Sparkling green eyes, an equally sparkling smile and an unmatchable passion for theatre — that’s Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor’s stunning daughter, in town last weekend to judge a drama competition for schoolchildren, hosted by The British Council. Having stepped down as the director of Prithvi Theatre to follow her own dreams, Sanjna Kapoor engaged t2 in a free-wheeling chat on her past, present and future.
How did it all begin for you? When did you feel drawn to theatre?
I was just telling my son (Hamir) the other day that when I was little I was never told fairy tales. My bedtime stories were always Shakespeare stories or stories of the travels and adventures of my grandparents (Geoffrey and Laura Kendal) and my mother and my father. They all travelled with Shakespeareana (the travelling theatre company run by the Kendals).
In our living room, there were about 24 small frames of prints from different Shakespeare plays on the wall. Once or twice a week, I would just point to one of them and my mother would have to tell me that story.... It was so much a part of my growing up. When I was 10, Prithvi was ready (1978). The building process which took two years, conversations over breakfast, so many things around me — they were enough to attract me to theatre. It was in the family...
My British grandparents used to spend at least three to four months a year in India when I was growing up, if not more. They were still acting and used to take plays to schools. At times there were just two of them and they would do scenes from Shakespeare. When I was 12, I joined them. I played Titania and Viola and it was fantastic! We went to Ireland and performed in four different schools. My aunt (Felicity Kendal) is an actress in London. So every year we used to go to London and see her plays. It was just part of what you did. It was there in the house.
What about cinema?
Of course there was cinema, but the cinema we always spoke about was the cinema my father produced. It was more about parallel cinema, not commercial cinema. There were three things that were banned in my house as a child: Coca-Cola, comics and filmi magazines. There was no television. I didn’t grow up seeing too many films of my father. But all the films he had produced, I am very familiar with them.
I was exposed to world cinema at a very early age. My parents made sure we saw the great directors of the world.
So, acting chose you...
It was not that I had to think about what to be. It came naturally that I was going to be an actress. That was clear. Not at all clear which part of the world it would be — India or England, and in which medium — film or theatre.
After school I was supposed to go to drama school in England. But then my mother died when I was 16. That threw things a little bit out of track and I didn’t go to drama school. I did odd jobs — working with children, learning things.... And you acted in a few films...
In my dad’s films I made some appearances, like in 36 Chowringhee Lane, Junoon and Utsav. But I don’t take them as films I did. I did Hero Hiralal with Ketan Mehta, and I realised that I could not act. I was horrible. That’s when I went to drama school in New York, and that’s where I was very clear that I loved theatre. It was the whole process and engagement with the live performance I was in love with, not cinema.
And then there was Prithvi...
When I came back to India, the reality was very different. I wanted to be a part of a travelling theatre company like Shakespeareana. But it just wasn’t a reality. Even in the West, it was a rarity. For me that’s the life I wanted to live. But it wasn’t there, it didn’t exist. So that came as a bit of a rude shock. I had to figure out what to do.
And I had always felt this inexplicable attraction and passion for this gorgeous space called the Prithvi Theatre. Also a huge fear because of the responsibilities that came along with being a part of something like that. But I think there was something in me that finally gave me enough courage to say okay, let me try. For the first few years, I assisted my brother (Kunal) and Feroz Khan was helping him in the festivals.
And then I said that there were these two-three things that I would like to start. Because for me the interest is always to see how things can be built.
I think for me the thing that attracted me to Prithvi was the vision it was set up with. And I think those were conversations I had heard when I was 10, which I can’t remember but were there in my subconscious somewhere.
That is the wonderful journey of working at Prithvi, 22 years now. Always constantly having to evaluate, re-look where we were and what we had done and what needs to be done, re-imagine how to really, really be what we should be, to cultivate and develop professional theatre around you.
That has been adventurous, tough, gruelling. So many times I said I wish Prithvi would grow up and I’d leave home. I wished I could pack it, put it under my arm and take it with me wherever I wanted to go.
And now you’re off on a whole new adventure with Junoon.
