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Breaking new ground

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For theatre director Sunil Shanbag, it will be a first of sorts. He has built a formidable reputation as a maverick director who stages brilliant experimental works that pull in the audiences. Now he’s making a brave leap forward and getting ready to stage The Alchemist Untold based on celebrated writer Paulo Coelho’s book The Alchemist.

It’s a first for Shanbag because The Alchemist Untold will be entirely different from anything he has done before — a two-hour play complete with elaborate sets, costumes and lighting. Says Shanbag: “I am not used to this kind of theatre. But I took it up as a challenge because of the possibilities it throws up. It has a fable-like quality and is driven by the ideas and words.” Its producer, Ashvin Gidvani, aims to take it on tour to 22 cities around India. The play will be in four languages — English, Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati.

Coelho’s The Alchemist is a sweeping story that starts from an abandoned churchyard in southern Spain and moves across to North Africa and from there to the pyramids of Egypt. Says Shanbag: “The book lends itself more to a filmic adaptation than a theatrical one. A story like this demands a certain kind of grand treatment.”

Shanbag and Gidvani are making meticulous preparations for the play. For a start, Gidvani procured the exclusive rights for a theatrical adaptation in India. The adaptation has been done by writer Deepa Gahlot and the play will premiere in September. Says Gidvani: “I saw a show based on the book in London and immediately wanted the same thing here. I wanted Shanbag to direct because he’s true to his craft and also there’s a certain method in his direction.”

Theatregoers should expect the unusual from Shanbag, who says he’ll adhere closely to the playwright’s original text. “I believe that the form of the play always lies in the text. We have tried to distil and restructure certain portions to make it more compact,” he says. Shanbag will be directing the play’s English and Hindi versions in which Tom Alter will play the lead character Santiago.

His last production Cotton 56, Polyester 84, written by Ramu Ramanathan, was a thumping success and is still running at Prithvi Theatre after more than 75 performances.

The play is about how Mumbai’s cotton mills have been razed to make way for glitzy malls. It won awards for the best play, best sound design and best original script at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards, 2007. Shanbag says that when he took the play to towns like Indore and Beed, it was a huge hit with the trade unions and their members.

Another work close to his heart is the English play Turel (meaning river bank in Manipuri), a story set in a small village in Manipur, which made its debut at the Writers Bloc Festival, in January last year. Shanbag set up his theatre group Arpana in 1985 with several other leading members of the Mumbai theatre circuit and they’ve done many winners like Striptease & Circus, Garam Kamra and Bansuri.

Today, most members of the original group have gone their own way. But Shanbag tried to revive Arpana by staging three productions last year — Turel, Mastana Rampuri urf Chappan Churi (a Hindi musical inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera) and Cotton 56, Polyester 84.

As a young student at Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh, Shanbag was passionate about theatre. Later he moved to Mumbai and joined theatre personality Satyadev Dubey in 1974. “Dubey was casting for his play Aur Ek Garbo and I was only 17 at that time,” he says.

Shanbag’s also a documentary filmmaker and TV scriptwriter. He makes television programmes mainly for BBC Worldwide. Besides, he has worked with Shyam Benegal and was a co- author, along with Shama Zaidi, for Yatra and Bharat Ek Khoj. In 1993, he turned independent film producer and produced a 65-minute film Maihar Raag, which fetched him the National Award in 1994 for Best Non-Fiction Film. In 2000, he set up his own film company Chysalis Films.

Today, Shanbag makes documentary films on environmental issues. He has just wrapped up shooting a 40-minute film, Suvarnam, which looks at the changing face of the Kerala society through the use of gold in their weddings.

There’s also the 76-minute Malayalam-English documentary Aamakaar (The Turtle People) directed by Surabhi Sharma (Shanbag was the film’s producer). It won an award at the Eco Cinema Festival, Israel in 2002.

Does he find it tough to juggle being a theatre director and a documentary filmmaker? “Both require great observation skills and are mainly drawn from real issues,” he says.

Right now, however, he’s concentrating on staging The Alchemist Untold. He promises: “I like to work on one project at a time. And I am focusing on ways and means to make the play as popular as the original book.”  

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