From screen to stage

Better known as Savita Chachi of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Apara Mehta says she has lost count of the number of Gujarati and Hindi stage shows she has done. Apparently, she takes after her mother, Mandakini Mehta, who was a Gujarati theatre artiste.Though Mehta may have become a household name courtesy television, she has no qualms in revealing that her roots lie in Gujarati theatre. She says, "It all started when I compered Santakukdi on Doordarshan for a lark. I was in the tenth standard at that time. After that, I began getting offers of acting in Gujarati plays." This is one case where plays happened before television.

Maanav and Shweta in Uncle Samjha Karo

Apara is not the lone example. Increasingly these days, TV actors are trying their hand at theatre - Nausheen Ali Sardar (Nausheen Manhar Lele), Mandira Bedi (Laughing Wild), Shweta Kawaatra and Manav Gohil (Uncle Samjha Karo), Sheeba (Yeh Dil Maange More)... the list is getting longer. Film stars like Jaya Bachchan, Pooja Batra, Paresh Rawal, Zeenat Aman, Ranjeet, Varsha Usgaonkar, Faissal Khan and Reema Lagoo who dabbled in theatre, now have competition from deities of the small screen.


One doesn?t have to look far to hunt for the reason - an international market has opened up for TV artistes to perform on stage.

Sheeba and Tanaz Currim are the attractions of Yeh Dil Maange More

Director Paritosh Painter (Uncle Samjha Karo, Yeh Dil Maange More) divulges, "There is growing demand from non resident Indians (NRIs) for TV actors performing live, with a entertaining story line. They are now bored with the filmi-shows that are being repeatedly staged on foreign soil. Plus, their demand is pretty specific: They want more of actors who have performed on Zee and Sony, because it is these two channels that are popular with NRIs. Some of the artistes who have done Navratri shows in the recent past also seem to find a lot of favour with NRIs. There are three territories for mainstream theatre - Mumbai, other Indian cities and overseas (Muscat, Dubai, UK, Nigeria and mainly the US, to name some). The rates for the three territories are different, Mumbai being the lowest and shows abroad fetching the highest. Just like any demand initiates supply, this one is not going to be an exception. After all, it?s business. Who wouldn?t like to tap profit margins which are higher if TV actors are taken abroad?"

Apara Mehta - "Theatre is the most difficult art."

Producer Vikram Pradhan (Yeh Dil Maange More) is equally forthright. "We are getting a lot of sponsorship from overseas and they want the TV actors to come and perform live on their shores. We are talking to some new markets as well, but it would be early days if I let out their names. The demand is more for Sony and Zee actors. Nowadays, even corporate houses are coming forward for block bookings for their staff; in turn they advertise their commodities in the auditorium for which we don?t charge them, it?s purely symbiotic. Some new sponsors have also come in- like Globus for costumes, Tian for hospitality, there?s even Giant Hyper Market. Plus, don?t forget that TV stars sometimes land up with other kind of plum offers when they travel abroad- like it could be endorsing commercials, attending an inauguration ceremony."

Producer Nirav Parikh (Uncle Samjha Karo) is not an exception. He gushes, "Four new markets have opened up, just recently- Australia, New Zealand, West Indies and Singapore. To say that the international market for plays has opened up, would be an understatement. It?s booming. In fact, the market in India is also widening. I have never seen such response what I met with, when I put up Uncle Samjha Karo in Surat recently. There was a capacity crowd of 5,000 screaming for Shweta Kawaatra and Manav Gohil."

But is theatre easy for the artistes?

Stalwart Apara Mehta shoots, "Are you kidding? Theatre is the most difficult art. Rajesh Khanna (former superstar) had decided to play my husband in Kanch Na Sambandh. He rehearsed for six months but could not do it. And he opted out. As a theatre artiste, you have to be confident all the time. You have no time to fumble, stumble and pick yourself up. One wrong move and you?ll find that you are either booed or the audience starts pushing their seats back to go for a nap." Shweta Kawaatra remarks, "A lot of people used to tell me that I needed to do stage. I had offers, but kept rejecting them because I was scared. But now I know what I was missing. On television, I am doing everything with my face. When I rehearsed for a stage performance for the first time, I didn?t know what to do with my hands and legs. I felt very awkward. Now I feel myself as a complete actor. Of late, people say that I am glowing in Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki. Uncle Samjha Karo has done the trick. An actor?s entire body language changes if he does a play. Going back, my fear stemmed from the feeling I had that I would forget my lines. This fear still nags me, that is precisely what has made me alert and thereby brought about a change in my body language."

Is theatre a stress-reliever? Manav Gohil says he wanted to do something different because repetition is nagging which is stressful. "People started labelling me a television boy and I starting feeling soggy as an actor. I don?t want an image to envelop me at this stage of my career and I wanted to break free and do something, cliched as it may sound, different," he explains. Girlfriend Sweta endorses, "I was stagnating in the saas-bahu mould. How long can you go on doing the same thing?"

