Actress Himani Shivpuri talks about her new show on Zee Theatre, based on the dying ‘kotha’ tradition, and the future of OTT platforms in India.
Q. The traditional ‘kotha’ singing has rich cultural values attached to it. What nuances have been explored of the old-aged tradition in Zee Theatre’s classic drama ‘Hamidabai Ki Kothi’?
A. We are dealing with a tradition that is slowly on its way out and the one that has tried to struggle and survive over the years. I play the character ‘Hamidabai’ who wants to stick to the old tradition, in which live vocal singing is revered and appreciated. It is this argument of ‘old versus new’ that we have tried to explore in the play.
Q. How did you prepare for it?
A. Director Vijaya Mehta helped me to prepare for the role. She gave me a very detailed description of the character and guided me through her journey. She also told me the character was based on a real-life person, the playwright had met during one of her train journeys. She made the cast listen to many old records, music of another era in the ‘Gaaiki’ tradition. She gave us all an idea on the kind of struggle this woman went through to keep the tradition alive, a lot of her creative imagination also went into the character.
Q. What are your earliest memories of playing the character?
A. My earliest memories are of my first meeting with Vijaya Bai who I really revered. It was one of the reasons I wanted to do this play for Zee theatre’s Hamidabai Ki Kothi. I’ve worked for a variety of directors and from all over the country and abroad but never got a chance to work with Vijaya bai. So, to do Hamidabai was more to work with Vijaya Mehta and my earliest memory is of course how she described the character when we met in her house and I tried to absorb whatever she was telling me which really helped me shape this character.
Q. You have worked in every format including cinema, television, stage and now digital, how difficult is it for an artist to adjust to different mediums?
A. As an artist, I have acted in theatre, television, films and OTT. The basics of acting as a craft is the same everywhere. You get into a role, work on the look and external factors and internalise the character that you have to do anyway, irrespective of the medium. The only thing in theatre is one gets to rehearse a lot, so the preparation is good. While in terms of TV, films, OTT, we don’t get a lot of time to prepare. Of course, we do a little bit of rehearsal. I come from a theatre background and spend hours in practice and ‘riyaz’ and that has made my performances seem so natural.
Q. The OTT platforms have content full of violence, sex, and abusive dialogues. Do you think there is a space for immortal plays in digital mediums?
A. Yes, of course. I feel that on the OTT platform there’s a lot of space for immortal plays. Viewers are varied, some people may like to see plays which deal with sexuality while some like me like classical plays based on subjects that are immortal. Ramayana and Mahabharata are seeing excellent TRPs in its re-release format. So, you see we have all kinds of audiences.
Q. From stage to the digital screen. What does this transformation mean to you in the context of plays being digitized?
A. I think the current situation that we are in, it is difficult for people to step out and go to theatres. So, I think the plays that have been digitised are a good opportunity for theatre actors and theatre lovers to see plays on the digital platforms. It’s a positive sign.
Q. What are the other plays of yours that you would like people to see online?
A. My stage play is called ‘Mitron Marjani’. I’m not sure at that time there was any recording but I wish people could have seen that play. People still remember it and say it was one of my most beautiful performances ever. I think there are renditions of ‘Sharvilak’ which are played by Basant Sinha and ‘Aazar ka Khwab’ which is the Urdu adaptation of Pygmalion. I think Mr. Ram Gopal Bajaj had recorded these two plays. Recently I had done two plays of Manu Bhandari which I directed and acted myself. They were basically solos with a few smaller characters coming and going which I performed when I had got the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in Delhi. I had also performed and directed Santhati which was based on Bhanu Bharti’s story of a dancer. I had performed this play in Varanasi at the international theatre festival & Bharangam,’I’d like the audience to see it.
Q. How did you spend your lockdown? Is there anything that you learned during this period?
A. In the lockdown, I did Yoga. I learned to meditate and I learned the Sudarshan Kriya which I’ve been wanting to do for a long time so in all it was very fruitful. I wrote a few poems, I tried to write some of my memoirs and figured that I’m a very lazy writer but I am glad that I got time to spend with myself. I watched very good films, some nice tv shows on the OTT platforms and I thoroughly enjoyed being with my family and my dog Arya.
Q. Apart from theatre, tell us about your future projects.
A. Well, there are no future projects right now because of the pandemic but I have been doing a daily soap which we have started reshooting and it’s called ‘Happu Ki Ultan Paltan’ and in which I play a very wonderful character. We don’t get to play such well-rounded characters on television these days. It’s the character Katori Amma in which I play the mother of Happu and I have a beautiful bickering relationship with my daughter-in-law and with my son. We have a little bit of romance and a little bit of Nok Jhok with my grandchildren also so it’s a multi-dimensional character that I’m thoroughly enjoying playing. I’ve started reshooting for it and it’s been on air on &TV and Zee TV. When things get back to normal, I will do films too.
Q. Many talented artists are suffering from depression due to no work during the pandemic. What is your suggestion for them?
A. Yes, depression is something one sees in artists often. The pandemic had pushed many artists to that zone because, overnight, move from shootings and the hustle bustle to a quiet life can be difficult to adjust. Also, the pandemic has not only meant no work but also no money coming in — all this can have a negative effect on people who are not emotionally strong. It is important in these times to reach out to people and help them. It is also a time to reach out to one’s inner self and connect to God or any other belief that makes you strong. There is always someone up there and supreme looking after us and that we should always remember.