40 years on, the Prithvi magic hasn’t dimmed

Prithvi theatre mumbai best plays
Prithvi Theatre
Prithvi Theatre

By Deepa Gahlot

Nobody could have known it then, but November 5, 1978, was to turn out to be a landmark date for Mumbai. That was the day, when Prithvi Theatre was inaugurated with a show of Uddhwasta Dharmshala, an event of which no photograph exists, except for a hazy newspaper picture.

When the small Juhu theatre was built, designed by architect Ved Segan, it was meant to be a temporary structure, not expected to last beyond ten years. Now it’s been forty, and it is impossible to imagine what Mumbai’s Hindi theatre would have been like without the iconic theatre. As Naseeruddin Shah put it: “Mumbai theatre can be divided into before Prithvi and after Prithvi.”

Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor wanted to build a theatre in memory of Prithviraj Kapoor, patriarch of the Kapoor clan, who, for years, ran a theatre repertory called Prithvi Theatres.  Even after he became a major movie star, Papaji he was called, continued to tour all over the country with his troupe, travelling with them, performing in school halls and cinemas in towns where there was no auditoriums.

He co-wrote, directed and starred in the plays that were about social issues of the time; often, after the shows, Papaji would stand outside the theatre holding a shawl, collecting funds for various causes. Till ill health prevented him from acting on stage, Prithviraj Kapoor ran Prithvi Theatres; at some point, he took two plots in Juhu’s Janki Kutir, where the group’s properties were stored, and where he dreamt of a permanent home for his touring company.

His three sons, Raj, Shammi and Shashi cut their acting teeth on the stage, and chipped in backstage till their own film careers took off. Perhaps because he was the youngest, and married into another theatre-loving family of the Kendals, who travelled all over India performing Shakespeare—the paths of the two companies crossed occasionally—Shashi Kapoor was the one who took on the task of fulfilling his father’s dream.

For a few years, he acted in a lot of films to put aside funds to build Prithvi Theatre, while Jennifer looked after the designing with Segan.

When the cosy little theatre came up, Juhu was not the well-developed suburb that it became later, the now over-populated Versova region was nowhere on the horizon, and a lot of North Mumbai was still a swamp. In the early days, they didn’t even have a ticket-selling licence, so audiences put whatever they wanted to into the bag that a member of the performing group held out. Some theatre folk enthusiastically sold tickets at traffic signals and even door-to-door to popularise the space.

But the beautiful little 200-seater with a thrust stage, where a whisper could be heard in the last row, galvanised the city’s theatre. The theatre was technically well-equipped, the green rooms were comfortable, and the general air was one of welcome and informality. The café that grew into a hangout later, started small with tea and samosas; eventually the Irish Coffee became a bestseller.

Groups like Ank, Majma, Ekjute, Yatri, Ansh were born because there was a space for them that they could treat as their own; Jennifer Kapoor was warm and encouraging; so many playwrights, directors and actors started their careers at the theatre, many like Satyadev Dubey flourished creatively because the space was inspiring. After Jennifer Kapoor’s tragically premature death in 1984—and the show went on the night the news reached the shocked and grief-stricken theatre community—her son Kunal, and later Sanjna took over the management of the theatre, adding innovative initiatives like the summer workshops and plays for children and adding excitement to the annual theatre Festival; when Sanjna went on to form her own company Junoon, Kunal picked up the reins to actively handle the theatre again.

It was Jennifer Kapoor who first conceived of a theatre festival. It was 1983, the theatre had completed five years, the initial struggle to get good plays and audiences into still undeveloped Juhu had turned Prithvi into a creative hub, but there was still the matter of finances. She recruited Kunal Kapoor and Feroz Khan to work on the festival and, they made it a Prithvi tradition to be carried on after she passed away.

Some years there have been sponsors, some years not, but the Kapoor kids always treated the Prithvi Theatre as precious part of the family’s heritage.

Now there are a number of groups in India and elsewhere vying for dates at Prithvi; every theatre practitioner dreams of performing there; audiences name it as their favourite venue; out-of-towners put it on their must-visit places.

The Prithvi Jhopda across from the theatre, where Prithviraj Kapoor spent his last years, grew into a highrise, but space has been carved in there for Prithvi House, where smaller performances, film screenings, literary events are held. With the Mumbai tendency of maximising space because of a perennial shortage, every corner of Prithvi is used, including a tiny bookshop squeezed in. It is the perfect example of what a complete cultural hub should be like.

Forty years have gone by, but the Prithvi magic has not dimmed.

The Prithvi Festival opened on Saturday, November 3, 2018, with a  show at the Royal Opera House and today – with an invitees only – performance on Monday, November 5, 2018. The programme and ticket info can be accessed at https://in.bookmyshow.com/plays/prithvi-theatre-festival-2018/ET00086225

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