THEATRE N. K. Sharma is invisible but ever present. He tells PHEROZE L. VINCENT about his sabbatical and plans to stage a comeback

The last time this reporter saw Act One perform was at a tribute to painter M. F. Husain in 2011. Along with dramatist M. K. Raina, they put up a small skit and dance performance with umbrellas at Vithalbhai Patel House, less than a month after the artist died in London.

Indeed, Act One was and remains a sought after troupe – especially for those aspiring to star on the silver screen. Cult figures like Manoj Bajpayee, Piyush Mishra, Deepak Dobriyal and Ashish Vidyarthi have been associated with the group and its director N. K. Sharma. For strugglers in show business, the common refrain at eateries on Safdar Hashmi Marg and Tansen Marg is “Acting seekhna hai tho milo N. K. Sharma ji se.” (If you want to learn acting, meet N. K. Sharma).

But Sharma has been absent from the stage for almost three years. His last play was Tum Jahaan Kahin Bhi Ho, an adaptation of David Greig’s The American Pilot, which starred Huma Qureshi of Gangs of Wasseypur fame.

“These days plays have become events. Everything is about profit and marketing. I don’t know marketing, so I decided to take a sabbatical,” says Sharma. Off the stage, Sharma- or Pandit ji as old fans call him – has spent his time coaching youngsters. These include Imran Khan, Ayushmann Khurana and Yami Gautam. He’s expecting a visit from Kunal Kapoor soon.

“I’m not going to name all the actors who’ve come to me, because whatever success they’ve got is due to their own effort and not mine. Also, aspiring actors want to learn a few tricks to become a star. Because I work with film stars, they think I have some magic wand that will grant them these tricks. Learning theatre for them is a routine like a dance workshop or a gym workout.”

For Matru ki Bijlee ka Mandola, a satirical film on agrarian politics in Haryana, Sharma made lead actor Imran Khan hang out with five Rohtak boys for weeks, to imbibe the Haryanvi accent. “My ways are not clichéd. Acting is something that can be learnt, but never taught. You learn from life. A person should be real, true to character,” he explains.

Sharma puts them through processes that bring out their strengths and weaknesses. “I introduce them to the craft of speech and diction, talk about trends in art and culture. We work on their strengths and something that has almost been forgotten in theatre- stance. We work on everything- postures, gestures, costumes- to use the body as a means of communication.”

Sharma never went to drama school. He began with the Jana Natya Manch (Janam)- in order to retain his association with Communist Party of India (Marxist), despite working for the government whose service rules prohibit political activities. His hundred flowers bloomed after the Emergency was lifted.

“The first play I acted in was Machine, India’s first modern street play, in 1978. I worked with Safdar Hashmi, Manish Manocha, Rakesh Saxena, Arun Sharma and Moloyashree Hashmi. After years with Janam, I started by own group Act One in 1990.”

Sharma is against the trend of shifting the spotlight from the actor to the production. “This is the typical insecurity of directors. They call it post modern theatre, a different language they say. You may use all the techniques in the world- multiple screens, grand sets- but the human angle is always the cornerstone.”

He explains that the spotlight is shifting from actors due to the lack of stories. He attributes this to the blows struck to theatre- intellectually and financially- by economic liberalization.

“You must be interested in people if you want stories. Shakespeare lived before Marx, but he wrote working class stories. The Panchatantra was all about the triumph of good over evil and the desire to live. Stories are going to come back. Look at (Steven) Spielberg’s last four films. The spotlight will return to the actor,” he adds.

This spotlight will probably be manoeuvered by Sharma himself as he plans return to the stage this year. He’s tightlipped on the details, though it is learnt that he’s been observing country’s leading scenographers. “I want to try out a new sort of theatre. Neither proscenium nor street, something closer to community theatre that can be adapted to any space,” he says smoking his fourth cigarette.

Act One

The Act One theatre group was started in 1990 with Manoj Bajpayee, Gajraj Rao, Nikhil and Arvind Babbal. Actors like Piyush Mishra, Deepak Dobriyal, Ashish Vidyarthi and Pratima Singh worked with the group in their early years.

“Our first play was Netuwa, the folk theatre of Bihar… Today we see the influence of our style on films like Wasseypur, Matru, Vicky Donor and so on. It is because people like Shoojit Sircar and Imtiaz Ali have worked with us and Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bharadwaj and Tigmanshu Dhulia have been close friends. We are all close friends and have struggled together in this city.”

Act One has staged many landmark plays like Jab Shehar Hamara Sota Hai, Kashmir and Aao Saathi Sapna Dekhein. Piyush Mishra’s Gagan Damama Bajyo has inspired Raj Kumar Santoshi’s The Legend of Bhagat Singh in parts.

The group only staged its own scripts until its last play Tum Jahaan Kahin Bhi Ho in 2006.

Keywords: N. K. Sharma