Veteran Vijaya Mehta talks about her journey in theatre, the global scene, direction, her autobiography, and stint in films.
Thespian Vijaya Mehta has just finished writing her autobiography in her mother tongue, and is working on its English version. This will trace not only her journey in Marathi theatre, but also record a pioneering phase of Indian theatre.
Born in a family of radical humanist Theosophists, following the Varkari tradition, young Vijaya was with Jayaprakash Narayan in her teens. After her success as Desdemona in a college production (“Othello”), a theatre course with veteran Ebrahim Alkazi became a turning point. Training in backstage and direction with Adi Marzban strengthened her tools. Rangayan, the theatre laboratory she founded ( in 1960) with Vijay Tendulkar and Arvind Deshpande, launched the experimental theatre movement in Marathi, with landmark productions of Indian plays (Tendulkar's “Shantata Court Chalu Ahe”, Khanolkar's “Ek Shunya Baji Rao”, Elkunchwar's “Holi”), and adaptations of foreign masterworks.
Her 20 years' collaboration with director Fritz Bennewitz in Germany, produced not only Brecht, but plays from Kalidasa to Karnad, in an amalgam of Indian styles. After age 40, she directed and acted in memorable films (“Smriti Chitre”, “Rao Sahib”, “Pestonji”, “The Party”). Vijaya Mehta has been chairman, National School of Drama, and continues to be eExecutive dDirector, National Centre for the Performing Arts. Excerpts from an interview with the veteran.
With filmstars Nalini Jaywant for aunt, Nutan and Tanuja for cousins, and Durga Khote for mother-in-law, were you not enticed by the glamour of cinema?
I was too used to glamour at home. Instinctively I knew cinema was not for me. Learning about the interconnectedness of all the arts in theatre from Alkazi was a revelation. Adi Marzban said: ‘Don't talk, jump in', and made me a theatre director. I was barely 21 when I directed Tendulkar's ‘ Shrimant'. It made us both.
Were you not seen as an English memsahib in Marathi theatre?
Only initially! I kept telling Tendulkar, ‘I am very much your actress'. I talked in the ‘icebergian' way in which he wrote, showing only the tip. The old school people were unused to this emotional restraint — a drop instead of a flood.
How much did your theatre laboratory Rangayan shape the growth of playwrights and actors? Why did it break up?
Rangayan collapsed when I married Farrukh Mehta and went to England. I lost my innocence, gullibility, became an adult. Without batting an eyelid, I'd say that a lot of playwrighting, acting and production styles today are based on what Rangayan created. Rangayan was a breakthrough, a literary and performing arts movement. It stood for certain convictions of what theatre should be and how you experiment. I don't take all the credit. I had the right people for support.
Your Ionesco and Brecht productions set new trends. What attracted you to such dissimilar minds?
You'd laugh if I tell you. In an international workshop at Oxford, Americans and Africans found their own ways of producing Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, and I thought, let me try tamasha. People were astonished! Then I realised I wanted to find a modern vehicle for folk conventions. Later, research led to Brecht. At Rangayan, we introduced a foreign classic each year. Nissim Ezekiel suggested Chairs (Ionesco). We called it Na-natya.
What was it like to work with German actors?
Fantastic learning experience! They want 27 answers to a single question. When they lift a finger, it gets layered with meaning.
How did you overcome your initial distaste to act in and direct films?
Satyajit Ray arrived on the scene. Then I saw Shyam Benegal's ‘Ankur' and Govind Nihalani's ‘Aakrosh'. I realised that filmmaking can be as satisfying as my theatre. Films came to me in my 45th year, an autobiography of Lakshmibai Tilak, others mostly based on my plays. So, though I didn't know what structuring was, I knew exactly what I wanted in ‘Rao Saheb'. I am proud of my medical TV serial ‘Lifeline'.
What about the cliché that unlike cinema, theatre is an actor's, not a director's medium?
I became a director because I couldn't find anyone to help me as an actor. I am an actors' director. But oh my God! I think every moment in theatre is a director's moment! The director decides which sentence, gesture, or reaction, the audience is going to watch.
In the rehearsal room, yes. On the stage the actor can take over and the director's intentions go for a toss.
Oh yes! In Marathi theatre, actors can get tired with 30 shows a month. Then, unconsciously, they start playing to the gallery. I want my actors not to act but to be characters. A character is not something you indulge in. You play with it. My actors play a lot. But only hard work can empower you to play.