Theatre is like a drug...

"He is madness unplugged. You will not regret putting off the Take Two for tomorrow for his sake," says Shernaz Patel about long time friend, fellow actor and co-founder of Rage (their production company), Rajit Kapur. And not without reason! For that's the way Rajit is... on or off the stage, a complete natural — chilled out demeanour, stylishly dishevelled clothes, grinning mischievously one moment and turning dramatically serious the next. Avid television watchers will remember him as `Bomkesh Bakshi', hero of the popular detective serial of the pre-TRP era. Film buffs will know him as a Shyam Benegal favourite ("Suraj Ka Satwaan Ghoda", "Hari Bhari", "Samar", "Zubeida", "Sardari Begum", "Mammo" and "Making of the Mahatma"). But more than all this, Rajit is the toast of the theatre world. The spontaneous actor has several plays to his credit - "Love Letters", "Larins Sahib", "Jamilabai Kalali", "Class of 84"... all running to packed houses.

Call her the best-known face of Indo-English theatre, Shernaz Patel, daughter of Gujarati stage veterans Ruby and Burjor Patel, grew up on rehearsals, lights, sets, costumes and make up. Twenty years of professional theatre, and she still swears by this medium. Not surprisingly, she has done just two films - India's first telefilm "Janam" (directed by Mahesh Bhatt) and now, "Black", which marks her moment of glory on the marquee.

The duo were in Chennai recently to stage the latest Rage production "Pune Highway". Chitra Swaminathan recorded the Take Two before the curtains went up.

Rajit: As compulsive theatre artistes, we complement each other. If not for the mad love for the medium, nobody can survive here for so long (gives Shernaz a friendly hug). What makes our creative journey fulfilling is having an equally obsessive writer-director Rahul da Cunha with us (in Rage). So if you tend to slip, there are two others to hold you (enacts this by literally slipping even as Shernaz tries to hold him back).

Shernaz: Rage was born out of this passion in 1993. The aim was to stage quality and meaningful plays. Luckily most of our productions have been huge successes. "Larins Sahib" was the first Indian play in English to be performed at the Edinburgh Festival. "I Am Not Baji Rao" is the longest running English theatrical production.

Rajit: It seems like theatre is beginning to attract more and more people. With language and geographical barriers disappearing, we are better understood today. And to a large extent, new writing has made this happen.

Shernaz: Though it is heartening to see the audience base widening, it is still a far cry from films as far as economics is concerned. The divide is unfairly huge. That is why many regional theatre groups are fighting a losing battle. With hardly any monetary returns, it obviously forces you to think, why the hell should you rehearse for 40 days to stage two shows. Nobody pays even for the transport to attend rehearsals. You may just get one chai free (sips tea from a tiny plastic cup).

Rajit: Thanks to theatre, we are trained to have tea in such nondescript things. In such a hand-to-mouth situation, how can you blame those who sell sub-standard humour?

Shernaz: Comedy anyway sells because we see it as the perfect source of entertainment. Most of us grow up watching masala movies, so we tend to treat theatre more as an art form. People's tastes cannot be changed drastically. But the audience is gradually opening up to new ideas and themes. Crossover cinema's new-found popularity is in a way responsible for this. There are now more takers for offbeat and closer-to-reality stories.

Way of life

Rajit: You are right, more than an art, theatre should be a way of life. For instance, in Maharashtra, families generally relax over the weekends watching plays. So was it once in Bengal.

Shernaz: Though Marathi and even Gujarati plays enjoy mass appeal, they are mostly social dramas. Not much of experimental work is happening.

Rajit: But for people like us and for the kind of language we speak, which is a combination of different languages, a new kind of theatre is emerging. And it is quite exciting to be part of it. The positive aspect of the change is seeing young faces in the audience. Our play "Class of 84", about seven college friends, was a big hit with youngsters.

Shernaz: That, despite the fact that young people usually had fixed views about this medium.

Rajit: Even a meaningful drama can be riveting. For instance, your play "Molly Sweeney" that revolves around just three characters (Shernaz is one of them) sitting on chairs throughout. The simple narrative holds the attention of the audience. The super success of "Love Letters" ("Tumhari Amrita" in Hindi) too proves it.

Shernaz: Maybe we are fed up with run-of-the mill stories. Who would have imagined that films such as "Page Three" and "Black" would become huge box-office hits? Even our play "Pune Highway" is a perfect example of this emerging genre. An original piece of writing without frills, can be appealing.

New writing

Rajit: All this shows that new writing has clicked in a big way.

Shernaz: See, the writers must have always been there. They are coming out of the closet to make hay... Mumbai's Writers' Block, a festival of original plays, is a path-breaking effort in this direction. I am extremely excited to be part of it.

Rajit: It has put actors, writers, directors and the audience on a creative high. Isn't it great to see some of the writers in their twenties?

Shernaz: We hope to expand it by including regional plays too. After all the aim is to draw bigger audiences. Theatre actors had been waiting to experience such a phase. Theatre is like a drug, once you get hooked, you cannot give it up. Actors such as Naseer still do stage productions for the pure love of it. It's a life-long bonding.

Rajit: I find other media such as cinema and television extremely mechanical. The joy of sharing and developing a mutual trust with co-actors can be experienced only in theatre.

Shernaz: People ask me why I am not doing serials and films. I have always been open to all kinds of acting offers. But I am such a hardcore theatre actor that I will not do a film to draw mileage for my plays. After so many years, "Black" luckily came my way. Working with Sanjay Leela Bhansali and the Big B, means you need not compromise on your skills. I have now signed up for Raj Kumar Santoshi's next film "Family".

Rajit: My film "Netaji Subash Chandra Bose" is due for release. I have two more on hand. Shyam Benegal has always given me that extra space to prove myself as an actor even on the big screen. I am not for serials at all where your creative wings are clipped because of the larger economics involved. The serials are controlled totally by the channels. Didn't you think twice about doing a mother's role in "Black"? In Bollywood, once a mother always a mother. (Laughs)

Shernaz: Fortunately, these days a Bollywood mother is not expected to make gajar ka halwa for her beloved son and get beaten up by the goondas till the son comes to rescue her.