What does it take for an actor-producer to stage a historical drama 2,700 times? Or to actually practise ‘the show must go on’ after suffering from a fall, right in the midst of a performance? And, then continue performing in the show, after breaking the bones of his left shoulder — just because he had made a commitment to the sponsors?
The answer, in one word, is ‘passion’. That’s what kept pushing actor Avinash Deshmukh to do his best, and take theatre to different parts of the state. Says the former banker, “In the ’70s, I was an amateur actor, with a job in a bank. I would often team up with the likes of Ramesh Bhatkar. I would do roles in Mumbai and Pune. Then, sometime in the ’80s, I put up my production company, Seemant, and we did our first play, Apradhi, under its banner. The play was a big success. But somewhere the economics went wrong, and we suffered huge losses. I ensured that the cast and crew were paid. My wife and I toughened it out on our own. It was a choice we made.”
The couple have more such stories to share. “Seemant was our family venture. So I acted-directed-produced plays. My wife acted in some productions and so did my children. The other actors too were a part of our extended family. I made it a point to meet the parents and relatives of the actors that I was working with. Somehow I don’t believe in transactional nature of the business,” informs Avinash.
His wife and co-star, Swati adds, “I acted in college plays. But professionally, I stepped on to the stage with Seemant. Sometimes an actor fell ill, couldn’t turn up for the rehearsal, threw tantrums etc. But we have always believed that we have to keep our commitment with the audience, to the theatre, so we took up the challenges that came our way.”
The lack of such commitment seen in the young theatre practitioners bothers the veterans. “Commitment, discipline and the eagerness to learn are missing in the young people who want to become theatre artists. Almost all of the people who have approached us to be a part of our workshops, want to be actors. No one is keen to hone their skills in singing or art department. Or even writing. Even when it comes to acting, they do a couple of shows, after which they have set their sight on being in Mumbai. Which is fine...but what about preparing for it?” questions the duo.
“Every theatre actor, who did well in Mumbai — in television or films — could do so because they went through rigorous training. They did years and years of theatre. Look at Mohan Joshi for instance. When we collaborated for Vasant Kanetkar’s Raigadala Jevha Jaag Yete, we talked, chatted and brain-stormed over our dialogues, costumes, audience’s reactions — the spaces where they clapped or they didn’t. All this helped us in improving our performances. Mohan used to stand in the wings watching other actors perform, just to keep the continuity in his performance. Who does that now? Most actors I have seen, when it’s not their cue to be on stage, are smoking backstage,” says Avinash.
Swati points that these days, the actors don’t even work on their spoken language. “Diction is a big issue. We have had to correct the language skills of many of our actors. It helps if they are younger. Rashmi Anpat performed with Seemant when she was younger. Even much later she continued speaking in a pure tongue, with clear pronunciation. That has helped her to grow in the industry,” she adds.
Getting the audience
The couple has made it a point to take the theatre outside the cities. That’s their answer to those who say that the ‘audience doesn’t come to drama auditoriums’.
“When we made a decision to not make Mumbai our work-base, we also decided to go across the state — smaller cities, villages and towns. And, we have got a good response. These were the ‘untrained viewers’ so to say, but they enjoyed the plays, understood the plays, watched them with rapt attention. What else can we ask for as actors?” queries Swati.
The Deshmukhs also believe that too much of ‘experimentation and abstraction’ in the subject of the plays has resulted in the audience moving away. “Ultimately, you have to accept that theatre is meant for the audience. Audience is your god. So definitely choose subjects that are grim, arty or a theme that needs to be elaborated upon. But do so in a way that the audience comprehends it. Why limit the plays to experimental spaces? Take them to the larger auditoriums in the city. Code Mantra is the best example of recent times — the actors are well-rehearsed; they work in a team; they know their lines well. And, the audience turns up in huge number to watch it,” they emphasise.