Atul Kumar: I Think It's Time For Me To Stop And Question Myself As An Artiste
Atul Kumar: I Think It’s Time For Me To Stop And Question Myself As An Artiste

The theatre director and thespian talks about his new play, censorship, cancel culture, and his own recent socio-political awakening as a performer

The second play of the 2023 chapter of Aadyam Theatre, Atul Kumar’s Baaghi Albele, is a satirical comedy reflecting on the relevance of art and artists in contemporary times. It is based on Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 film To Be or Not To Be, which was later adapted by Nick Whitby to a play of the same name. The screwball comedy of a Polish acting troupe outwitting the Nazis during the peak of World War II armed with costumes, acting abilities, and Shakespeare, was an audacious and acutely relevant movie for its time—it was released in February 1942, just two months after America entered World War II.


“It was a story of the 1940s, set during World War II. But today it has become my own story here in India. I have been looking for content and scripts to raise a voice against the powers that are clamping down on artists, journalists, stand-up comedians, writers, and poets. I think it’s a perfect time to raise a voice against any sort of authoritarian, totalitarian, fascist, oppressive rule,” says Kumar who had watched the 1942 original a long time back in FTII with his friend Rajat Kapoor, who was studying there and the Lubitsch film had such a deep impact that he has carried it in his heart since.


The Hindi-Punjabi play that opened at the Royal Opera House, Mumbai, in February, is a mad-cap comedy is a scathing satire on the crackdown and censorship on art and artists in today’s India. Set in Ludhiana, Punjab, it is an adaptation of the story by Saurabh Nayyar, with the script written by Gagan Dev Riar. The ensemble cast includes Gagan Dev Riar, Ayesha Raza, Taranjit Kaur, Ujjwal Chopra, Saurabh Nayyar, and Harsh Khurana.


We caught up with the director as his cast starts prepping for the second show of the play to be staged at the Bal Gadharva Rang Mandir, Bandra on March 18 and March 19. Excerpts:



With its satire, irony, and sarcasm, it is a quintessential ‘sugar-coated bitter pill’. Art as entertainment and art with a social message is not an easy amalgamation. How do you ensure the balance?


It’s been a struggle. Over the years, one has sincerely tried to stay away from politics or take any sort of political stance in my theatre. I think somewhere I was even blinded by my own self-obsession with the fact that when I am picking up Shakespeare or absurd drama, although it is political in its multi-layered sense, I think it was in more ways than one running away from what is really going on around me, what is going on in my personal life, and the politics of that you know the Hindu family system, the patriarchy, the gender, the caste, the class, so there was all this that I was a part of without knowing, or completely being blinded by; just doing one play after the other.


I think something has changed and shifted post-pandemic. So yes, I think I will stick to what I am very comfortable with i.e. comedy, laugh at myself, and through that, address the politics of my own self and of my community, of my country at large. I think comedy is directly associated with entertainment, although I think even tragedies are entertainment, even dark hard-core pieces of work are also entertaining in a way. But yes, it’s not very difficult as long as we are truthful to the satire, irony, and sarcasm, and we are skillful with how to create comedy out of it. Satire has always troubled people who were criticized through it and I think it’s time that more and more of satire should happen now in this country.


Baaghi Albele is an adaptation of To be OR Not To Be, which is basically a theatre company entangled in the diktat that the government has passed and is just basically trying to survive. Their predicament is something that has happened in the past and we are now facing it in this country more and more. So I think it is not very difficult to pass on your political stances, your political conviction, and your political argument through comedy.



Was there ever a concern that the play itself might face the very censorship it addresses?


Yes, there was and there still is a concern because the play talks of censorship. There is no point in it being a great play or putting up a great fight through theatre if we are all put behind bars. So, we are trying to be as careful as possible, but as blatant and as bold as possible at the same time. These days, every time we do something like this, everybody is afraid. But it is also the time when some of us who have the agency and opportunity, must fight. I have close friends who have suffered in the last few years, their passports have been revoked, there have been FIRs, they’ve been dragged to the courts, and there are friends who are threatened. So yeah, these are everyday issues now that one is facing and one has to constantly address and fight for.


Your other recent play, Taking Sides, is a rather dark take on a similar theme—art, politics, censorship, and the moral and ethical dilemma and angst of artistes. Are these some of the themes you are grappling with as an artiste today? Where do you stand as an artiste and what are your foremost concerns today?


Yes, you’re right. These are my concerns today, and that is why I am picking up plays that are dabbling with art and politics and the struggle within art and politics. I am only just beginning to realize whether I liked it or not, I was taking a certain political stance, but I was oblivious to them.


