Interview with Atul Kumar cordially transferred to this blog by Ibirá Machado blog author www.cinemaindiano.blogspot.com that currently is the largest diffuser in Brazil on productions of Indian cinema.
Ibirá Machado: First of all thank you so much for giving us this opportunity.
Atul: It’s my pleasure.
I: Please, give us a short brief of your life and how did you get into theater.
A: It started in school, as we used to do some plays and all. We used to do other things, like sports and other activities, but it really got my attention. And then… I grew up in Delhi, basically, I was born there. And then, I was watching a play, in an evening, I was sitting in the audience. Rajat Kapoor was also in the audience and he came to me, he saw this young boy watching the play and he said “you are interested in theater?” and I said “yes!”. Rajat was part of a larger group and he said “why don’t you come and join us?”. So I went to that group next day and so 15 years passed and we did so many plays together and so there was no linking back. This is the beginning, it was in 1984.
I: So you started acting?
A: Yes, I’m still acting, I’m mainly an actor. But I also love directing, so I do both the things.
I: And since 1984 you just did theater?
A: Only theater, I haven’t done anything else.
I: You want to go to cinema?
A: No, no… I love watching films, but I get very bored if… waiting for my… you, know, I’ve done a few films, but I didn’t enjoy them… I get very bored. I love watching, but the process of its making is not very exciting to me.
I: Even if it’s for directing?
A: No, it’s too… it’s too technical, it’s too… a lot of waiting, and… in theater I get immediate reaction from my audience, you know, it’s live, it’s my actors in person, it’s emotional, it’s less technical… I prefer that. I think that there’s such a beauty on that, on that moment thing, I like that.
But I love great cinema. It’s wonderful to go back to it again and again, to buy the DVD, or if there’s a film festival I can go and see. You know Chaplin again, Casablanca again, whatever, you know? It’s beautiful to keep seeing it again and again. But there’s another… they are two different things actually, the audience is completely different. Theater is live, and that’s the beauty. If you make a mistake it’s a mistake. And it lasts forever. It’s a beautiful moment that comes and passes.
I: So let’s come to Blue Mug. It started in 2002, right? Who had the idea?
A: I read a book called “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”, by Oliver Sacks, who’s a neurologist from the UK. The book has lots of essays, these are stories of his patients, and mostly they deal with abnormalities of the brain. Some about memories losses, some about losing control of body parts. So the part of memory loss really attracted me and so everybody read the story and I said “what to do? What to do?” with that story. So it hasn’t been so exciting about acting the story, but act out the story and so we realized we should explore our own memories, our own memory losses. So that’s how the process started.
I: Who wrote it?
A: We’ve not written it. It’s not written, it’s improvised. So actors go to the stage and start narrating their memories. So last evening for example, in the show, there were many things that they spoke which they have never spoken before. And again, tomorrow and we perform in Chicago there’ll be new things. But the memories are fixed. What Rajat talks abouot, what Sheeba talks about, but it’s all real memories. But there’s no script, really.
I: And back to the performance in São Paulo, we didn’t have Konkona here. How could you manage it?
A: We actually hadn’t have her for the last 3 shows. She got sick after NY show. She got operated and had to stay on bed. We might have her back on the next show, but we’re not sure. I was panicking in the beginning, but I found the way of mine replacing her and so I did the doctor’s voice on the mic. So that’s the role she does, she comes on stage and does the doctor. So we managed. So in the beginning we would be doing but we could figure this way out. But we miss her very much and the play suffers very much because she’s not there, of course. She’s a wonderful actress.
I: Considering that here in Sao Paulo the Indian community is so much smaller comparing to US, and here people hardly know about Indian cinema and Indian actors, I can imagine that it was a completely different experience for you all performing here. Tell me about it.
A: I tell you from me, very truly. When we did this play in 2002, these actors were not known faces and people came to see the play for the play. When we had the revival in recent years, in India, then in Middle East and now USA… I can tell you that about 75% to 80% of the audience is coming mainly to see their favorite movie stars on stage. Which is ok, I mean they are known faces, fame actors, it’s fine, if they brought the audience, why not?
But there’s only a group of people that comes only to see the play, to appreciate the play. So I don’t really get to know from the reactions from the audience, what they are connecting to, the sole of the play, or if to a very superficial way just connected to their film stars.
So, in a way, for me, yesterday was fabulous. For me. It was very nice. Nobody knows them, they were just actors, they don’t know the cinema, they don’t know the film stars, so they could be any actors. So it was very nice in that way.