But in a sense, isn?t the play too the same thing being done again and again? She explains, "It is, but the live feedback keeps the adrenalin flowing all the time. Hmmm... I may not call it a stress-reliever, but yes, television is far more stressful comparatively. Unlike in television where you ought to wait for hours, plays require not more than one hour apart from the actual length of the show."

Jamnadas Majethia - "A television actor can get Rs 5,000-50,000 per show, depending upon his popularity."

Does going on stage help on television? New players like Sheeba agree. "Theatre is like a drug. Once you taste it, you can?t drop it. A drug which gives boundless energy. On television, I just imagine that thousands of people are watching me. But what if they haven?t switched on their sets, actually? Here I directly find myself in front of hundreds of people waiting expectantly for me to give off my best. That whets my appetite instantly. It draws the best out of me. The pressure automatically enhances the performance. Thereby I invariably grow as an actor with the passing of every show." But Mehta sends a word of caution, "Many artistes who go on stage can goof it up on the tube. A few things have to be picked up, that?s all. You can?t carry the same format of stage in toto onto television. For example, if an artiste is doing a weepy scene on stage, he will go full blast so that the last bencher can hear him. The same scene requires the same feeling but very little of body movement and voice when enacted for television. Then he would be using more of facial expressions, mainly his eyes- simply because the TV camera focuses on his face."

Is money the luring factor?

Jamnadas Majethia (better known as JD), producer of Star Plus? Khichdi says, "I totally agree. A television actor can get Rs 5,000-50,000 per show, depending upon his popularity. A television artiste adds glamour to the cast. Gone are the days when only film stars used to be considered glamorous. A TV artiste can demand his price and get away with it." Pradhan accounts, "TV actors are paid much better when they perform for us abroad. We gladly pay them since we stand to benefit more as well. Plus we never forget that they have adjusted their TV assignments to be with us, assignments which would have fetched them a hefty sum."

But Mandira Bedi eschews, "I don?t think that anybody does theatre for money. At least I don?t. Theatre is too creative. It is the basic school of learning acting. Going to theatre is just like going back to your teacher, which I think everyone should, if he wants to retain the essence of his art. I will be going back to this school of acting, as much as I can. Say presently, I am thinking of doing another play by Raell Padamsee." Not surprisingly, Bedi has support from another TV actress. Tannaz Currim, who like Mehta, started with theatre in a Gujarati play by Dinyar Contractor, chips in, "Money is the last priority when it comes to theatre. One has to be a good actor and the script is the hero and the heroine in theatre. One needless dialogue, the entire script loosens, the audience starts yawning. There are songs and dances to revive them. You cannot peel off your mask on stage. You cannot lie."

So... television artistes who are doing stage claim that they have very good reasons to justify their stage assignments. And they say they have no problems in adjusting the dates with production houses. A few months ago, Mehta was out for nearly 25 days because she was shooting for a play. Come April and Shweta Kawaatra and Manav Gohil are going for a 45-day break from Kasautii Zindagii Kay because Uncle Samjha Karo is going to be staged in cities outside Mumbai. The process is simple: A few of their scenes would be kept as a bank, to be utilised in between the main track, which obviously would shift from them to the other characters. Shweta informs, "If they make us shoot for five full days, they have the ability to build a bank of at least 30 days, where we would have an average four scenes per episode. I have done this once before while I was away from the serial- and I know." The production houses are not complaining simply because their characters come back having accentuated and polished their acting potentials

Mandira Bedi - "I don?t think that anybody does theatre for money. At least I don?t."
Tannaz Currim in the play Yeh Dil Maange More

All said and done, isn?t it a gamble to bring in TV stars to theatre? Just because a face is popular on TV does not mean he or she can act on stage without retakes? Paritosh Painter, who has directed Yeh Dil Maange More starring Tannaz Currim and Sheeba from television, argues, "Well, we make the TV actors rehearse for nearly 40 days before we take the plunge. We can?t throw them directly in front of the audience. If we are not satisfied with their output in the rehearsals, we may have to replace them. Actors themselves know this. They wouldn?t mind. We may compensate them for the time they spent with us, for even they wouldn?t like to put their credibility at stake. But actually, TV actors are pretty stage savvy. Not so long ago, I did a play with film actor Pooja Batra, Yeh Dil Maange More with Shweta Kawaatra and Tanaaz Currim has met with a similar response, if not more. But by no means is it lesser."

That?s that! Whatever may be the other reasons... the recent crop of TV artistes may not have jumped on the theatre bandwagon if there had been no growing demand.

Painter reveals, "Like for example, my next play too which would be somewhere in April, will have more TV actors. I am almost ready with the script." Parikh comes in, "Me too. In fact, my next three plays will have TV actors. I have decided on Rakesh Bedi, Tasneem, Iqbal Azad and Shakti Singh for my next play, the cast for the other two projects is being finalised."

So far, so good. But if theatre soon becomes the stepping stone to a larger canvas, cinema, will producers still be singing the same tune?

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