Ahead of their performance in Delhi, veteran actors Anupam Kher and Neena Gupta reflect on their inspiring journey from stage to screen and back
In Rakesh Bedi’s much-acclaimed play – “Mera Woh Matlab Nahi Tha”, two long-lost lovers revisit their past after 35 years. Set in Delhi, the play traces the stories of Preetam Chopra and Hema Roy as they discover the truth about their circumstances, thrash out misunderstandings and re-imagine alternate trajectories. For actors Anupam Kher and Neena Gupta, getting into the skin of the characters was also an opportunity to examine the passage of time in their own lives as actors who have worked through circumstances to carve their niche on screen and stage. Despite being a year apart at the National School of Drama (NSD) in the 1970s, the thespians never had the chance to perform on stage together until this production, many decades later. The long-running play is also a testimony of their artistic journeys that turn a full circle to theatre.
Getting into character
Kher seems to be talking about a close childhood friend when he says, “I know him very well, I know the details of his life, those that he shares with everyone and also those that he doesn’t.” He is actually referring to his character in the play, Preetam, whom he has studied and crafted carefully. “A play narrates the story from one point in the character’s life to another,” he explains, “but that person has a rich, deeper life beyond that, I try to get there.”
Kher’s approach to character study involves creating a timeline of the person’s life, an emotional graph, and getting to know the person well. “I begin with the simple exercise of thinking what must have been this person’s life before the starting point of the play. Once I know this well, I start working on his physicality — how he walks, speaks, his gestures, mannerisms, these are developed during the rehearsals.”
Recalling how the character of Hema developed in the rehearsals, Gupta says, “Hema was in love with Preetam, this was the starting point for me as they share their life stories through the long conversation.” She points out that she tried to essay the role as the playwright-director (Rakesh Bedi) imagined it, “Hema has been written as a very identifiable character, drawn from life. The script flows naturally — making people laugh and cry.”
Delving deeper into her process of getting into a role, she shares her three guiding principles, “The most important thing is concentration — to be present as that character, in that moment. The second aspect is living the lines as you speak them, and finally, listening carefully to the other character before responding.” Gupta points out that it was a smooth transition into the character’s inner life because the camaraderie and discipline of theatre made it easy for them to work together.
The veteran actors recall their time in NSD fondly, attributing their later success largely to their rigorous theatre training. Gupta was immersed in studies in Sanskrit when she walked into a rehearsal at NSD one day. She was intrigued and fascinated as she watched Ebrahim Alkazi, the towering personality of Indian theatre, directing the accomplished actor Satish Kaushik on stage. “I decided I wanted to learn from him, that’s it,” she recalls. Unfortunately, she was a year too late as he had already stepped down by the time she joined. A year senior to her at NSD, Kher remembers the ‘Alkazi days’ vividly. “His teaching style and discipline were legendary, but he also had a lighter side.”
The actor points out that his application to NSD had been rejected the first time. Determined to nudge his way into acting, he was at the Punjab University in Chandigarh, where he got the opportunity to work with renowned directors like Balwant Gargi and Amal Allana. He emerged as a gold medallist, tried again and finally landed a place at NSD to pursue acting seriously.
“Failures and rejection have never broken me,” he says, “in fact, I am a sum total of my failures.” Sharing a powerful childhood lesson, he recounts that he was never a great student in school. “I returned from school and passed on my report card to my father one day. My rank was 59th. He inquired about the total number of students and I replied honestly, there were 60 students. I thought he would scold me. Instead he said, ‘Beta, the one who comes first has the constant tension of coming first every time. The one who is at 59 can slowly evolve, keep improving and growing.’ This took away my fear of failure. I freely share about my failures, even more than my success, because I believe success is uni-dimensional whereas failure has multiple aspects and gives you many stories to narrate.”
These are some of the stories that make their way into the autobiographical play performed by Anupam Kher — “Kuchh Bhi Ho Sakta Hai”, directed by Feroz Abbas Khan, that would also feature at the Delhi Theatre Festival. The play traces his journey from Shimla to Delhi, and his trials and tribulations in Mumbai as a film actor.
