Tuesday, 7 February 2017

How a simple little Chitthi can give you three showcases full of awards.

Far far away, in a rural dusty village in Maharashtra, lives an innocent happy woman, quite satisfied with her life. That is, until one day a good looking city woman in a bright sari shows up at her door and leaves a note for her husband. To make it worse, the wife doesn't know how to read.

Off stage, the women are best friends. Lead actress Arpita Ghogardare and director Apurva Bhilare (who always plays the 'other woman') started their journey in theatre 7 years ago in the drama team at Indian Law School, Pune. Arpita launches herself on Apurva's sofa and tells me the house is like her own home. Apurva laughs at Arpita for finishing an entire orange by herself in the course of our interview. Together, the women create magic on stage.
Arpita and Apurva are a part of Chitthi, a play which made it to Thespo 17 and is coming back to Prithvi Theatre after more than a year. Chitthi was created in the final year of their law school and there's been no looking back ever since. It was also the play that helped them realise their dreams of becoming professional theatremakers. The play also went to a lot of competitions across the state, accolades from which crowd the showcases of both these women. They now spearhead their own production company - Theatre Dilse.
In an era where representation is such an important topic of discussion, it is curious to note that there aren't a lot of female directors on the Marathi stage and in the Intercollegiate Theatre Circuit in Mumbai and Pune. Hardly any. But of course, there's Apurva Bhilare.
On the other hand Arpita is the winner of the Pearl Padamsee Award For Outstanding Actress at Thespo. In reference to the award, director and Thespo founder Quasar once mentioned how this special gender based award for acting was necessary in the hopes that strong roles are written for women.
And in the recent years, if anything has lived up to that hope, it is the play Chitthi.

Plus - I forget to mention - it's one the best young plays I've ever seen. So of course I had a lot of questions. Excerpts below.

Let's talk about the play. What was the process like?

Apurva: Oh the process was absolutely the worst we've had. There were far too may issues popping up. The story wasn't working for us, some scenes weren't working. We even gave up a few times.

Arpita: But I strongly believe it was our friendship and the bond our team shared that put the play together. Only we know what the condition was like. It all only worked out because of the mutual understanding we all had.

Go on.

Arpita: Between Purushottam (where the play was first presented) and Thespo, we did about 25 shows and won a lot of prizes. So when we passed out of college, we had some prize money accumulated. We also had a great play on hand and a very fine team. It was this that gave us the confidence to dive into the cultural industry.

So how much has the play changed over the course of these 3 years?

Apurva: The play might be a comedy in it's genre but the humour in it is very light and honest. So much hasn't changed in the play itself but on the contrary we have to approach the play with a clean slate every time. The few times when we anticipated reaction and tried to 'crack' punchlines, it did not work. We also have to stay extremely fresh for every show.

And how does one do that?

Apurva: We never really practiced for the play. Instead we kept improvising new stories with the same characters and settings. Sometimes we just meet and play games.

Arpita: We're also the kind of people who feel quite ashamed after a bad show. I remember the first bad show we did was followed by a big tour of three cities and three competitions. And Chitthi won in all of them. It was utter madness. The sleeping hours were messed up, sets were constantly being loaded and unloaded but we gave three amazing shows.
And Bhilare isn't the kind of director who shouts. In fact, she tells us that her work as a director is now over. Whatever else that we have to discover, will have to happen on our own. And that helps a lot.

How was the play conceived?

Apurva: This story by Vyankatesh Madgulkar is something we found in 2013. It's actually pretty different from how the play eventually turned out. But we kept the story aside for then and went ahead with an original play. It was only the year after that when we didn't have a new idea that we came back to Chitthi.

Arpita: Actually even the year after that, we were going to do an original piece. Bhilare had written it; it was a heavy and serious two-actress script. But that didn't work out and it only by method of elimination that we arrived at Chitthi.

Apurva: I remember when the story was mentioned again, Arpita even made a face that said 'are you serious?'. But everybody else seemed convinced with it. We changed a lot though. We added a lot to the tale.

Tell us more about what kind of director Apurva is.