But it also becomes very challenging for us. I normally direct plays which are physical, visual and physical, so even if this play is in a particular language, it doesn’t matter, because we can do it in a very new way, because we have the physical language and we can communicate to different audiences. However, this play is extremely verbal, and is extremely specific to please Indian actors, their people, and his past memories. So it works very, very in India, because they can connect to these memories, and out of India it’s mainly connected to Indian diaspora.
You know, I received an offer to go to Edimburg Festival with this play and I told them that it would not work there. It will not work simply because it’s a verbal play and there’ll be an international audience that will not connect with them. If had to take this play to Edimburg Festival I had to re-do it, I have to make it less verbal and I have to make it more visual, which doesn’t happen and so I don’t want to go there. So it works in America, we are going to UK on October and it’ll work there because there’s the diaspora and they will connect… in South Africa they will connect… but audiences which are not Indian, I find it a bit difficult to communicate to. Memories are universal, but I have to find the language to each audience, maybe more physical, maybe more visual, and normally in my plays I use all that, but not in this play.
Maybe I could change this play and there’s no language, maybe there’s only physical language, only movements, I don’t know, maybe something to make the audience understand the memory loss [making movements with the body and face] à that’s memory, that’s memory loss, you know what I’m saying? I didn’t have to say anything to you, but the idea is to communicate, if I forgot something I can show you that with other languages. There are million different ways to communicate, I don’t have to talk.
I: Well, you work only with theater. How is it in India? In the country of cinema, how’s the Indian audience for theater?
A: There’s a huge audience for theater, all around India. Theater is very popular. And there’re different kinds of theaters, also. There’s classical theater, which is religious theater and which is in every village, there’s folk theater, which is there in festivals around India, but we are not talking about classic and folk, we’re talking about modern theater. Modern theater was extremely popular in Delhi, after the Independence, in 1947 from the British, it was very popular in Delhi. Then it shifted to Bengal, around Kolkata, and now it’s very popular in Maharashtra, which is Bombay, and in Karnataka, which is Bangalore. So in these two cities is the largest number of theater companies, theater plays. But still, there’s a lot happening in Puna, in Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and smaller towns. There’s a lot of theater audience, thousands of theater groups. I read the Sao Paulo theater manual and there’re 50 to 60 plays happening every day in the city! It’s like that in Bombay and Bangalore, there’s a lot of theater happening… and we have this old theater traditional and there’s why we have the audience.
But theater is not professional, 90% that people who do it they put the money of their own pocket and they actually make their living from something else, so it’s not professional, it’s not an industry… Bollywood is… so there’s a lot of struggle to sustain, but still people continue on it, and they find ways to do it.
I: Have you ever worked with other famous actors like now?
A: Never, they are the most famous actors I’ve worked with.
I: And for you, how is it working with famous actors? Do you feel any difference in their way of acting?
A: Yes… none of these actors are only theater actors… there’s a huge difference between people who only do theater and people who do other things AND theater, even if it’s cinema, there’s a huge difference.
I’ll answer your question in parts. Firstly, my biggest problem with these actors is date, because if I have to do more shows I have to ask each actor for date… somewhere somebody is shooting, and so it becomes a big problem.
Secondly, they give me date, but they have to rehearse the play. So there’s more number of days and that becomes a problem. Anyways, that’s date. But the much larger issue is: this is for before and now, because I don’t think any of these actors is a theater actor only. Because normally, what theater actors do is being always in training, or at least the serious theater actors do, are always in training, they never stop training, even when they become established theater actors they come to new trainings all their lives. It means, they train their voice, they train their body, they train their other skills, because they have to be constantly alive, and they have to be constantly changing with times. They are craft, craft of actors, changing with changing times.
And about these actors, they are good, but it stops there, they don’t change. They are what they were in 2002, they are exactly the same. There’s no training, no practicing, no workshoping, no learning… only learning from the experience, just that. So, in that way, I’d also work with, in my other plays, for example, only with theater people, not with these people. It’s a different experience.
I: And now back to the performance in São Paulo, how did it happen?
A: When we started planning the tourney in US, our agent there suggested us coming also to Brazil, as she knows the consul in Sao Paulo. It was completely unexpected and we said yes! Visiting Brazil was a wish of all the actors and me, and so I said “why not?”.
I: You just came two days before and almost didn’t have time to walk around in the city, but what can you say about Brazil?
A: I love Brazil. I love staying here these days, I’m loving this feeling in Brazil, more than Europe. I cannot explain this feeling, but I love it. I must come back here.