In 1984, Jennifer Kendal Kapoor’s tragic, untimely death cast doubt on the future of Prithvi Theatre, inaugurated only six years earlier. She had, after all, been the driving force behind building and nurturing this charming, intimate 200-seat space with a thrust stage. Standing on a small parcel of land in the yet-to-develop suburb of Juhu, it fulfilled Prithviraj Kapoor’s long-cherished dream of building a ‘home’ for his remarkable repertory theatre company of the 1940s, Prithvi Theatres.
When Prithvi celebrated its fifth birthday on November 5, 1983, Jennifer brought to life a spell-binding celebration – the first-ever Prithvi Theatre Festival showcasing a selection of performances from the first five years.
With her demise, however, the festival missed its date with the audience and there were rumours that the theatre might fall into disarray. It’s then that Kunal Kapoor stepped in. Acclaimed director Feroz Abbas Khan, who had helped launch the first edition, was roped in as the Artistic and Festival Director. Together, the duo curated a marvellous, month-long cultural extravaganza from February 1 to March 3, 1985, nothing like what the city had seen before. “Kunal wanted to send out a clear message that the theatre was here to stay,” says Feroz.
The edition packed local, national and international theatre. Stalwarts arrived from different parts of India and the audiences were regaled with several seminal folk, modern and contemporary plays in languages ranging from English and Hindi to Bengali, Manipuri and Mewari too. There was Ratan Thiyam’s Chakravyuha, Habib Tanvir’s Gaon Ka Naam Sasural, Mera Naam Damad, Jabbar Patel’s Ghashiram Kotwal and Bhanu Bharati’s Pashu Gayatri.
Feroz says that back then, the journey from Manipur to Mumbai would take Thiyam about a week. “Habib saab stayed with me. Hosting them, learning about their work, their discipline, how life and theatre was the same for them… those conversations were extraordinary for me,” he cherishes.
Shaili Sathyu, who leads children’s theatre company Gillo, was all of 10 back then. She played the lead role of a grandmother in IPTA’s Idgah, a powerful story by Premchand, about a boy’s love for his grandmother, and remembers having fun with the other child artistes – actor Rajeshwari Sachdev and director Shaad Ali. “I took my character literally and bossed over them at the rehearsals, ordering them not to run backstage or jump on the seats!” she laughs.
Also part of the line-up was Uddhwasta Dharmashala, directed by Om Puri, which had been Prithvi’s inaugural play in 1978.
This edition also marked tabla maestro Zakir Hussain’s first performance on its stage (which then turned into the annual Memorial Concert held on Feb 28th, Jennifer Kendal’s birth anniversary) and a staging of Dear Liar by Jennifer’s parents Geoffrey and Laura Kendal, who had their own travelling theatre company Shakespeareana. (Much later, Geoffrey would present his costume to Naseeruddin Shah for Motley’s rendition of this play).
Many great editions have emerged in the next three decades. But as a grand tribute to Jennifer, the 1985 festival remains the greatest one that Prithvi Theatre has ever seen, asserts Feroz.
The land on which Prithvi House stands today has been a refuge for artistes for years. Decades ago, it was called the Prithvi Jhopda, a cottage where Prithviraj Kapoor had spent the last years of his life.
“We would rehearse in the space through the day and nobody would disturb us or ask us what we were doing there,” recalls Nadira Zaheer Babbar, who staged some of Ekjute’s pivotal plays such as Yahudi Ki Ladki, Main Zinda Hoon and Sandhya Chhaya at the festival. Babbar credits the Prithvi for contributing to the growth of Hindi language theatre. “Earlier, Hindi plays only happened at Tejpal auditorium and there was hardly any audience. Gujarati and Marathi language plays was more popular. If not for Prithvi, the Hindi theatre scene in Maharashtra wouldn’t have taken off the way it has,” she says.
The Jhopda was also a space to relax and bond with fellow performers over lunches served at Rs 5. “Producing a play for the festival was always exciting. I would be there from 10 am to 6 pm and it was my second home. There would always be more than sufficient food for everyone and it was delicious!” says Om Katare, who staged several Yatri productions at the festival.
The genesis of this sense of camaraderie, and a warm, welcoming vibe, lies in the festival. In the 1980s, every theatre group had its dedicated set of followers. So the festival was launched as a platform to bring the groups together, encourage interactions with their audiences, showcase the best plays of the year, and make the space, largely reliant on Shashi Kapoor’s financial fortunes, self-sustainable.
The first edition in 1983 was sponsored by Vazir Sultan Tobacco (VST), the makers of Charms cigarettes. Kunal recalls, “The posters and communications [were] designed by Mohammed Khan and Elsie Nanji of Enterprise Advertising. VST continued to support Prithvi for the next nine years!”
The British production of Educating Rita, Majma’s Bichchoo, Ank’s Kamla, Pankaj Kapoor’s Woyzek, Avantar’s Khelaiya, Motley’s Waiting for Godot, IPTA’s Sufaid Kundali, The Glass Menagerie and Duet for One, among others, were part of the debut edition’s line-up.
