Ahmedabad: Anxious students waiting in the reception of Athena Institute at Pankaj Vidhyalay, housed deep inside the Hollywood Basti in Ahmedabad’s Gulbai Tekra area. This is home to the Aarambh Arts Academy. Some of the students, who are here for a beginners’ acting workshop by theatre actor, director and writer Abhinay Banker, seem nervous, while a couple are excited to finally meet their teacher. In a few minutes, Banker walks in and, after leading the students to the hall, welcomes me with a firm handshake as we settle down in his office for a quick chat on everything theatre and his workshop.

The Aarambh Arts Academy and its acting workshops

I had started off as an artiste at the Darpana Academy in Ahmedabad. In 2006, I had visited Dehradun with a play by the Darpana Academy in which I was performing. Doon School had asked us to hold a workshop with their students and then I stayed back there and conducted a workshop there, which was my first brush with teaching. Not only did I teach them what I knew, but I also got to know and learn a lot from the students there during the process. I decided to hold workshops in acting at Darpana where I would mentor the students. What started off as a batch of five students slowly but steadily grew into a batch consisting of 40-50 students. I, too, had my acting and other theatre commitments to take care of, but I’d still keep getting inquiries about such workshops.

I reflected back on my days as a student at Gujarat College, where we used to rue the fact that we never got any stage or platform to learn and perform theatre. There were no theatre clubs back then. We wanted to produce plays, but had no money or mentor.

And that’s when the idea of starting an academy of my own came up. Mallika didi (as he fondly addresses Mallika Sarabhai, the founder of the Darpana Academy) had immense trust in me and she decided to support me in my venture. She allowed me to use Darpana’s stage lights, props, etc., and said “go ahead, experiment; I know you’ll be successful in whatever you do.” We started Aarambh in 2011 and would do at least three-four workshops in a year. I’ve moved out Darpana’s premises since sometime. Now we organize them in the Athena Institute’s campus. Even now, I ensure that whenever I get some time between my work schedules, I hold a workshop or two. The current workshop is actually a design for a three-month course, but because not many have the time to invest for a long period, we have made it into a 20-day one.

Theatre in Ahmedabad

If we talk about the current scenario, it is gladdening to see the youth take up theatre as an art form seriously. You’ll see people coming from almost every walk of life attending my workshops. I’ve had students who’re businessmen, IAS (Indian Administrative Service) and IPS (Indian Police Service) officers, collegians, IT (information technology) executives, etc.  Karsandas Pay and Use fame Mayur ‘Michael’ Chauhan was one of the best students of my previous batches.

His bond with his students

I always tell my students to let go of their inhibitions and be as interactive as possible, because the more you express yourself with me, you’ll get an equivalent reflection from my side, too. Frankly speaking, I am a selfish guy. I conduct workshops not just for people who wish to learn this craft, but I learn from them, too, which helps me immensely in my stage performances.

Bhagwat Nayak, a student from his workshop, says, “I always wanted to try out acting and performing on stage, but commitments to life always kept me away from it. This workshop is something which lets me explore myself, which I never got to do in the rat race of life.”

His recent characterization of a gray shade in Mijaaj and previous experiences on stage

My first brush with a negative character was in Dhantya Open which starred Revanta Sarabhai and I played a short negative role of Murlee Lalvani. Before that, I never played any such role in movies or theatre. It is in Mijaaj that I played a full-fledged negative character. But I keep on experimenting. I don’t like to get stereotyped. I do get offers for negative roles since the movie, but I decline them. Over the years, I have moulded myself in a manner that I can fit into any character given to me, whether it is the role of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (Kasturba, 2012, and Kadak Badshahi 2.0, 2018) or Ahmedshah Badshah (Kadak Badshahi, both editions).

His tryst as a casting director

Casting director is something which was not popular in India or Gujarat, but it’s a widely respected job in the Hollywood. The casting director is almost equal to the director. He/she has to ensure that the person being cast by him/her fits the bill and ticks all the boxes of the character. They have two-three page character sketch of each and every role in the film; it is a tedious but important process. I got my first credit as a casting director in Kevi Rite Jaish by Abhishek Jain. I decided to form a bridge between promising artistes and directors/producers looking for good talent for their films/theatre plays. I continued with it for some time, but the problem I used to face was that none of the directors would wish to “reveal” their script to me. Now until and unless I know the background of the story of any character, how could I help them? So I decided to drop that part and continued with my acting, theatre direction and mentoring commitments. I do ensure that if I find someone showing great promise in the craft, he/she gets the opportunity to work in films or theatre.

Plans for the future

I am continuing with my theatre commitments. I recently wrapped up a show of Welcome Zindagi in the city. I have a movie coming up, Reva, in April.

Sujith Nambiar tweets at @sujith17nambiar.

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