You’ve been busy with one film after another. Why theatre all of a sudden?
Over the past eight years, I’ve done 10 films and it has been very, very exhausting. BBD did not release but it was a personal experience, so that made it very taxing. I have a Bengali film lined up in December called Ganesh Talkies and talks are on for a Hindi film next March that I will be directing. Coming out of so many films, with so many films waiting for me, I got a bit saturated with cinema. Cinema burns you out very fast and I was feeling that. I will at most work for another 10 years and I feel I’ve reached a certain point in my career where I need to break away from the mould or else I’ll be quickly burnt out. After almost 20 years, I decided to get into a different intellectual and artistic discipline.
Was the trigger your last film Dutta Vs Dutta, which you had said put you under ‘a lot of psychological stress’?
Yes, the trigger actually was the last film. Ranjana (Ami Ar Ashbona) thekei hochhilo... but Dutta Vs Dutta has been very personal and very taxing emotionally, physically and technically. Also, the fear that I have signed on with Reliance for Ganesh Talkies, for which Chandan Roy Sanyal and Raima Sen have been signed, and the Hindi film popping up was creating a huge pressure on me. Like people need sabbaticals, I needed to be involved in a completely different creative exercise to recharge my batteries and return to the grind of cinema to start working vibrantly again. Usually I would break away into music but even that has become routine and exhausting, playing to the gallery. Eta aar bhalo lagchhilo na (I wasn’t liking it any more). I needed to do something selfishly for myself.
But if stress-busting was the idea, why choose Life of Galileo, one of Brecht’s most complex works?
I wanted to go back to the serious theatre I once did. The things that I learnt from books, magazines, critics or the great directors I’ve met and chatted with. Serious theatre that I’ve seen and failed at that point of time, commercially, I want to try again now since I am in a position to produce my own theatre financially. I have an audience — my cinema and my music audience — who will come to see my theatre. I didn’t look at fun, frolic and games, which my cinema is all about. So Galileo, for me, is an experience to fight mediocrity.
But your films and music have always set a benchmark. Why was mediocrity an issue?
My cinema is being threatened by mediocrity. If I do not handle it professionally, a lot of money is at stake. I have to fight a certain mediocrity creeping into our cinema.... There are a lot of success stories but it’s feeling mediocre. People around me I’m finding mediocre. I’m sure if we do the play well, most of us coming together for the play would have the wit, power and strength to again fight their mediocre cinema and television. It’s a very honest effort.
| (Top) Anjan Dutt dressed as Galileo with Riddhi Sen as young Andrea; (below) Anjan holds a rehearsal at his Beniapukur residence. Pictures by Rashbehari Das
Any reason why you chose to play Galileo?
I think I’ve reached the right age to play Galileo. He’s a weak but intelligent man who has many vices yet stands up and wants to think out of the box. So Galileo is representative of the kind of person I would want to be. I want to keep making films, keep my voice up and not subscribe to the demands of others. Galileo is an embodiment of qualities which at my age I would want to be.
There have been other versions of Galileo staged in the city. How different will yours be?
Yes, there have been four in Bangla. One by Sombhu Mitra, two Bohurupee productions by Kumar Ray and Amar Ganguly, and there was a Hari Madhab Mukhopadhyay production. I’ve seen all four and didn’t like any of them. They were too sentimental, preachy and sad, instead of being alive, assertive, wild and exciting, which Brecht was all about.
I have done the earlier musical, mad, crazy Brecht... but not the older, more sober and austere Brecht. I’m doing Charles Laughton’s Hollywood version, which is tight, brief, exciting and adventurous. There will be a lot of Brechtian music because music is also our forte. Galileo for us will be very alive, entertaining and a passionate play. Bengali theatre has also been about high-voltage drama on stage. Thanks to artistes like Bratya Basu, Koushik Sen, Suman Mukhopadhyay, the structure is changing but there is still a certain datedness in Bengali theatre. My challenge is to fight that mode of overacting and affected theatre.
When was the last time you did theatre?
The last play I directed was a German play called Line One I adapted in Bengali as Cordline in 1992. From 1992 to 1996, I did television and in 2004, I directed Bong Connection... the scenario changed and I became a person of cinema.
You return to stage after 20 years. How did you start and why did you stay away so long?
Bengali theatre is what I started with at the age of 21, around 1975. People had warned me that English theatre wasn’t a viable option. But I had never consciously thought of becoming a filmmaker or film actor because I couldn’t identify with mainstream cinema of the ’70s and ’80s. It wasn’t modern urban cinema, they were catering to a different audience.