Actor Anjan Srivastava, who acted in Sufaid Kundali, says, “We had 200 artistes performing and even created a bridge on the stage!”
Since the theatre didn’t have a ticket license then, actors would show up post the performance in makeup, with jholas, to collect money from the audience.
The festival’s energy was terrific, remembers Feroz, who had also roped in a group of musicians from a south Indian temple in Matunga to play in the foyer. It also witnessed platform performances. And a host of volunteers – including Sanjna Kapoor (she was 15 then) and Anurag Kashyap – managed the crowds.
This festival instilled a sense of belonging and ownership of the Prithvi among its audiences, volunteers and theatre fraternity. Values that continue to remain its hallmarks till date.
Interesting décor (“Once we had life-sized clay figures of different characters,” says theatre manager Lalit Sathe), neat brochures announcing the festival line-up, a special daily bulletin for the 1997 edition, interactions with the who’s who of the theatre world and spotting Shashi Kapoor’s iconic chair with armrests near the door … for artistes and audiences, attending the Prithvi festival has never just been a calendar event, but an experience that one cherishes for a long time.
As Naseeruddin Shah aptly points out in the book The Prithviwallahs, co-authored by Shashi Kapoor and Deepa Gahlot: “Mumbai theatre can be divided into two eras – before Prithvi and after Prithvi.”
“When in college, I would go to the theatre, pick up the booklet, mark the plays I really wanted to watch and only buy those tickets, because budgets were limited,” says Shaili, who has preserved the booklets and brochures as precious memorabilia.
The Kapoor family watched the plays on the opening night – never for free – and Shashi and Jennifer would also be present at the rehearsals. “We would be very nervous,” says Om, recollecting a rehearsal of Rajneeti where Jennifer shouted at him for a misdirected light that was bouncing off the stage and onto a seat. “She scolded me saying that it would hamper an audience member’s view. She would always remind us that when putting up a public show, we had to work as professionals and not treat it as an experiment.”
Sunil Shanbag, who reimagined Prithviraj Kapoor’s iconic 1946 Deewar play for the 2018 edition celebrating the theatre’s 40th anniversary, says, “Even back in the day, it was an honour to be selected for the festival.” Freelancing as a journalist in his early years, he recollects comparing the festival’s curation with their regular programming in one of his articles. “I had said that if this is the programming we would see through the year, Prithvi was the place to be. I remember Shashi Kapoor saying that Sunil doesn’t know whether to love us or hate us,” he laughs.
With Sanjna assuming charge from 1990 to 2011, the festival evolved to include fresh plays, unique themes, different venues and day-long carnivals too. Later, concepts such as Fringe Plays and Stage Talk, which documents informal conversations with theatre personalities, were also introduced.
Some of the most successful festivals were Playwright At The Centre and Postcards From Bombay. The latter, held in 1999, emerged as a milestone edition as fresh plays such as Nadira Zaheer Babbar’s Sakubai, Paresh Mokashi’s Sangeet Debuchya Muli and Shafaat Khan’s Shobhayatra received much acclaim and the audiences witnessed a bonanza of local theatre. Personality-focused themes on Habib Tanvir and Satyadev Dubey, and performances by the British group Complicité have also been impactful.
Another hit was 2007’s Mumbai Musicals that included adaptations of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s Me Grandad ‘Ad An Elephant! and Chetan Datar’s Mastana Rampuri Urf, Chappan Chhuri. “The sheer effort involved was fantastic. At that time, it wasn’t easy to get actors who could sing and singers who could act. Though some of the actors were singing off key, audiences didn’t mind because just watching them was such a wonderful experience,” says Deepa Gahlot.
Another memorable year for her was when the veteran Zohra Sehgal took to the stage and wowed the audience with her inimitable recital, Abhi Toh Main Jawan Hoon. “When she sang in her adaa, you really felt that she’s ageless.”
Over the years, the festival has had as much impact on the city’s culture as the theatre itself. The main reason, says Deepa, is because they weren’t answerable to a board of bureaucrats. “From Kunal and Feroz to Sanjna and now back to Kunal, it moved from one affectionate, theatre-loving hand to another.”
Akarsh Khurana, who has staged Bombay Dying and Dhumrapaan at the festival, and whose father Akash helped launch the festival, adds that performing at Prithvi really spoils the actors because of its warm vibe, acoustics and the familiar faces of the staff. A personalised experience that no other venue has been able to replicate thus far.
He adds, “One thing that Prithvi has achieved is that it has become a community centre and feels like a theatre fraternity hangout. It’s a melting pot that reaches its peak at festival time.”
In any other year, this would have been the week when all roads would have led to Prithvi. This year, however, with no permission to open due to Covid-19 rules, the festival will miss its date with the audience. “With the pandemic and no clear light at the end of the tunnel, the uncertainty has made it impossible to plan and I definitely did not want to have to ‘cancel’,” says Kunal.
But in true Kapoor family fashion, we can be assured that the show will go on. Until then, it’s nostalgia, memories and the magic of Prithvi that keep us company.