In India, where Bollywood and television dominate entertainment, Sunil Shanbag is the only theatre director who can claim to have a distinct and recognisable style.
use of regional music, dance and other art forms in plays has helped him keep Hindi theatre alive.
I remember the first time I saw Sunil Shanbag
It was at the Experimental theatre at the National Centre for the Performing Arts
, in Mumbai, after the first Sunday-evening performance of his
play S*x, M*rality, and Cens*rship, in 2010.
took the stage for the final bow, I applauded boisterously, like a fan boy.
I was completely enamoured of the energy and passion his
Three years on, in October 2013, Shanbag's Club Desire, based on the French opera Carmen, opened at the Tata theatre at the NCPA
Almost half the 1010 seats were already booked a week before opening night, with tickets being sold at between Rs 300 and Rs 1000.
Advance bookings are rare for an Indian play; most struggle to fill much smaller venues despite tickets being much cheaper.
, who Satyadev Dubey, the famous writer and director, termed one of his
foremost protégés, occupies a unique place in Indian theatre.
Firstly, he is the only Indian-language theatre director (most of his plays are in Hindi) to have had consistent success in India's metros, where English theatre is dominant.
S*x, M*rality, and Cens*rship (SMC), which was about the battle to stage famous Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkar's Sakharam Binder, won awards and is still performed in theatres today; Stories in a Song, Shanbag's 2011 musical, has been performed in several Indian cities over the past two years; and Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon, a Gujarati adaptation of Shakespeare's All's Well that Ends Well, was performed at the Globe to Globe Shakespeare festival in London, in 2012.
Secondly, Shanbag is the only modern director who has eschewed the minimalist route and continued to include music, dance and other art forms in his plays despite budgets for stage productions being tight.
In Club Desire, Shanbag
has, for the first time, used Electronic Dance Music.
It is a big step out of his
is used to challenges.
has found a way to adapt and survive in a field that has been ambushed by Bollywood, technology and home entertainment.
does not have the imposing nature one associates with theatre personalities.
is a short, portly man with a big smile and a throaty laugh.
While talking to you, he
will ask you to address him by his
first name, and, within minutes, you will have forgotten that you are chatting with one of India's most successful thespians.
tells me he
has accepted that it is hard to make theatre economically viable, and that does mean having to create plays that will cater to a wide audience.
However, that does not mean, he
says, what he
produces has to be devoid of intelligent matter.
Through song and dance, he
tells stories that reflect the pulse of modern society and communicate relevant social messages.
plays have dealt with issues such as censorship, women's rights and labour laws.
journey began in school.
"I was in a residential school down south that gave a lot of importance to performing arts," he
"I volunteered to act in a school play as I was new to the school and wanted to fit in." In his first performance on a stage, Shanbag played an evil magician, and, as he was climbing the makeshift staircase to his throne, it came crashing down.
"It was the first scene.
We had to draw the curtains, fix everything and start all over again."
Despite that minor setback, Shanbag
continued to take an interest in theatre.
was then cast in a school play directed by Dina Pathak, the reputed Gujarati actor and director.
Shanbag started off as an actor and soon became Dubey's assistant director.
parents were reluctant to let him stop studying and pursue a career in the arts, but Dubey's
reputation reassured them.
"I overheard my Dad talking to Dubey once.
said, 'Dubeyji, I have surrendered my son to you.' That is the kind of faith my parents had in him."
In the early 1980s, Shanbag
first two plays, during one of which he
directed a young Akash Khurana.
"I remember Sunil
, primarily, as a fantastic actor," Khurana, who went on to become one of India's best-known theatre actors, says.
It was Shanbag
who introduced Khurana to Dubey
"I owe my journey in theatre to Sunil
," Khurana says.
Shanbag collaborated with Khurana, Utkarsh Mazumdar and Shishir Sharma, all students of Dubey, to found the theatre company Arpana.
"I honestly did not know what I was doing back then," Shanbag
says and then laughs out loud.
"It is only in the last decade that Sunil
has started working on original pieces," Khurana says.
Even though his
pre-2000 works were mostly productions of published texts, Shanbag
was continuously striving to connect with a modern audience.
But, it was only after he
took a sabbatical in 2001 that this attitude towards theatre translated into bold original work.
While working with Dubey, Shanbag had started freelancing as a journalist and a television writer and he took a liking to writing for TV.
Theatre did not pay enough, and research-based television writing became his
source of income.
rose to prominence after writing the script for Ek Kahaani
, one of the first private programmes on Doordarshan, in 1985.
Shyam Benegal liked his
work, and the two collaborated over the next decade.
wrote for Benegal's shows Yatra (1986) and Bharat Ek Khoj (1988), and the cultural magazine show Surabhi (1993).
Benegal's shows required intense research, which Shanbag
developed an affinity for.
This love of history and the desire to make it relevant to a modern audience influenced a lot of Shanbag's
later work in theatre.
Just as Shanbag
was beginning to flourish as a screenwriter, satellite television invaded India.
"Suddenly, I did not connect with the work going on around me," Shanbag
"A very different kind of writing was required, and I was not up for it.
shifted to making documentary films.
forged a partnership with Arunabh Bhattacharjee, the director of Surabhi, and the pair produced and directed their first documentary, Maihar Raag, in 1993.
Maihar Raag was an exploration of the Maihar gharana of Hindustani classical music founded by Alauddin Khan Sahib.
It won the National Award for best documentary film in 1994.
and Bhattacharjee made a string of documentaries over the next seven years.
also became a part of Vikalp, a network of documentary filmmakers, who, among other things, were putting together an archive of Indian documentary films.
took a special interest in this project, and the complete archive of over 300 documentaries has been sitting in his
office for the past eight years.
After India's economic liberalisation, the entertainment industry changed.
Commercial cinema and television became increasingly popular while theatre and documentary films were left behind.
could no longer afford to rent stages for his
plays and had to do fewer shows.
lost many of its actors to television, which had become a more lucrative option, and shifted focus to teaching theatre in schools.
"I was amazed by everything.
Till then, the Indian media had had a socialist approach," Shanbag
In 2007, Shanbag partnered with young writer Ramu Ramanathan to create Cotton 56, Polyester 84, an honest commentary on the lives of mill workers in Mumbai.
achieved nationwide success with SMC
, in 2010.
Interestingly, Bollywood has never interested him.
speaks of the mainstream with disgust.
"It is a world I never wanted to get involved with.
I have gone through phases during which I watched a lot of world cinema, but these days, I rarely think it is worth the effort to go to the theatre for a film.
Mention names of famous film directors such as Tim Burton, Rob Marshall, and Baz Luhrmann, and he
"I enjoy theatrical films, such as Black Swan, but my exposure is very limited."
Since Cotton 56, Polyester 84, Shanbag
has managed to create a distinct and recognisable style of theatre.
use of live music, the play-within-play style of storytelling and deliverance of social messages through dramatic stories has become his
Few other Indian theatre directors can claim to have one.
Arnesh Ghose | Sunil Shanbag | theatre | Satyadev Dubey | Maro Piyu Gayo Rangoon | music | arts | Club Desire | thespian | Roshan Seth | Dina Pathak | Akash Khurana | Doordarshan | Bharat Ek Khoj | Arunabh Bhattacharjee | Maihar Raag | Vikalp | Ramu Ramanathan |