He sounds serious on the phone as if he weighs sentences carefully for intensity and philosophical heft. Only a humorous, rather than witty, comment can get him to laugh. Nitish Bharadwaj, who played Krishna in the’80s Doordarshan series, Mahabharata, still seems to be in character. Or is this because the small screen icon is set to return to the stage as Krishna in Chakravyuh, a play by Delhi-based The Films and Theatre Society?
“Whenever anybody asks me my age, I say, ‘I am in my forties but add 5,000 years to it’,” he says, as he relates the influence of epics in his life. Chakravyuh will be staged in Lucknow on July 19, Delhi on July 26, and Gurgaon on August 3. Excerpts from an interview:
I am from the Marathi and Hindi theatre background, but it’s been 20 years since I was last on stage. I was in London at the time and the play was called Moti Roti, a spoof on Hindi cinema, especially of the’80s and ‘90s when films and comedies were largely bad. I am at a stage when my life needs challenges. In Chakravyuh, I play Krishna in a mythological milieu set around the time of the death of Abhimanyu.
It is not just storytelling, the play is about the application of chakravyuh in today’s life. I don’t look at the Mahabharata or the Ramayana as mythology, to me they are Indian history and heritage. In the modern world, people are in a quagmire of questions and I feel that history has a lot to teach us. I am coming back as Krishna to tell the story of chakravyuh, the complex battle formation in which Abhimanyu died.
Life after an epic
After Mahabharata, I went to London, where I started all over again. I have seen the Western world as a struggler. I did two productions for BBC Radio 4 when radio was dead in India. One of these was 20 episodes of the Bhagwad Gita with Art Malik (Bhaag Milkha Bhaag) playing Arjun, and, after Moti Roti, I did a version of the Ramayana and was nominated for an award for playing Ram — Suchitra Pillai was my Sita and Shashi Kapoor as the narrator.
I worked with different professionals and was exposed to various points of view. There is a strong institution of libraries in the UK and I would spend hours at the Oriental Library and the Westminster City Library, researching in their phenomenal archives and records.
Back in India, I set up my own production company and made television series. I wrote and directed a film, Pitruroon, based on a story by Infosys’ Sudha Murthy about a son’s struggle to fulfill his father’s last wish. It starred Tanuja and Sachin Khedekar and won Screen awards for best actor and actress.
I also contested elections and became an MP. Jamshedpur is a tribal constituency and I visited remote areas, places that have one hut or two huts, and where women have no clothes to wear. When you see that level of dire poverty, you mature. The past few years have seen me mature as a person and an actor. I feel I can talk about chakravyuh in a different way from 25 years ago.
Getting the line
We’ve been rehearsing for Chakravyuh for the past few days and I realise how challenging it is to learn the lines. I have done short dialogues with cuts all these years and had lost that grip. You have to stand on stage, face the audience, cope with audience reactions in the middle of the show — all of that’s coming back to me.