Source : The Hindu
Manoj Shah prefers the solo format and he has reasons
Manoj Shah now does his plays in multiple languages, but he started his career with Gujarati theatre and made his reputation as a maverick, who refused to be constrained by the mould of popular Gujarati theatre — this genial director, with the appearance of a poet, whose communication is addressed to “Swajan” (Our Own). His plays are inspired by literary and spiritual themes, and many of them are solo actor plays, either with unusual characters or with heroes in unusual circumstances — like Karl Marx visiting Kalbadevi (Mumbai’s old business district). His latest, ‘Dr Anandibai Joshi: Like, Comment, Share’ is about India’s first female doctor.
“I was doing so many solos with male actors — ‘Karl Marx In Kalbadevi,’ ‘Hun Chandrakant Bakshi,’ ‘Popcorn With Parsai,’ ‘Mohan No Masalo,’ ‘What’s Up?’ — that girls from my group accused me of being insensitive towards women. I said that’s not true, and asked a few women writers to work on four monologues with four women. I did all the research and gave them the material, but that didn’t work out. Geeta Manek sent me a three-page note on Dr. Anandibai Joshi, which was brilliant. I told her to go ahead and write the play. The discovery of a female character was a necessity for my group, and I am lucky to have found her. Then began the process of improvisation and working together with the writer. I often change, edit and take liberties with the text which offends some writers. So I invited Geeta to be a part of it.”
Shah knows that it is not easy to be alone on stage for nearly two hours, so preparations begin with stamina-building. “I make the actors run, do skipping and breathing exercises, only then do we go into rehearsal. When on stage, if they drink water, it distracts the audience, so I make sure that during the rehearsal too, they don’t drink water or tea. I have created some norms for solo performances, but before the show, some actors insist on eating a particular snack or having energy drinks, so I allow that.”
“What is happening in Gujarati theatre today is just soap operas and comedies with SMS jokes. If I want to communicate with that audience, I should have mind-blowingly powerful content. I think I have discovered my audience,” says Shah. “My plays have people coming from long distances because I give them stories with some inspiration . This I discovered from the spiritual leaders who deliver ‘kathas’ to forty and fifty thousand people who want to be inspired,” he adds. “You can fool them or give them something genuine. I thought the best way to approach theatre was to give them some inspirational thoughts and tell them a story my way. Their acceptance of Gandhi or Shrimad Rajchandra was understandable, but I was zapped when they accepted Karl Marx. It proved that my experiment worked.”
Shah is a self-taught director. After working with some film units, he found that things were not in his control. “I did not want to depend on anyone and theatre gives me that power,” he says. He admits that he started with plays about characters he was interested in.
“I am anpadh. I do not have much formal education, so for me each character becomes a means of acquiring knowledge about people — poets, writers, spiritual gurus, philosophers, that I wanted to learn about. And I blend things to create my own fusion. Like my first play ‘Master Phoolmani’ was adapted from Satish Alekar’s ‘Begum Barve,’ but I added the story of Jaishankar Sundari (a Gujarati stage actor who played female parts) and traditional Bhangwadi theatre (grand musical spectacles). In ‘Mareez,’ about the Gujarati poet, I mixed Charles Bukowski,” he expands.
Shah is now working on a production about writer Madhu Ray’s ‘Common Man’ kind of character, Hari, while another about Krishna is being written by Bakul Tailor; “Not Krishna as Krishna, but about how we have created him according to our requirements.”
Shah is an inveterate reader and watcher of plays; he attends film festivals and has long discussions with like-minded friends. “I started out as a dance teacher, but then I saw a play by Mahendra Joshi (a much-admired director who died very young), and decided this is what I wanted to do. I watched and was inspired by the theatre of Badal Sircar, Utpal Dutt and Vijaya Mehta. I used to watch their plays four or five times and learn from them. I read Stoppard, Brecht, Pinter and the lot, but I found there is so much to work with in my own language and culture,” he says tracing his initial years.
When he started doing offbeat plays, actors simply gravitated towards his theatre. “Anybody can join my group. I find out what they are good at where they fit in. And many move out too, towards films and television. And I tell them, go on, become famous, so my theatre will do well.” He says with a laugh, that his wife, Kalpana Shah, works in commercial theatre and her earnings run the household.
After years of doing Gujarati theatre, he expanded into Hindi, English and Marathi, because, “I have very few venues for my kind of Gujarati theatre. There are alternative venues opening up, but Gujaratis are nor familiar with them and won’t travel into that zone. They want comfortable seating and good snacks. So how do I survive? If I do plays in other languages, my actors and I are kept occupied. My theatre has grown, I am discovering new audiences and they like my work.”
The list of Manoj Shah’s plays is remarkably long and varied. He has travelled to Sabarmati Ashram to perform the play on Gandhi and Leh and Siachen to perform for the troops; he has done a play for Jains about to take diksha.
“My group is called Ideas Unlimited,” he says, “and I live by that. I have done plays of all kinds and at all venues — from street plays and small black box plays to large proscenium theatre productions and plays performed in maidans for thousands of people. I have been exposed to all genres of theatre in India and that has been my education.”
The other code he lives by came from Bhangwadi, “If your play can be enjoyed by a blind, deaf or mute person, then you are the right kind of director.” Anyone who sets out to achieve that will eventually get there.