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CHATSohaila Kapur shares her evolution through theatre

RACONTEURSohaila KapurPhotos: SANDEEP SAXENA
RACONTEURSohaila KapurPhotos: SANDEEP SAXENA

History, memories and time linger here. So does Sohaila Kapur as their patient caretaker. The languorous two-floor red house in New Delhi's Maharani Bagh, sapped of its redness by passing years, is where actor/director/playwright/television anchor and one-time journalist Sohaila entwines the past, present and future.

As she settles down on what would once have been a vigorous yellow sofa now darkened with age on the first floor, Sohaila explains this is where her parents lived and her dad died — the door still bears of the name plate of Dr K.B. Kapur, one-time physician to the former President of India Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. Sohaila has allowed the floor to be, kept her father's room intact and locked, allowed tired cane chairs to creep into the corners and the once-bright army of dolls in the showcase to be wrapped by time and dust.

“This is my rehearsal space, I live upstairs, but I grew up on this floor,” she says as she watches Sheru, one of the two street dogs she keeps, taking an afternoon nap on the cool mosaic floor. Among the siblings, which include her elder brother, the internationally renowned filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, Sohaila says she is the only one who considers this Delhi house home, for she hardly ever left it.

In a way, her bond with the house appears typical. When Sohaila revisits her childhood, her memories are as unsullied as yesterday. An intensely creative and sensitive child who wrote her first play at five, Sohaila says, “I loved being in other people's shoes. I imagined being the leaf on a tree that trembled with pleasure as the wind blew. I have been a dreamer and for me there has always been a thin line between fantasy and reality. I loved to spin stories and was famous as the storytelling didi.”

The young girl staged original plays in which she cast her friends, had a car and a driver at her disposal to pick up and drop actors, punched out 25 and 50 paise tickets on the typewriter and charged for her shows. She wrote in the 1960s, unconsciously, about communal harmony, her characters neatly Muslim, Hindu and Christian. With a hint of romanticism, she says, her work reflected how “beautiful people we were.” “Today, I feel we are going back to the pre-independence stage in terms of India and Pakistan.” Even when she dressed her Muslim woman in burqa and the Hindus in sari, Sohaila says, as a young writer what remained in her, “was the vividness of their costume, never their religion.”

For a creatively gifted childhood, Sohaila's adulthood uncharacteristically bore large spots of silence. On the other hand, her party-loving, chartered accountant brother woke up to his creativity as a filmmaker.

Theatre, though, continued to hold its sway through school and college. “When still in school, we formed Ruchika Theatre Group with Feisal Alkazi and others. We began in high school, continued through college, did ticketed shows and got good money. We did Theatre of the Absurd and also Sartre, Eugene Ionesco, Arthur Miller and Dario Fo.”

But her move to Mumbai and 10 years in journalism meant despite the opportunities theatre never got unhindered attention. Though she joined the Indian People's Theatre Association and worked with masters like Satyadev Dubey and M.S. Sathyu, theatre vied for her time with journalism. “Those were turbulent years. Dubey was hard on me. He would tell me, ‘You quit, you don't have it in you to be an actor. You are too gentle, you quit my classes or you will be psychologically ruined.'” Later on, Sohaila realised Dubey was uncompromising with anyone who trained with him, but she had to move on as journalistic pressures mounted.

“It was a full-time job and it had to be either journalism or theatre.” Though she remained a journalist, Sohaila managed to realise the actor in her through 1980s. Some commendable parts came her way — “Bakri” from IPTA, works with Nadira Babbar and Veenapani Chawla. “I worked with Veenapani on ‘Trojan Women' and it was a training ground. She works with your inner energy.”

However, the early 1990s, after a short stint in Canada, saw her return to theatre. She directed a series of plays, mostly adaptations, from August Strindberg's “Miss Julie,” Catherine Hayes “Skirmishes”, “Tattoo” based on German playwright Dea Loher's work to “Rumi” and “Ouch,” most of them under the banner of Katyayini. In between, she returned to playwriting — a musical blending Bollywood and contemporary times, which was first staged at Traverse theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as “Yeh Hai Mumbai Meri Jaan,” directed by Sanjay Roy. She wrote it in Canada, when her husband and son were on a visit to India. After years, she took on the play, adapted it, changed the lyrics and christened it “Mahim Junction” and continues to tour with it.

Sohaila, who works with Lok Sabha Television as a writer, producer and anchor, has now her plate full with theatre too. After over 30 years, she is working with Feisal Alkazi for Ruchika in a production where she plays the grandmother to Alkazi's son. “From playing a 17-year-old gypsy girl to a granny,” Sohaila laughs. She is also busy reviving her play “Tattoo”. “I might also possibly be travelling with ‘Mahim Junction' to North America and Europe.” Before all that is her tentatively titled play “Tributaries” based on the lives of two women — one from the Shaivaite Bhakti movement and the other, the first woman Sufi saint. “It is about how these women struggled in a patriarchal, strong society centuries ago” and the continuation of those struggles in different facets today, she adds. She has a play in mind on women above 60 and their issues, told with a touch of humour.

More importantly, she wants to pen a book on her family — an illustrious one at that with actor Dev Anand and his brothers as maternal uncles, and educationists like M.N. Kapur as uncle on the paternal side. “From freedom fighters onwards, I have grown up in a family of achievers in all walks of life. So how is it for a little person to be in a famous family? Of course, I do feel the pride. But sometimes I feel I haven't blossomed on my own,” says Sohaila, her profile often rounded off with allusions to being the niece, daughter or sister of someone far more famous.

P.ANIMA

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