Ahmedabad: As we walk up to the hill on a breezy Saturday evening towards Shreyas Auditorium, a beautiful open-air stage nestled inside the green campus, instructions from a microphone fly thick and fast in chaste Gujarati and English. As we step inside the auditorium, we see Mallika Sarabhai, the creator of Kadak Badshahi 2.0, giving instructions to technicians and junior actors around her while the other artistes go through their drills, some relaxed while a few are anxious. On the sidelines of Kadak Badshahi 2.0, I settle down for a chat with actor Netri Trivedi, of Chhello Divas fame, to talk about the beautiful craft of theatre.

Tell me about your performance in Kadak Badshahi, also called Ahmedabad’s own Broadway.

This is the second time I’m a part of Kadak Badshahi. I had previously acted in the first edition of Kadak Badshahi when it was stage four years ago and we had done a total of 33 shows. Back then, I played the role of Shehnaz, who told the story of Bashir, the guard of Bhadra Fort during the rule of Ahmed Shah in Ahmedabad and how he had sacrificed himself in order to ensure that the nagarlakshmi never left the city and so did the prosperity. This year, I repeat my character of Shehnaz and I also play the part of Leena Sarabhai (the aunt of Mallika Sarabhai), who had first brought Montessori education to Gujarat and is the founder of the Shreyas Foundation. Kadak Badshahi 2.0 is grander than its previous edition as it introduces several newer faces, has the addition of a couple of untold stories, cameos by the individuals themselves who were a part of the real-life incidents that shaped the city of Ahmedabad that we see today. It is true to call it “Amdavad’s Own Broadway.”

A switch to films from stage: was the transition difficult for you?

I actually never saw the transition that usually people talk about, as for me, the movies just happened. It was just like any other script I used to receive as I used go along with my theatre activities, but something caught my attention about Chhello Divas and I went for it. The rest, as you know, is history.

At a time when your contemporaries have done quite a number of movies, you chose only two. Any reason?

I actually concentrated more on my studies at that time. I was doing my MPhil in media studies. It was a conscious decision I had taken as I only wanted to do quality content. A lot of movies have been made since Chhello Divas, but how many do people actually remember except for two or three movies over the years? I became more wary of my choices in scripts after my second film, as I am a stickler for professionalism and good content. Armaan: Story of a Storyteller had a very good theme. My character was something very different from what I had portrayed in my first film, but somewhere, somehow, it didn’t go down well with the audiences.

Also, frankly speaking, I don’t know how to market myself as an artiste like my friends in the industry do. It’s probably bad PR I guess (laughs). I barely go to any events wherein usually people mingle with the who’s who of the industry and attempt at forging “networks.” So, the bottom line: I am not dying to do movies, I just want to do good stuff that will bear fruit for everyone connected to the project who put in their hard work into it.

You’ve been in the theatre circuit for a long time. Do you see any change in the reception from the audience—negative or positive?

After my movie released, there was surely a surge in fresh faces in the audience at the plays that I did. After Chhello Divas, my co-actor Yash Soni and I were in a play, Patli Pin Ka Charger, which saw good numbers in attendance, because people were actually excited to see us perform live on stage. But what I’ve noticed is the fact that they actually expected the actors to be like what they saw in the movie, while theatre performances and acting in movies are literally chalk and cheese. There were negatives and positives both in equal measure.

How? Can you delve further into it? Is it still true that theatre in Gujarat is an art form accessible only to the privileged?

Gujarat, especially Ahmedabad, has seen some of the best and well-written plays being performed on stage. But there are a few factors that are interlinked and come into effect when it comes to commercial or critical success of theatre acts. One, that the audience in Gujarat is not conditioned to consume experimental theatre that explores different facets of life and emotions. People are being fed a similar type of content with just different names given to it. The big-ticket names we call successful plays have their production done in Mumbai or other affluent cities. We need content-rich true-blue Gujarat-based plays to reach the masses. Why it fails to reach the masses is the second factor, that the media coverage a local play would get is almost next to nil. How can one expect the audience to come in and experience the beautiful art of theatre until and unless they are informed about it, for which they rely on the print or electronic medium just like we check for show timings of cinemas for movies we wish t
o watch? The ones who come down to watch the plays are those who get to know about it via word of mouth and actually appreciate the art or maybe someone from their kin or friends are a part of the act. This takes us to the third and an important factor, that is, investment into theatre. Surely, the pricing of tickets for a good play costs slightly more than what someone would like to spend on a movie during the weekdays. Even though there can’t be a price tag on art, the costs need to be recovered and one would make a business investment only if he or she sees some returns on it. But I am happy there are winds of change blowing. We have theatre and art houses like Ouroboros in the city which stages plays and acts regularly and the ticket costs are quite affordable so far, which has begun bringing in more audiences to experience theatre. I really wish there is more investment and more such art houses open up across cities.

How is your experience of working with Mallika Sarabhai, the face of dance and theatre in Ahmedabad?

She is a school in herself. I’ve been learning from her since I was a child and I consider myself blessed for it. One gets to learn so much from her that your thirst for knowledge and the hunger to learn increases. I have literally been a part every process in the theatre while at Darpana (Academy of Performing Arts, run by Sarabhai) that it has made me respect the craft immensely, which is only possible when one gets to feel and experience the minute details and hard work that goes behind making a successful show. Even at this age, Mallika Sarabhai has such an infectious energy that is rubs off on everyone who is a part of her work.

Sujith Nambiar tweets at @sujith17nambiar.

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