Stage and screen
Armed with an M.Phil in Sanskrit Studies, Neena Gupta was on her way to pursuing her PhD in Sanskrit drama, when she landed her first film – “Aadharshila”. The technique on stage is very different from screen,” reflects Gupta. “I was doing “Mandi”, directed by Shyam Benegal. The film features many theatre actors. I remember this scene with Om Puri where I had to scream at him. I was quite new to cinema and had no idea about close-up, mid-shot, or any of these technical aspects. I was performing and there were many retakes. Co-actor Shabana Azmi called me aside and whispered that this was a tight close-up, so I should avoid big gestures or overly dramatic facial expressions because unlike theatre, on screen one has to be subtle.”
Kher points out that in theatre the actors have to reach out to the audience while the camera captures an actor quietly. He believes the thrill of stage is the live audience. “The energy of the actor also varies according to the venue and the audience response.” Despite doing numerous shows, both actors agree that theatre can never get boring. “Each show is unique, the audience is different,” says Kher. Adding on, Gupta says, “We as actors are also in different states of mind, mood or phases at different points and this makes each show a new entry point. And in theatre, there are no retakes!”
She recalls a performance where she had a frozen shoulder and Kher had a foot injury. “It was funny because I could hardly move one of my arms and he was limping on one foot! There is a scene in the play where he picks me up and we had to devise unique strategies to do this since both of us were physically injured,” she says laughing at the memory. “Who knows what will happen in the next show, you will have to watch to find out!”
The show goes on
If the veteran actors had a chance for a retake in life, would they change anything? Kher recalls he played some memorable roles in “Hayavadana”, “Khamosh: Adalat Jaari Hai”, and other plays at NSD. “I just wish we had done more shows of those plays, like we do now,” he says. Striking a balance between commercial success and critical acclaim in theatre is often challenging and he feels with this play they have settled that trade-off. “But we need more original scripts in Hindi theatre, to keep it going full steam,” he says emphatically.
Gupta agrees that new works would infuse energy into Hindi theatre. But she also points out that sustainability remains a challenge in theatre even today. She had started her theatre group Sahaj, and eventually had to dissolve it for the same reasons. The other challenge that remains unaddressed for her is lack of meaty roles for women.
“A woman’s role in society itself has been quite limited – bhabhi, behen, mother, and heroine – these are the few stereotypical choices. I still feel I should have got better roles, but then, socially also women played these few roles.” She points out with some hope that things are changing and maybe the coming days would bring more choices for women actors.
(“Mera Woh Matlab Nahi Tha” and “Kucch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai” will be staged as part of Spotlight Delhi Theatre Festival, June 30, Siri Fort Auditorium, at 1 p.m.and 7 p.m. respectively)
The veteran actors recount their favourite memory from student days at the National School of Drama, Delhi, in the 1970s—
Once, I returned to the campus quite late at night after watching a film and the food in the hostel mess had finished. I asked the canteen caretaker for papad, dahi, rice, dal, anything. When he said nothing was available, in jest, I asked him if he had any poison in stock! The next day I was informed that Mr Alkazi had asked me to meet him right away. This was bad news. If any student was called to his office it meant you had done something terribly wrong. I was very scared. When I entered his room, he was very polite with me. During the conversation he offered me a white-coloured pill. I didn’t know what to do and asked him what it was. He calmly replied, “I heard you were asking around for poison so I got some for you, go ahead, have it.” I was shocked and stunned and just kept staring at the pill wondering what to do with it. Then he explained quietly that it was just a vitamin tablet. As I relaxed a bit, he told me that sense of humour is precious, and it is often lost on people. So, I should be careful with whom I use it and how. That is a lesson I have never forgotten!
This is from the time when Mr BV Karanth was heading the department at NSD. We were working on a Parsi play, a musical, and I was supposed to sing in that production. The day before the show I came down with a sore throat. I was coughing, my voice was hoarse and I was totally out of tune. There was no way I could sing on stage. So, I informed him and assumed I would be let off easily. But he was extremely angry with me and said, “How dare you come to me and say this, you have to perform. As an actor, your voice is your instrument, you have to take care of it. You have no business having a sore throat before a performance!” He refused to accept the excuse and I went on to perform with that bad throat the next day. As actors, the importance of commitment to performance, and the need to take care of oneself have remained with me as principles I live by.