreds of successful shows of his plays around the world. That man is Ashvin Gidwani.
I meet Gidwani at his Nariman Point office, where the most expensive real estate in the city is to be found. The fact that an Indian theatre company has a swanky office here would come as a shock to most people. I am given a tour of the space, overlooking the unending sea, and we settle down in a sprawling conference room with puffs, quiches and green tea. “We are always eating here,” Gidwani laughs. He is a tall, impressive looking man, in a well-cut suit and a shining, bald head which does not seem to add any sense of insecurity. The excitement with which he talks about himself and his accomplishments borders on the pompous, but you warm up to his candour. I am uncomfortable in this corporate-like space, something I don’t connect with theatre at all, and my mind keeps wandering off, thinking about how stark the contrast between Gidwani and other theatre producers in this country is.
Gidwani started off with Ronnie Screwvala way back in 1989, right out of college. He was given the responsibility of resurrecting dead productions under Screwvala’s theatre production company, Laezer Productions, and that is how he learned the ropes of the trade. With the Culture Club, an UTV division, he curated and executed about 3000 experiences for theatre and music, with maestros such as Pt. Ravi Shankar, Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma, Pt. Birju Maharaj, Ustad Allah Rakha Khan, Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, Mallika Sarabhai, Ustad Zakir Husain, Sivamani and Billy Cobham, among others. Soon, Gidwani started his own company, Clowns R Us, a family events company that went on to become Ashvin Gidwani Productions in 1995, with three core verticals: theatre, experiences and art. Exactly 20 years later, Ashvin Gidwani Productions rebranded itself as AGP World, producing theatre experiences, high-end designer shows, talent management and curated art events, with a network across 17 cities in India and 12 countries, with offices in Singapore, Dubai, Sydney and Johannesburg. “The mantra for AGP World now is to produce work here and take it across all our touchpoints, get commissioned work here and produce work in the different countries we are present in,” says Gidwani. “Mostly, we are pumping in our own money, but these days we have investments coming in from the private sector.”
From this introduction, it is very clear that commerce is an integral part of the Ashvin Gidwani affair. “If you want to run your shows for a longer time, corporate sponsorship is the only way to go. And while on the one hand, we can create various integrations within the play to add visibility for the brand, on the other, we do a bunch of tailor-made theatre experiences for them, like supper theatre or corporate theatre and so on. And sponsors will pick it up because khaana-peena hai, daaru hai, because the facetime with their target audience is much more. We have created something called heartbeat theatre, where we engage with doctors, and sponsors like pharma companies are willing to come there. This is how you can take shows with a shelf life of 20 shows to a 100. There are different devices and parameters to work with.”
I ask him whether he has ever approached theatre from the perspective of art, or whether it was always a money-churning proposition for him. “You have to commercialise it. Who is to say that what we are doing is not art? We are showcasing the way we see art. I don’t need to work according to what other people think art is. I am doing Reth, which is a Shakespearean-style folkloric musical based in Rajasthan, as Indian as it can be.
It is an 80 lakh rupee production. If you have seen the Manganiyar Seduction, this is its version in theatre at the same standards.” The funny thing is, I have seen almost every AGP play, and not one of them are productions you would suggest to a friend. Plays like Two To Tango Three To Jive, Barrf, Bottoms Up, Blame it on Yashraj and the recent Drama Queen are mediocre, in terms of writing, directing and acting. They might be mounted on an expensive canvas, but just like Rohit Shetty’s films, expensive is not to be equated with quality. Gidwani seems to have fallen into that quintessentially Indian trap.
He shows me a music video from Reth, the upcoming production he compares to Rosyton Abel’s musical masterpiece. It features Shweta Shetty, singing Rajasthani lyrics, very operatically set to a western classical score, which has nothing Indian about it. What is also a tad irritating is the running theme of packaging “India” for the world and hamming on the boring stereotypes that the west still associates with our country. Gidwani is bringing Hotel Paradiso, a German mask theatre performance to India this month. The Indian trailer of the play involves the characters namaste-ing and doing an amateur Bollywood jig to an Indian-sounding track, while paisley and block print border animations run around. His other long-running production, Blame It On Yashraj, is every Bollywood film, about a Hindu-Musalman wedding in a conservative household, peppered with silly jokes and musical numbers. In the show I had watched, songs by ABBA were used and the finale had the whole cast dancing to Psy’s Gangnam Style (because it was the hot thing then. I don’t know what they dance to these days. Kaala Chashma, maybe?). I have seen college students produce better plays.
I try to nudge him into talking about the quality of his Indian productions. Which of your plays do you love the most, I ask. “I can’t love any of them. That is when I will get involved and start finding flaws.” Maybe that’s a good thing? “No, then I will become an interfering producer. I have not seen a complete run of any of my productions till date. Never.” I allow that to sink in.
For a split second, I really don’t know how to react. Gidwani goes on. “I have to be distant, uninvolved with the production and allow my director to do whatever they want. I sit in on workshops and I read the script.” But can the script and the treatment not differ? “No, the treatment is decided before the script. There are only 7 genres with 7 possible treatments to each genre. That leaves you with 49 permutation-combinations,” he smiles. This is exactly how actors and directors like Salman Khan and Rohit Shetty generate their scripts. I think of all the theatre greats around the world, and their belief in precision and perfection, the way theatre producers have been minutely involved in mounting some of the best productions in the world, and then I realise that Gidwani has probably made more money than they have in their lifetimes.
While the theatre fanatic in me is shocked by how it is being reduced to a product, flexible to the needs of whoever is paying for it, I realise that I would have taken less offence if Gidwani’s productions were actually good. But, on the other hand, like massy Bollywood potboilers, he has an audience. For the Indian diaspora abroad, his plays must be the exact slice of homeland they want and connect to. As we end the chat, Gidwani laughingly says, “Hey, we are just simple people who want to make some money!” There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but here’s hoping that AGP World presents better productions in their quest to keep the cash registers ringing.