We were a very lucky batch of Modern School, Barakhamba Road, who passed out in 1972. We had a very active art component in school, and a dynamic principal, MN Kapur. The theatre department was fabulous with Om and Vikas Shivpuri. While we were in school itself, Arun and I did a lot of plays. We said that we would start a group when we finished school. It was a combination of people from Modern School largely, who started Ruchika Theatre in 1972. Ruchika means what ‘you are interested in’. The idea was that we would do everything on our own. We would direct, do lighting, sell tickets, do backstage and make-up. We would take guidance from professionals but would not involve them in the process.
Arun and I were 17 at the time and he did the very first production, Suno Janmajay, in June 1972. I was in Bombay and I came back and he said, ‘You do the next one’. I did Ashadh Ka Ek Din that year. For many years, Arun and I alternately directed plays for Ruchika. He was a very inventive director, full of very innovative ideas. He took a lot of risks with the choice of scripts, and the spaces. We did Jaishankar Prasad’s Puraskar, which is a very difficult play. Prasad has a very sanskritised Hindi. Arun chose to stage it in the open air amphitheatre in Gandhi Memorial Hall at ITO, where he put the audience on the stage. He did the same thing with Tughlaq at Triveni Garden Theatre. He put the audience on the stage and used the steps where the seating is as the theatre space. We did Adhe Adhure in the art gallery of Gandhi Memorial.
He also worked very intensively with new actors. Alok Nath is Arun’s discovery, so is Neena Gupta, who used to act in Arun’s plays. Many people started their careers with him. Sohaila Kapur did a lot of plays with Arun. He did a very difficult Samuel Beckett play called Happy Days in which the actor is, from the beginning, drowned to her waist in garbage. By the second act, she is doused till her neck so she doesn’t move at all. Sohaila being a fabulous actor and with Arun’s direction, it was one of the best productions we have done.
The big controversy was about Bhutto, IS Johar’s very fine script, which is based on Pran Chopra’s If I Am Assassinated. The play, which we did in the ’80s, revolved around the last days of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the president of Pakistan. Coincidentally, the very week we had the show, General Zia was coming to India. The government of India was determined that we should not do the show and they used a small pretext to ban the play informally without saying that it was for political reasons. Arun and I decided that we had to move the court.
Mukul Rohtagi, the judge, was a classmate of ours. He looked at the script and said, “There’s no way the government can allow this.” There were headlines in the papers and the issue was raised in Parliament. But Arun decided he had to do the show any way. We called it a dress rehearsal. Shri Ram Centre got to know but we managed to get a whole lot of theatre people and journalists, who all said they were members of Ruchika Theatre Group. Arun said nobody could be sitting in the auditorium so we put them in the wings. The actor, Anu Aggarwal, who plays Benazir Bhutto, went on to be the lead in Mahesh Bhatt’s Aashiqui (1990). This was her first play. We had a policy that with every production, we would have one new person. We have kept that up for 45 years.
What we managed to do in those initial 20 years was that a whole generation of people felt they could make a career in theatre, art, photography, and design. Pablo Bartholomew and Ram Rahman started in our group when they were 15-16. The whole environment in the group was that we are all artists, doing socially relevant stuff together. There were almost 100 plays that Arun must have directed. After 10-12 years of directing plays, he got more interested in doing films and he did a bunch of them. The best-known one was Aparajita (1997), with Sharmila Tagore. On the other hand, he was the complete gentleman, very polite, well-behaved. All our parents loved Arun.