Yes. The basic premise on which the core group of five came together at Junoon is our belief that there has to be a value of the arts in our lives today. If we are going to have a decent life... clean water, unpolluted air, electricity, roads without potholes, education and health facilities... the arts have to be as important. If that space is not created, if the infrastructure is not developed, I personally feel we are going to have a very, very violent society.
With Junoon, we are trying to create avenues to take wonderful works produced across the country or abroad and find ways for the works to meet their audience in the most delicious way. It’s in a way very liberating. I don’t know if I would ever be able to do this in Prithvi. Ranan, the school of performing arts in Calcutta run by Vikram Iyengar, has been engaged in significant activities involving children and theatre. So we will explore ways to work in Calcutta with Ranan’s help.
Any plans to direct or act?
Not at all. I am not a director. And acting in next life, perhaps! Fortunately I am an Indian, so we have a next life. I am a lazy actor. I like acting. Of course it is deeply fulfilling and wonderful experience but I am lazy.
The point is I actually get a huge thrill out of thinking up an idea and finding out how to get that executed and then see it happen. Seeing the performers and the audience and the magic between them — that is huge. Both my grandparents were actor-managers. So I have got this from them. Not that I am a great manager but I enjoy thinking through an idea and realising it.
When was your last visit to Calcutta?
It was too long ago to remember. I remember Kookie Jar though... I have my Kookie Jar cravings (smiles). I think we need to visit Calcutta more frequently. I want to work here. We should bring something or come and see something. I have never been to Santiniketan, don’t say that to anybody. Sshh... (Laughs)
Have you been to the Fairlawn hotel on Sudder Street where your parents would put up on their Calcutta trips?
That’s one place I would love to go back to. My aunt Felicity Kendal came here last December, she was part of a programme for a TV documentary on Shakespeare in India and she went to Fairlawn. She met everybody there. I stayed there last when I was here for a longer period. When I will work here for a long period, I will obviously stay at Fairlawn. I love it!
The first time I ever came to Calcutta to perform as an actress was with the play Rashomon. I asked my producer if I could do something silly and sentimental and stay at Fairlawn, and he arranged it. It was a very emotional thing for me to stay there. One or two of the waiters at Fairlawn knew my parents and they came to see the play. That’s the only place in India where they still call my father Shashibaba because he was 18 when they knew him! It is very, very special. It’s like home.
Any other Calcutta memories? My grandfather really loved the city. He is my all-time hero for his ability of making the most boring hamburger into the most exotic divine food! That’s how he told stories in an amazing way. He loved Calcutta and he was here during 36 Chowringhee Lane. That’s the first time I came and spent time here. He would walk me through New Market and take me to the Nizam egg roll centre.... I remember coming again to Calcutta some years later and (Satyajit Ray’s cinematographer) Subrata Mitra taking me around. It was raining and we had gone to see an Utpal Dutt play that night. And he took me to this magical cemetery on Park Street. I loved it! For me it’s the site for Romeo and Juliet. I have a deep affection for Calcutta. I think it’s because my grandfather was born here and my parents met here.
Finally, is your son Hamir also fond of theatre?
He is a monster! He loves these workshops. He loves theatre. He is only 10 and they have started Shakespeare in school, reading about The Tempest. He is crazy about cars. He has to find his own passion. His dad’s (tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar) is tigers and his mother’s theatre. So we will let him find his own crazy passion. Today he went to a party where there was a Bugatti car cake. That’s his favourite car in the world. I am now educated on cars, which is terrifying! I can go down the street and recognise cars by their headlights, almost. I can’t believe I am doing this!
Favourite playwright: Tom Stoppard
Favourite play: A Disappearing Number by Simon McBurney
Favourite place to perform: Prithvi Theatre
Favourite theatre actor: Naseeruddin Shah
Favourite theatre actress: Vanessa Redgrave
Favourite theatre director today: Simon McBurney
One character you would love to play: Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet
One artiste you wish you could have worked with: My mother
What comes to mind at the mention of Calcutta: Kookie Jar
Favourite Bengali food: Posto and Dab Chingri
Your message for Calcuttans: Wish you a wonderful world filled with theatre!