INTERVIEW As Ekjute theatre group celebrates three decades of vibrant existence, its leading light, Nadira Babbar, speaks about a journey that's ever fresh
Ekjute, the theatre group founded by Nadira Babbar and her husband Raj Babbar in 1981, maybe 31 years old, but Nadira says her own career started much before that, when she graduated from the National School of Drama in 1971. “So it's actually 42 years,” she says. If the arts are a mirror of society, and if comparing the India of today with the India of the 1970s yields two practically different countries, surely the theatre scene too has kept pace. How does the veteran sum up this change?
“Definitely it has transformed. And it's very encouraging to see so much youth associating itself with theatre.”
Today's generation has a reputation for level-headed financial planning. If they are entering the field it must mean they see better monetary prospects than their parents. “Maybe, yes. Thanks to commercial theatre and corporates coming in, the situation has improved.”
Take the case of Ekjute's ongoing festival in New Delhi's Shri Ram Centre, where she has brought eight of her repertory plays. “My company is the only one that has 17 running productions. I would have liked to bring them all. But if I come with 50 to 70 people, where do I put them up?” With meals and logistics eating away at the budget, she decided to do the two large-cast productions on the first two days of the festival and send several members back.
Of course better funding would help. But theatre has traditionally been the voice that tells disconcerting truths.This penchant rarely goes down well with the money providers, so is the rise of commercial theatre actually a good thing, or is it going to end up muffling the protest? “That is a point, But theatre is also for entertainment. There's a very thin line between what you call entertainment and what you call commercial entertainment.”
Ekjute's productions, she maintains, are very entertaining, but they never do bedroom comedies or shows that might be termed as aiming for the lowest common denominator.
As for entertainment, once upon a time, going to a theatre performance was the only way to catch a show. And early cinema had the look of plays captured on reel. Slowly, as cinema came of age, it developed its own language and galloping technology ensured that the world of cinema and TV was an electronic universe unto itself. Meanwhile, theatre too developed lots of technology. But today, with multimedia the buzzword, it's not just rotating sets and dazzling light design that make a production shine — some stage productions look as if they are trying to make the audience believe they are actually watching a film!
“We have also incorporated some technology, but we do not let that overpower our theatrical abilities,” explains Nadira. “If I am using slides, a certain kind of effect, graphics, all that has to be along with my theatrical priorities. “I know a lot of people are doing theatre like a light and sound show. I really feel if you are doing that, you are not doing theatre.”
It is necessary for theatre to adopt new techniques, she believes, but not at the expense of the art. Some feel that Mumbai's theatre groups are more susceptible to the ‘filmy' razzmatazz of Bollywood. The Mumbai-based director firmly disagrees. “I don't think so. It is happening everywhere. The only places it's not happening is where they don't have the resources.”
And what of Ekjute? In its fourth decade, is a new chapter in store? “Well, every day is a new chapter, for me and for Ekjute.”
Nadira may be upbeat, but Ekjute faces the same problems as other theatre groups in terms of attendance, with most taking up jobs to make ends meet. “It's a huge problem. It's unfortunate, we do lose our actors to television, cinema, dubbing, ad films.” Since she can't pay them the kind of money they earn outside, Nadira says, she understands their problems. “I adjust with my actors for everything — but not if you go to another theatre group.”
That must be the secret of staying together then… the importance of being Ekjute.