Recipient of the 2017 Sangeet Natak Akademi award, Sunil Shanbag, 62, dabbled in journalism, documentary film making, acting and script writing, before settling down with his true passion, theatre. This protégé of maverick theatre guru Satyadev Dubey (1936- 2011) has directed some outstanding productions like Cotton 56, Polyester 84; S*x, M*rality and Cens*rship; Stories in a Song; Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon; and Club Desire, in a career spanning 40 years. Much of his work has been marked by innovative use of music.
Success is the ability to do the kind of work you want to do. It is very difficult to fully define success, but one of the things about it is that once you have created a body of work and people appreciate it, then it becomes easier to do the kind of work you like to do. For me, that’s what it has turned out to be — more people are willing to listen, more people are willing to engage with the work, and more people are ready to enter into a conversation about my kind of work.
There are several unforgettable people I met in the earlier phase of my life. My English teacher, who developed in me a love for words and the language, had a huge influence. My history teacher allowed me to sit in the library on my own during the history period and I had a fantastic reading list made out for me. My drama teacher had a very strong influence because I was eight-and-a-half years old when I first acted in a play.
The economics of theatre have changed over the years. I have been independently producing and directing since 1985. Since then there have been huge changes. In the 80s we all had jobs and did theatre on the side. That has changed. Most of the actors who work with us are full-time actors, so I can rehearse with them at 10 am. But the flip side is that they depend on theatre for a living. Fortunately, there are more plays happening, and more people watching, so the economy of theatre has improved.
I was 16 when I decided to devote my life to theatre. This is after I had seen Mr. Satyadev Dubey’s production of Hayavandana at Tejpal Auditorium in Mumbai. I was blown away. I was still in boarding school and one year away from coming back, and as fate would have it, I came back, met Mr. Dubey and did my first play with him.
In my initial years, I couldn’t deal with failure but now I think I am getting more philosophical about it. In the arts, there is an expectation that you are not going to succeed all the time because it is an extremely subjective business. It’s not like mathematics where two plus two equals four. Somebody may like it, somebody may not like it. That becomes a very tricky thing. Also, early on, I realized that there is always another chance. If one play doesn’t succeed, there will always be another one coming up. You cannot engineer success in the arts.
When I look back at 1982 and Aada Chautal, the first play I had directed, I remember a young director full of energy. It was performed at various places including the NCPA and Chhabildas. The script was not chosen by me. It was written by Mr. Dubey and thrust upon me. Karo. I wouldn’t say it had something I wanted to say. It was more of an exercise. But we had a great time doing it. There were some interesting people acting in it like Jayant Kripalani, Harish Patel, Soni Razdan and Utkarsh Mazumdar. I don’t know if they even remember doing the play.
There have been two defining moments in my life. The first was when I realized what I wanted to do. The second came when I attended the opening of the Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal in February 1982. There were theatre workshops over three days by Peter Brooks and other theatre greats. Things that I had been groping around for suddenly became clear after I heard him. I knew I was on the right track.
I want to use theatre to make the understanding of the world around us a little clearer. My play Cotton 56, Polyester 84 was based on the Mumbai mill land issue. An executive who was working in one of the office blocks built on mill land in Parel called the day after she saw my play. `This morning what your play meant came home to me,’ she said. I asked what happened. She said, `I was driving to my office and as I entered the gate I looked up and saw that on it was written Raghuvanshi Mills. I noticed it for the first time in the two years that I was working there. Suddenly what you were saying in the play became clear to me.’ She had made a connection to the city, her personal life and her work place. That is what theatre is all about.
Sunil Shanbag’s next, an adaptation of Prithviraj Kapoor’s Deewar, opens at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre on November 3, 2018