So I chose theatre. It wasn’t financially viable. My plays were experimental and never followed the typical group theatre structure. We called ourselves Open Theatre, which had Sekhar Das, Biplab Dasgupta, Raja Sen, Chanda (wife) and Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, who was briefly a part of it. We would constantly encourage each other to go join television because we wouldn’t be able to make a living out of theatre and most of them moved on to become directors, or went into advertising.
We started off with Jean-Paul Sartre and moved on to Brecht. I was either doing French and German plays or a little bit of American and British theatre. I used to direct and act rarely. Our play Marat Sade was stopped by the then theatre groups that had government connections because it went against CPM’s politics... plus there was too much of sex and violence in our plays. I realised that I wouldn’t be able to sustain myself doing theatre.
It was around the same time that I met a German playwright who came to Calcutta, he saw my work and invited me to Germany to work. I took up the offer and left for West Berlin, where I did theatre earning 140 Marks which was a lot of money in 1984. European theatre opened up such a big fascinating world for me.
It was in Munich that I met the filmmaker Reinhard Hauff who introduced me to new German cinema, actors and directors. I saw great films there, including the Bengali films of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen, that I hadn’t seen before. And I felt for the first time that films was something I could do! I came back, wrapped up my theatre work. Mrinal Sen and other makers of alternative, arthouse cinema started to cast me. I was getting a little bit of money and I got into the world of cinema.
Is Galileo relevant to the present times? Is there a message?
I don’t believe in politics. I’m an anti-communist, yet one of the greatest friends and teachers I’ve ever had is Mrinal Sen who is a communist. So this ability to be close and exist differently is what is so important. My purpose was not to do a political play and there’s no message as such, but to do a play that stresses on the humanist side and the ordinary man’s ability to be different.
Are you making it contemporary?
I’m not changing a word. Background will be Italy... Rome and Florence. I believe text is god and I’m not going to touch a line of Charles Laughton’s. I’m just making it colloquial. Simple language with a little bit of English thrown in. Only the design will be very contemporary. The sets will be very elemental, bare with a light structure. Galileo, to me, looks like a bohemian intellectual who could be a writer, filmmaker, theatre guy... who used to smoke cigar and drink expensive whisky, while his friends are anarchic intellectuals.... And the people in power, I want them to look like moneyed corporate people. Of course, there will be telescopes and lenses but they will look modern....
Theatre gives you that license. We want a live band on a raised dais who will look like gypsies with Spanish guitar, harmonica and dotted scarves. It’ll be a mixed bag of many things.
Who have been your inspirations in theatre?
I was hugely inspired by Badal Sircar, but 70 per cent of my exposure was through books, magazines, television programmes on international theatre. Early-Nandikar and theatre critic Dharani Ghosh were very intellectually and emotionally stimulating for me.
What do you think are going to be your challenges? What are the habits you’ll have to break away from as you take the stage?
In cinema, I’ve always loved my actors and worked like a family, but really interacting with the actors and falling in love with them is something I haven’t done in cinema. Cinema doesn’t permit that internal interaction. There is always a slight gap between the director and the actor. After a long time, the challenge and fun will be to work with actors on their terms. Also, I have to be a little more kind. In cinema I can get away with being ruthless. I have to get rid of that power play with producers, technicians and stars that I need to exercise if I want a good film.
Who else is there in the cast?
Andrea [one of Galileo’s students] goes through three stages — age 10, 18 and 27. The youngest will be played by Koushik’s (Sen) son Riddhi. The second one will be played by Abhrajit who played Raju in Raja Opera, and the older one, I haven’t yet cast. I’m still in the process of eliminating but the cast will include Shankar Chakraborty, Rajatava Dutta, Shantilal Mukherjee, Neel Mukherjee, Pijush Ganguly, Sudipa Basu, Kunal Padhy and Tathagata Chowdhury. A young actress who does English theatre will play Galileo’s daughter, Virginia.
When does the play premiere?
This will be a four-month experience, which means that in July, August and September we rehearse and in October we do shows. There will be only six shows at Gyan Manch. So the maximum number of people that will get to see the play is 2,000. We will not do any call shows or repeat shows. This is just an experience and me giving something back to Bengali theatre.
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Broadway or West End?
West End. It’s more intellectually alive.
The last play you watched and liked?
Jesus Christ Superstar at the Minack Theatre in Cornwall.
Who according to you is the biggest legend in Indian theatre?
The most promising among Indian theatre artistes?
Chandan Roy Sanyal and Koushik Sen.
Play: Three Penny Opera performed by the Berliner Ensemble.
Playwrights: Shakespeare and Brecht.
Stage actors: Joseph Chaikin, Ian Richardson and Al Pacino.