Theatre director and set designer Mithran Devanesan speaks to SHONALI MUTHALALY on his foray into theatre, his battle with cancer and keeping faith in yourself

Mithran Devanesan was an ugly stepsister.

“We decided on a modern version of Cinderella. With the twist instead of ballroom dancing.” But Bishop Cotton, Bangalore was an all boys' school. So that's how he started his glorious theatre career — mincing about the stage in swishy skirts and too much make-up.

Mithran was a medical student in Chennai. An advertising student in the United States. A biology teacher in Jamaica.

“I loved science, but on my first day at the Madras Medical College hospital, I realised I was in the wrong profession.” The U.S. turned out well, though. That's where he met his wife Nanda. “My uncle was common guardian to my wife and me.” Then came Kingston, Jamaica. “International borders were very different in those days — no work permits, no visas…”

Mithran, now diagnosed with cancer, has chosen to fight it without chemotherapy. “I live with hope. I don't see myself as ill. I don't look at my medicine as something to cure cancer, I look at it as something that gives me health.”

Independent thinker

Clearly, he's an independent thinker.

It's this courage to be unconventional that makes him so influential in Chennai's theatre scene. Best known as a director and set designer, Mithran is proud of having “discovered” and empowered many of the city's most prominent actors.

He does stage and film. Guides actors and dancers. Works with a range of theatre groups, while running his own — MTC productions. Has won awards and received scholarships. And regularly inspires a countless number of young actors, in his work with schools and colleges. He's also created and sustains various thoughtful charities.

However, what really marks him is an incessant restlessness, which pushes him from project to vastly different project. And a faith in himself the people he chooses to believe in, whether they're his cast of actors or team of doctors. And a confidence that doesn't even brook the possibility of failure.

Born in 1952 in Sri Lanka (his mother is Sri Lankan), Mithran grew up on the sprawling Madras Christian College campus, where his father was a professor and principal. In keeping with his stubborn need to be individual, he didn't speak till he was three-and-a-half. The family legend goes that his mother asked him why his feet were wet and his first words were ‘Because I walked on dew-drenched grass!'”

His first serious stab at theatre was equally dramatic. He directed Julius Caesar casting his students for the big Jamaican annual festival. They won gold.

When Mithran and his family returned to Chennai in 1974, he headed straight to the Madras Players. “Everyone thought they were a very hoity-toity crowd, which they really weren't. They were like family.” Predictably enough, he didn't have a conventional start with them either. “They didn't give a damn about who I was or that I had just won gold. They said ‘sweep the stage',” he says, adding, “In their next production I was co-director.” Think that's a quick promotion? Well, the production he literally swept his way into was Alice In Wonderland. “I started as stage sweeper, moved up as stage manager and ended up with a walk-on role as the Ace Of Hearts,” Mithran chuckles. “All in the space of one play!”

He's had an eventful career in theatre so far. “I started in 1973, so that makes it about 37 years in theatre till now,” he says, doing the mental math, and looking faintly surprised. “I've lost count of the plays I've directed — but it must be around 150. As for productions I've been involved in — in some capacity — at least 350.”

Redefined set designing

The sets he created for The Shadow Box by Michael Cristofer, which he directed in 1986, caught people's attention, reaffirming his talent for the architecture of the stage. ““Personally I think it's a gift.” Any mistakes? “No. I've never designed a bad set.”

However, his most prized accomplishment is clearly The Anjar project. “It takes care of 500 underprivileged city children, supports an HIV house, and helps run a shelter for battered women.”

He also has an adopted son, Charles, in addition to his two daughters, who seems to be a source of constant delight. “He comes over with his friends, and they have egg-eating competitions.”

This vibrancy, amplified by the people he deals with everyday, is Mithran's life force, which is why chosen Tibetan medicine, which enables him to actively work on his new productions, even while keeping up with most of his social commitments. “They don't claim magical cure but say they can prevent the cancer from spreading…. I know I'm not 100 per cent well, I tire far easier. But I feel healthy.”

However, no medicine, he says is as powerful as a sense of humour. “I was supposed to do a walk to support CanStop. When they called me and said ‘where can we deliver your T-shirt, sir?' I was lying in the hospital bed. So I said, ‘Um, there's a small problem',” Mithran says, chuckling. “You have to laugh at life. That's what keeps you going.”