Pankaj Kapur has been a highly-regarded professional actor for over four decades now, known for his commitment to excellence in theatre, television and cinema alike. He speaks to Bulbul Sharma about his creative interests, which include acting, writing and, at times, painting.
Q. You joined the National School of Drama (NSD) at the age of 19. Were you always very sure that you wanted a career in acting?
A. It will be very clichéd to mention that I started acting when I was a child. But I started acting when I was five years old. And that became my passion when I reached college. I had great parents. I had an amazingly emancipated father, who was a professor in a college and he retired as the principal. He understood my calling and he said, “I am here to support you and the only thing you need to do, if you want to be an actor, is that you must educate yourself. Whichever field you want to go into, you must educate yourself.” So it was his contribution that I went to the NSD. I was lucky to have a director like Ebrahim Alkazi [NSD director at the time], and the staff at that time who gave us an opportunity to learn and provided an amazing atmosphere to learn.
Q. You have acted in innumerable plays since the very beginning of your career. What do you think is the purpose of theatre?
A. Maybe, communication. It is a medium of communication, for any kind of aesthetic thing that you want to say. There are various ways of communication and theatre is one such way. And it goes back to the history of theatre—where it started, what has been its history in our country and what it has become today. But basically, it’s to be seen as a medium of communication. And if you want to communicate a story, an idea, a movement, a form—there are millions of words to help you do that, but it all can be communicated through the art of theatre.
Q. Your recent play, Dopehri, was performed as part of the Delhi Theatre Festival in March 2018. How important would you say is the role such theatre festivals play in the larger context of cultural promotion and preservation?
A. Such events bring, from their own understanding, important works on the big stage, and they do so by going to the audience of a given city and by delivering a certain standard of work to them. By exposing people to such works, these events enrich the audiences. And they help create further audiences for theatre movements and shows of the future.
Q. Tell us more about Dopehri, which is based on a novella you’ve yourself written. What kinds of themes does it explore?
A. It was written about 20 years back, and there were no talks even about the girl child at that time. My concern were the senior women—like our mothers, our grandmothers—who have already lived their lives, and what happens to that identity and what happens to them. So, Dopehri, as a novella, is the story of a lonely old woman who is able to recognise her own worth through the course of the tale. Having said that, it might sound very serious and very morose but the way it is written makes it full of life, full of people, full of experiences and full of emotions. Dopehri represents a kind of slice of life of a certain area in which the story is placed.
Q. Since the novella was written two decades back, do you think the theme still strikes a chord with the audiences?
A. Our relationship with a mother or a grandmother can never change. So those relationships, those people, the characters and the way society is—it is all the same. We still have Amma Bis [protagonist of the play] of Dopehri in this society of ours. But they need to be talked about, somebody needs to speak up for them, somebody needs to talk about their life, somebody needs to bring their story to the audiences, a story that in a way represents their life. So, and I suppose for years to come, I don’t think Dopehri will become redundant in terms of its content. It has a timeless value. That’s what I think. But the audience can come and see it, and judge for themselves.
Q. The play has been performed at both national and international venues. But sometimes the cultural context or the language in which a play is written gets a bit difficult to understand for audiences who are not part of that particular culture or region. So what kind of reaction has Dopehri received so far? If you could share any particular instances with us?
A. For me, the most heartwarming experience was the one in Bangalore. Because there I wondered whether or not the audience would be able to understand Hindustani. And, surprisingly the same thing happened in Seattle. And in Singapore. The play is written in Hindustani and it talks about a woman in Lucknow, so I thought whether the audience will be able to relate to the culture or not. But to my surprise, we received an amazing response in all these places.
Q. Your association with theatre dates back to over four decades now. How do you think the theatre scene has changed in all these years?
A. More people are doing plays, more people are coming to see them and more people are sponsoring it. When we started learning theatre, people hardly used to buy tickets. They used to expect to receive passes. By the time we passed out, people got into the habit of buying a few tickets as well. But today, I am happy to say that audiences are happy to buy tickets, happy to come and see plays. Also, the number of people doing theatre, especially youngsters, has increased. And there are different approaches towards how they want to do theatre now, which is again very healthy because you need to have different kinds of movements, different kinds of ways of developing theatre as the times move on.
Q. So this seems like a good time for theatre. But is there anything about the quality of contemporary plays that bothers you?
A. Normally, I don’t like seeing anything negative in life. But since you asked, I would say that though the overall quantity has increased, the quality aspect also needs to be addressed.
Q. You have been a part of iconic TV shows like Karamchand (1985) and Office Office (2001), to name only two. What are your thoughts on the kind of content we get to see on TV these days?
A. Well, I am obviously not very happy. I think a lot of deterioration has happened in terms of the content. But I think historically, things like these keep on happening. If you remember in the 1970s and 1980s, Hindi mainstream cinema went through a very bad patch. At that time television was at its peak, in the 1980s especially. Now, cinema has changed. But time will come and these things will change again, because nothing stays permanent. Content on television will be determined by what the audiences’ demand, because they are exposed to a lot of stuff from the world over now. So they will expect better standards of work. I don’t think we are far from the time when television channels will start thinking of better content and better presentation, leaving it to the directors to direct rather than to the managers to manage.
Q. The films you have done in your career add up to an impressive resumé. They are part of what many consider meaningful cinema. Which parameters do you think about before signing a film project?
A. I think the subject is one thing. The role that is being offered to me is another. And what is the mind of the director who is going to direct it. So these are the things that concern me before I sign a film.
Q. You have also closely witnessed the growth of Indian cinema over a span of decades. How has the Hindi film industry evolved, and which direction do you think it is headed in?
A. I think Indian cinema is really going in a good direction. The content in the last 15-20 years has gone through a massive change. There is also a kind of marriage of the commercial and the art house that is beginning to happen. The fine tuning is still required, but at least attempts are being made, and people are moving towards that. So I see a lot of positivity in our cinema.
Q. What is keeping you busy these days, apart, of course, from theatre?
A. Plays and films. I write a bit. From the past 2-3 years, I have been painting a little bit. So, my world is a creative world. Whatever gives me satisfaction in terms of creativity is what I do.
Q. Any upcoming films?
A. There are two films. One is Toba Tek Singh, which is based on the famous story by Saadat Hasan Manto. And the other is JL 50.