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All the world's a stage away

Some dreams die young. Others, with a little help from one's family, live on for years.

Prithviraj Kapoor, the doyen of Indian cinema, passed away in 1972 with an unfulfilled dream ' that of reopening his theatre company, and the company having a theatre of its own.

Son Shashi didn't, however, think of reinventing Prithvi Theatre until six years later, when he sounded out his plan to wife Jennifer and his in-laws, the Kendalls. Although it was the Kendalls who made his mammoth project so much easier to complete, Jennifer's initial reaction can be summed by what she wrote in a letter to her sister: 'Shashi has gone mad, he wants to open a theatre.' That there was a method in his madness is no more apparent than now.

Last Thursday saw The Prithviwallahs ' a coffee-table tome published by Roli Books ' being released with much fanfare, a tribute by Shashi Kapoor to the word that has almost become synonymous with popular theatre in Mumbai and most of India. For him, it's more than just a book, it's almost a chronicle of what his entire family has dedicated its life to. 'The Prithviwallahs comprise Prithviraj Kapoor, Jennifer and I, our children and everyone who had had anything to do with Prithvi Theatre,' explains Shashi Kapoor, who has conceptualised the book.

But then, Shashi Kapoor was the son of Prithviraj Kapoor, who junked a law degree and travelled for two days to take up a profession not considered the best in his time. In 1922, this 19-year-old from Peshawar came to Mumbai to become what was called a 'bhand' (joker). 'I don't know why he decided to become an actor in those days despite having a law degree,' says Shashi Kapoor.

So great was the senior Kapoor's desire to be an actor that the first thing he did after arriving in Mumbai was to go to the seaside, and sound out a warning to God. 'He said: 'Mr God, if you don't make me an actor here, I'll jump in now into the sea, and swim the seven seas to go to Hollywood and be an actor there',' says Shashi Kapoor, who was later told of this incident by his father.

Enough proof that Mr God listened to him is the fact that Kapoor Senior's Mughal-e-Azam is still a sellout in theatres even today.

Prithviraj Kapoor, however, didn't ask any favours from God when it came to his theatre career, and even though theatre was his first love, it couldn't sustain itself. Prithviraj Kapoor, then a very successful actor in films, had started Prithvi Theatre in 1944, the first professionally managed travelling theatre company. It included people like Raj Kapoor, Premnath and Ramanand Sagar who were on the payroll of the company, irrespective of whether they acted in a play or not. The company had 150 people on its rolls, and Prithviraj's youngest son, Shashi, was also a part of it.

But Mr God must have had plans for Shashi when it came to theatre. For, in 1956, when Prithvi Theatre was stationed in Calcutta, another touring theatre company, Shakespeareana, was waiting for them to vacate the Empire Theatre in the New Market area before they moved in with their shows.

Shakespearana was a unique theatre group of 12 people run by Geoffrey Kendall, with his wife Laura and daughter Jennifer. Shakespeareana had a repertoire of English plays, mostly by Shakespeare, where Jennifer would often play lead roles.

Eighteen-year-old Shashi went to meet Jennifer at the Fairlawn Hotel where she was staying. He had earlier seen her through the stage curtain at Empire, where she had come to watch a play. He ended up being son-in-law to Geoffrey Kendall, but the marriage of two of the best in the business was to bear its fruits later.

Prithvi Theatre, meanwhile, closed down in 1960 for lack of funds. 'But my father always said, I wish I had a theatre which would be made with only two people in mind ' the actor and the audience,' says Shashi Kapoor. So when he decided to build the theatre in 1978, Shashi Kapoor left no stone unturned to ensure he lived upto his father's wishes.

'In fact, Jennifer sent the architect of the theatre, Ved Segan, to travel around Europe and England to see different kinds of theatres,' he reveals. Meanwhile, the Kendalls brought in their expertise in play-acting, and some talented youngsters ' Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and Amol Palekar, to name a few ' became a part of it.

That was the beginning. Twenty-six years later, Jennifer isn't around, but the legacy lives on. Shashi Kapoor's daughter Sanjana, who was associated with the theatre right from its second coming, is at the helm of things now. Shashi Kapoor's son Kunal also looks after the management of the company.

And Shashi Kapoor decided it was time he wrote about the family enterprise. Thus, with the help of friend and journalist Deepa Gahlot, he presented the spellbinding story of the Prithviwallahs to the world. And it's a story worth telling.

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