Grandmas, even when they are a spritely 54, have a special bond with their grandsons, even if they are all of 68. So it shouldnt have surprised Arundhati Nag when Amitabh Bachchan was the first to send her a way-to-go message after she won the National Award for the best supporting actress this year.
It takes a lot of prodding before the Bangalore-based actress who was honoured for playing a bohemian grandmother in Paa talks about Bachchans congratulatory message, or the 2009 film that won him the best actors award for his role of a 13-year-old progeria patient and her grandson. I liked my role because it was not a regular mother act of someone who just cooks for her daughter and wants her to get married, she says.
For Nag, Paa is already in the past. Its late afternoon and she is rushing through a working lunch of ragi mudde a traditional Karnataka cereal dish and mutton curry, at her office in Ranga Shankara a savvy theatre that was started in Bangalore six years ago. The managing trustee of Sanket Trust, which runs the theatre, is being briefed on its upcoming annual festival. Photo shoots, permits and logo designs are being thrashed out.
Nag shudders at the thought of writing the welcome note for the festival. I hate to write. I keep putting it off, she says, recalling how her actor-director husband Shankar Nag who died in a car crash 20 years ago would post a self-addressed envelope with every letter he wrote to her. He wanted me to post it back empty so that hed know that I had read his letter, she recalls.
In a cream sari, and with her salt-and-pepper hair tied at the back of her head, Nag looks more like a friends mother than a theatre person. But the actress is an established stage artiste in and outside Karnataka, and her theatre has been making waves.
Tucked away in a south Bangalore residential suburb, Ranga Shankara named after her husband is far removed from the citys other theatre auditoria, such as the Chowdiah Memorial Hall and the Kalakshetra. The distance doesnt seem merely geographical. Ranga Shankara claims to have removed the elitist and intellectual tags that are often pinned on to urban theatre.
Its USP is the low cost Rs 2,500 per performance at which it leases out its theatre. Chowdiah, on the other hand, charges Rs 50,000 a show.
But Ranga Shankara looks nothing like a poor mans theatre. The three-level building has a broad and sweeping staircase in the middle. There are colourful paintings, wall graffiti and a wood-granite-and-steel finish. The theatre has a revolving stage and steep seating so that tall spectators dont feel guilty about obstructing anybodys view. And the book shop, cafι and art gallery on the premises give the theatre a fashionable cultural context.
Nag believes that Ranga Shankara has changed the jholawala, Marx-spouting perception that people carry about theatre artistes. With its neat look, and because it is in the middle of south Bangalores information technology hub, the theatre draws a big corporate crowd. Two software professionals have even turned playwrights and performed plays here, she adds.
Ranga Shankara, she stresses, seeks to make theatre accessible to amateur troupes. Now anyone who wants to act, can, she claims. Most troupes that perform there the majority are vernacular theatre groups just make enough money to pay their lorry driver, carpenters and make-up man. And have a cup of tea and samosa at the end of the show, she adds.
Of course, Ranga Shankara itself earns just about enough to pay for one days electricity bill. But that hasnt been a problem yet because corporate sponsors have kept coming.
Nag is flipping through her diary as she talks. Suddenly she hits upon a Shakespeare quote that shes scribbled on a page. I collect good quotes and posters, she says as she gets up to show some posters that she has got laminated. I preserve every poster I like. I plan to add them to the art gallery, she says.
The lamination which she gets done for free from a friend takes her back to how she built Ranga Shankara. Its something she can write a book on, she says, winking a kohl-lined eye. I had a tough time convincing people that philanthropy doesnt just mean digging borewells and educating the underprivileged, she remembers.
The project started in 1994, when directors Girish Karnad and M.S. Sathyu got on board and the Karnataka government gave land on lease and a corpus of Rs 50 lakh. The rest of the money Rs 3 crore in all and material came as contributions. Someone gave the stones. Someone else cut it for free. A construction company lent their civil engineer, recalls Nag. Everything was donated from the cement, paint and pipes to bathroom fittings.
Conversation meanders from this to that with Nag. She flits from Shakespeare and Tulsidas to Rajinikanths Enthiran to how she never remembers her appointments. The only thing I remember are my rehearsal timings, says Nag, who became a theatre person by chance 35 years ago when she was living in Mumbai.
I got initiated into drama in school where I started by playing background props. But the passion to perform stuck on, says Nag, who joined the Indian Peoples Theatre Association at the age of 16 much to the chagrin of her middle-class Maharashtrian parents. Since then, she has done plays in Gujarati, Marathi, Kannada, Hindi and English her most notable recent performance being Karnads Bhikre Bimb. She won the Sangeet Natak Academi Award in theatre acting in 2008.
Even then, it was Bollywood that made Nag a household name. But the actress who started her Hindi film career with Rajiv Menons 1997 film Sapnay says shes not serious about cinema. I dont have a publicity agent in Mumbai. I act only when I am offered an interesting role, she says. So she played the role of a Mother Superior in Sapnay because I knew I would never be a nun in real life.
What Nag likes best about the grandmothers character she plays in Paa is that she has no name. Even her daughter Vidya and grandson Auro just go by their first names. I thought it was a nice way of saying no to patriarchy, she says.
Being a theatre person, it takes getting used to to act in a different medium. There was a scene where Nag was flapping her arms to convey her angst. Amitabh Bachchan came up to me and said I didnt need to do that. The camera was only focused on my face, she recalls. In theatre, she is used to the audience watching all of her, she explains.
Nag likes to keeping moving from her work desk to inside the theatre to the smokers corner as she talks. All the while, shes also checking for cobwebs, specks of dirt and holding parallel conversations with the housekeeping staff.
Its this capacity to be constantly on the move that would have helped Nag cope with the sudden death of her husband. I could have gone on moping. But I decided to move on, she says. The next 10 years were spent paying off debts, surviving on borrowed clothes and always being the last mother to pay her daughters school fee.
Her thoughts go back to Shankar, and she recalls the years she spent with him after they were married and she moved to Bangalore. Her best memories are of the time when he was directing the television serial Malgudi Days. The crew would be parked for months at Agumbe, a remote village in Karnataka where they all lived in a huge tourist bungalow and went to the local post office every evening to make STD calls to their family. My daughter went to school in Agumbe because of our extended stays there, says Nag.
Building an inclusive theatre space was also Shankars dream. Nag has just walked out of Ranga Shankaras third-floor exit when she notices that the security guard at the entrance has stopped someone from meeting her. She calls him upstairs and tells him the rules. No one is to be stopped. You bring every visitor up, she says. Clearly, its an open house here.
Once shes spelt out the philosophy of Ranga Shankara, Nag moves on. Theres work to be done. After all, the world and this should be there in her diary somewhere is but a stage.