Kulbhushan Kharbanda mulls over what life might have been if he had studied theatre seriously.

While Kulbhushan Kharbanda’s fame as a versatile actor earned him a celebrity status in countless Hindi films, still remembered as the villain Shaakal in “Shaan” or the deceptive husband Inder in “Arth”, his sensitive, spontaneous and intelligent acting in theatre was well established long before his foray into mainstream and parallel cinema.

After a lapse of 18 years, Kharbanda returns to stage in Kolkata as the protagonist Rajadhaksha in the Hindi adaptation of Elkunchwar’s Marathi play “Atmakatha”, directed by Vinay Sharma and produced by Padatik and Rikh. During his Delhi days, he was a part of theatre groups Abhiyaan and thereafter Yatrik. He moved to Kolkata in 1972, on the suggestion of the late theatre stalwart Shyamanand Jalan, to work with Jalan’s Padatik in memorable productions like “Gidhare” and “Sakharam Binder”.

The unassuming actor re-lived his good old days in Kolkata with a twinkle in his eyes


Why didn’t you work in theatre after Sakharam Binder?

“Sakharam” ran till 1995 and after that nobody called me, no group approached me — not even in Mumbai. When I came here for the homage of Shyamanandji in 2010, Vinay told me “let’s do something”. So that’s how it was all initiated.

Were there no opportunities? But you were busy in films...

I didn’t get a chance to do theatre. You are right, there were really no opportunities! I was only doing films as that is my profession. So when Vinay decided to mount a play, I agreed. I had never seen or read any of Elkunchwar plays. We had read two plays. Vinay sent me the script of this one which I read for the first time and found it suited my persona as it was a role of an elderly person. I didn’t think over it much and decided to do it. The role was not different as it was on human relationship, its problems and complications and for ages these troubles, tribulations and tangles of relationship were more or less the same. The difference was in the newness of approach, the way the writer has portrayed it. That fascinated me.

But you generally play serious characters. What sort of roles do you prefer?

I am not committed to any particular type and do not subscribe to any “ism”. When you get a variety you enjoy the roles and I enjoy doing all sorts. In commercial cinema you are slotted in a particular role. I have never been given comedies, and had no hero material in me. Of course in “Godhuli”, “Arth” and a few others, it was a sort of hero’s role.

And commercial theatre?

See, “Kambho” ran well so you can call it a commercial play. If this one runs full-house, you may call this a commercial play too! It is so everywhere, Mumbai or in Kolkata. You can’t brand any play as commercial! Thirty five-forty years ago, when we used to go to watch Bengali plays here, perhaps in Bowbazar and in Star Theatre, for almost every show (in many films also) it was necessary to have a cabaret dance and that too by Shefali, to be successful.

Those days people said that the ’60s were also a decade of Tapasda in Bengal. He used to weave magic with his memorable light design — the flood in “Kallol” or the scene of a bridge with the train running on it in “Setu”. Everywhere, all types of theatre, experimental or group, etc. run simultaneously. We have to choose where to go, nahin?

I am already doing the so called commercial films so what is the point of doing such types of theatre too? The theatre should offer something new, different and challenging and only then will I enjoy doing it.

So theatre is your passion…

Theatre is (emphatically) my passion. There is a ‘nasha’ in theatre. I do not yet know whether it has become my profession or not but I sometimes question myself so. Till now I have not earned a rupee from acting in theatre. So I must be doing it out of “shauk”. But if it had only been passion, where was I in between — the last 17-18 years? I would be telling lies if I said I loved theatre desperately otherwise I would have found some means to pursue it. So I must have been dishonest to myself somewhere? Actually Vinay is responsible for my comeback. (Laughs loudly)

Which medium, film or theatre requires more effort?

To me as an actor, theatre! In films you can do a lot of rectification but in theatre you are out on the first ball, there is no second chance! I had to put in hard work for this play. Basically I am a lazy person and would not like to struggle a lot to fulfil my passion.

I was selected in the National School of Drama but did not join because I feared the uncertainty in theatre prevalent in the ’60s. Actors used to starve the whole day and be desperate for a rupee or two.

It was my kamzori, but I was scared. I cannot live with only Wah! Wah! for the sake of theatre — simple.

Mr. Alkazi’s letters offering scholarship kept coming continuously for six months, but I kept quiet which I realise was a mistake. If I had joined I could have been more theatre-literate. But I worked in theatre backstage for three-four years and have practical knowledge, of production, lights and set design which have come of great use later in life.