I was quite blatant about my not being interested in politics and that my politics was evident in the kind of theatre I did automatically. But I think that automatically is something that I was hiding behind, I was running away from, and it’s something that now I’m only waking up to and I think I need to grapple with it much more. I need to understand who I am, where I come from, what are my privileges as a male, as a Hindu, as an upper-middle-class person in this country and what that means. What responsibilities and accountability do I have towards people who have worked with me, who have flourished with me or who have actually suffered because of who I have been.


I am a theatre director, producer, and for the last 30 years I’ve been doing theatre and I have made a place in my community, in this country, and around the world, and it is very easy for me to ignore people sometimes who work with me and are unable to deliver in a way that probably I would like them to deliver because I’m leading a project and they’re rejected. But what that does to them is something that was never a concern to me. What does this sort of thing do to them? I have grown up in a Hindu joint family in a hard-core patriarchal setup. It’s only now that I am waking up post the Me Too movement, post the pandemic… I am trying to align myself with Gen Z sensibilities. When my daughter who’s 17 points out, ‘baba, why are you saying this…this is wrong’ or says, ‘you need to address people with a lot more empathy’, I am listening.


We are dealing with human beings. And the politics of who you are and where you come from is always at play. It is just convenient to not look into that and just keep making works of art one after the other. But I think it’s time for me at least to stop and to question myself: who and what I am as an artiste? Why do I want to create art in the first place? What am I trying to say? What is that art going to do? How is it affecting people or transforming people who are doing it? How is it relevant to my audiences? Et Cetra. So yes, it is of prime importance to me. It is my foremost concern right now.


Also, is theatre becoming a more viable medium to tell such stories as due to its ephemeral nature, it escapes the social media trolling and escapes the boycott brigade?


Theatre can have ephemeral nature, but it can also be very, very direct. As we all know, during a theatre performance in Delhi some years back, a director was actually attacked by the ruling government of that time and actually died. A few years back, there was a play that was banned in Jaipur, and then I had to bring it all the way to Goa during a festival. I actually curated the festival and I insisted that that play happens at that festival. While that play happened, we had buses and cars ready just in case there is a brigade or there is a group of people who comes and hampers the performance, then at least all our artists can get into these vehicles and escape. So I mean, this is the level of preparation sometimes we have to do. So, even if it escapes social media trolling, the theatre has the capability to ruffle some really serious feathers.



Also, what is your take on the commerce of arts? Can today an artiste exist just by being true to his craft?


Yes, even today, it’s difficult to run your own theatre, and 99.9 percent of serious theatre makers still make their living through other sources by teaching or doing cinema or workshops, etc. And it’s the same case with me. The only thing in my case is that at least I don’t put my own personal money into the plays that I do and theatre projects that I run because they have started taking care of themselves.


Hopefully, this will slowly become an industry and slowly people will be able to live off their earnings just through theatre. But even today, it is difficult, especially for people who do experimental work who are not in mainstream commercial theatre to do so, not only in India but across the world.


I think theatre is still an art form of the mad people, people who are passionate and even know that they’ll be struggling to make ends meet, want to do it.


How far should an artiste go for beauty, especially when showing the mirror to society without the beauty filter on might not have many takers? How much do you then leave behind as an artiste to paint a palatable if not pretty picture? Should art for art’s sake really be a redundant concept?


I remember, just post the pandemic when we were just coming out of so much gloom and darkness, just to have people assemble and laugh at something really as stupid as a ridiculous stand-up comic act became an amazing feat of humanity as it showed how we could still fight something larger than all of us. Who are we to put stamps and labels of what is important and what is not? I can only talk of theatre, all kinds of theatre is made by a community of people who sincerely believe in it. They put their time, their lives, their love, and their efforts into making it. Sometimes it is one kind, sometimes it is another. There is a group of people who comes to watch it and I think all of it is valid and all of it is beautiful and all of it has the capability of touching people in different ways.



Sometimes they might be very, very beautiful, sometimes not, sometimes balanced but as long as we come from an honest space, from our basic instincts, I think we will create something valuable and somebody or the other in the audience will find a connect with it. It’ll be naive to say that any one work of art can touch everybody in the world. So, there’ll always be some people who will not connect to it. And it is okay. I think just being truthful should be our aim.


You can watch Aadyam’s Baaghi Albele at Bal Gadharva Rang Mandir, Bandra on March 18 and March 19. Tickets at

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