Arpita: She's somebody who's always prepared and has her homework in place. It's one of the main reasons I love working with her. If she knows something is going to be difficult for the actors to perform, she'll come to the rehearsals with exercises and ideas in her kitty. She'll have a scheduled plan. I don't think she's that disciplined in real life.

And what is it like directing Arpita?

Apurva: Oh, it is such a pleasure directing her. She makes it all very easy for me.

Arpita: Obviously ga! (Laughs)

Apurva: No but seriously. She studies well for a character. Chitthi as a play wouldn't happen without her. In fact our first show, which was a success and helped us understand our own play better, raged because of her. Her, Bablu (Dnyanratna, their fellow actor), all of these people. It's the actor's talent, the spontaneity, the discipline. She doesn't need to be told.

Arpita: In general, that's how all is function. We don't go around 'telling' each other much. Two hours before the play, we're all very quite.

The character of an illiterate middle-aged woman in a village can be difficult for a young citybred girl to identify it. How did you go about that?

Apurva: An uneducated woman can't even recognize that the symbol in front of her is a letter at times. Reading comes naturally to us now, how does one understand what that woman feels like? Arpita used to sit with newspapers from the southern states.

Arpita: I would try to figure what feelings those incomprehensible curly alphabets evoked.

What about the dialect?

Apurva: We had a lot of dialects in the team itself.

Arpita: A hundred different dialects! Our ways of speaking chance every few miles in our land. But that one accent is how we would all speak for hour and hours in the rehearsals. Even at home, I started speaking a pitch above normal. Rural people have a certain throw, and only practice can help you with these details.

Apurva: Our entire team would show up in costume, any rural costume they'd find. Our lights guy would parade around as a butcher during practice. Soon the cast and crew had figured out back stories for everyone. And we'd all speak in the rural tone.

Arpita: In the first show, there were so many lines I took differently. And there's no way that could happen naturally if I didn't train myself to think in the same language.

At the Director's Adda at Thespo 18, director Nadir Khan made an observation on how the music in Marathi plays often underline the very emotion that the director wants the audience to experience. Do you think that happens?

Apurva: Very frankly, I don't understand much about music. It's only now that I'm learning music. But when Chitthi was made, I had no clue. But our music director was amazing. We all even sat down and composed a song on our own.

Arpita: If I may, we tried to keep it all realistic. So in a scene if you hear music, we have tried to make sure it has plausible sources, like a radio in the house.

Apurva: We hate the idea of playing a sad track to accompany a melancholic monologue. I trust my actors enough to convey what the character feels.

The play is also visually beautiful. Was there a colour pallette in mind?

Apurva: The idea was to keep it realistic, so most things stayed dulls and sober. If there was any brightness in terms of colour, it was with the 'Madam' who writes the Chitthi and sows the seed of suspicion in the protagonist's mind. So you quickly associate any sort of brightness with Madam.

Arpita: We wondered if it was logical to have the paper the note in written on to be bright in colour. But then we took the risk. So every time we had to buy paper, cut it properly, bind it together into a notepad. And then in every rehearsals, Madam would keep tearing them off.

Apurva: The only time we went off our naturalistic form was one of the monologues where the woman sits by herself on a hill (one of the best scenes in the play and a smashing visual). But we decided to enhance the ambience that way and it worked.

College plays that happen in Pune often engage in making plays set in Rural Maharashtra. A lot of the Indian Law School plays (including Chitthi) are in the same genre. What is it do you think that attracts young theatremakers in Pune to this milieu?

Apurva: For us, a lot of our fellow college mates come from villages. So modern, urban topics don't suit our human resource. Besides, because we all come up with the ideas together, there's a lot of rural stories that pop up. We stuck to realistic theatre in college where the conflict comes from the characters and the simplicity.
On a larger level, this isn't the only trend. A lot of the engineering colleges make very urbane plays. They are also technologically more advanced.

So what's next for Theatre Dilse?
A&A: We've just started to figure out what producing a play takes. There's a lot of young theatre groups here in Pune. We hope to collaborate with them in the future too. Thespo will always be an aim, as long as we're eligible. We want to make enough productions and enough profits to keep creating good work.

For the Feb 08, 2017 shows at Prithvi, buy tickets here. And say Hi. I'll be the guy laughing and cheering the loudest in the auditorium. See you!

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