Staging life on his terms

V. Balakrishnan PHOTO: R. RAGU  

Ideals, as Anne Frank once said, are often absurd and impractical things. And like Anne Frank, V. Balakrishnan, artistic director of Theatre Nisha, has managed to cling onto them, since the theatre group’s inception 15 years ago, buoyed by nothing but belief in the power of theatre. “Nisha means twilight and I wanted to go from twilight to dawn with my work,” he says and adds that, “The best drama is always based on what actually happens in life. Hamlet wondering whether “to be or not to be”, for instance, is a dilemma we have all faced. You do not have to be the Prince of Denmark to ponder over whether we should stand up for or succumb to something,” he laughs.

Balakrishnan or Bala as he is popularly known, hasn’t succumbed to the need to be mainstream yet, “We once performed for an audience of exactly four people,” he grins. “You see, I’ve never worried about the pecuniary aspect of theatre. A few times, I tried to get a sponsor, but found it too taxing. Now we just invest our own money into a production and do the plays we want to do,” says Bala.

Theatre Nisha has done over 150 productions till date — their latest offering is an adaption of Roman playwright Seneca’s Oedipus, to be held in the city this weekend. “Life has come full circle for me, in a way with this production. It was the first play I acted in,” he laughs. “I had just finished my Honours in Economics in Delhi and had no idea about what I was going to do next. Then I stumbled across an advertisement in the newspaper for a part-time acting course at the Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts.” He opted for the course and never looked back, “In March 1995, I acted in Seneca’s Oedipus and fell in love with the script. Unlike Sophocles’ version of the same man, who is too much of an edifice, Seneca’s Oedipus is frail, weak, and human. You don’t want him to fall and when he does, you manage to forgive him,” he says.

Bala began touring with the Shri Ram Centre’s Repertory Company and by the age of 20, he was completely bowled over by the medium, “It was great fun — we travelled all over the country with these huge suitcases crammed with costumes, sitting on them in second class compartments, fighting with the TTE. I knew what I wanted to do, so I opted for the National School of Drama,” he says.

Three years later, he was ready to act but his options in Delhi were limited, “Well, I am a Tamilian, so I decided to come back to Tamil Nadu, not for theatre, but for cinema. “I had met actor Nassar at NSD and through him was introduced to the stalwarts of Tamil cinema — Mani Ratnam, Rajiv Menon, Bharathiraja.”

Bharathiraja gave him his first break with the 1999 movie Taj Mahal. “He liked my eyes apparently,” laughs Bala, who went on to make a few more films but soon tired of it. “I love cinema as a medium but I hate the way it is practised,” he says candidly. “I wanted to go back to theatre.”

It wasn’t easy for a relative newcomer from the National School of Drama to get work, “So the only option left was to form my own company.” A chance meeting with Rathi Jafer, then the cultural coordinator of British Council in Chennai, who was running the Culture Cafe, got Bala a platform for his work, and he went on to direct and perform Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes.

Theatre Nisha’s offerings, over the last 15 years, have been diverse and multifaceted; spanning time and space and cutting across culture, gender, language and style. “I have always chosen plays that are mired in conflict — that is where the drama lies,” says Bala.

A student of the Royal Court Residency, Bala is unequivocal about what theatre should be. “Theatre Nisha does not believe in messages — postmen deliver messages not theatre. I know that I have been criticised for having actors whose pronunciation is not immaculate, but for me, the honesty that an actor brings to a role is more important than pronunciation. Even a crumbling piece of work can be endearing to an audience, if the actor can manage to get them to identify with it. I want theatre to create a feeling of communion, the way you connect with one another in a place of worship. Most importantly, I want to create work that stays with you for the rest of your lives; that will be with me for the rest of my life.” 

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Printable version | Mar 3, 2021 5:45:59 AM |

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