Theatre director Mohit Takalkar was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 12 years ago. In his play, Chandralok Complex (2006), the disease masquerades as a boil on the protagonist’s neck that keeps him in terrible pain. A separate actor essays the role of the boil. At the time, Takalkar’s parents were moving out to a smaller apartment and he would stay alone in their old home. The family in Chandralok Complex also wants to relocate, except that the boil is hurting the protagonist badly. He cannot eat, sleep or walk. “That throbbing ache was a shadow of the clinical depression I have carried for a long time,” says Takalkar, 39.
The Pune-based director is a winner of the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar this year, an award given by the Sangeet Natak Akademi to stellar artists under 40. “I used to do regular things, like falling in love, having heartbreaks and watching theatre, but I was extremely shy. I couldn’t speak in a group of friends but, when it came to theatre, I would be like, ‘I want this. I don’t want that’. My theatre has to be my voice, otherwise why am I doing it? It is not to garner audience respect or awards. This is the only time I place my note, and that note is important,” he says.
Whatever gets him hot and bothered feeds his theatre. He enters the bonfire and fans the ashes for answers. The frustrations of a young person, sexuality and confusions branded his earliest plays. Based on Sylvia Plath’s letters, diaries and poems, he devised the production called Is There a Way Out of the Mind? (2010). In 2014, as the right wing rose to prominence, Takalkar created F1/105, about a couple that finds out to their peril that green is not merely a pretty colour for the walls. Takalkar’s group, Aasakta Kalamanch, is among Pune’s most prolific and its actors have included Radhika Apte and Sagar Deshmukh.
When Takalkar’s marriage fell apart, at 27, he turned to Rumi to hold him through the proceedings of divorce. Satee Bhave, a Marathi playwright, had introduced him to Rumi and she also wrote the script for Tu (2006), from 52 love poems of the Sufi saint. Tu, a work of mysticism, is one of Takalkar’s finest. Towards the end, the protagonists swirl like dervishes in an ocean of blue ribbons, oblivious to the world. “The play revolves around two people, Man and Woman, who are smothered by the intensity of their love. They part on separate journeys, one enters the secular world and the other grapples with the labyrinths of the mind. Each finds love by letting go of a vision of happiness,” says the director.
He is burly, unfailingly soft-spoken and meticulously clear while speaking. “When the play is completed, mere andar ka sab khatam ho gaya hota hai (everything inside me is consumed). There is only vacuum. I recharge, the energy comes back and then I must do another play,” he says. Right now, a new production is underway, called Gajab Kahani. An elegant wedding venue in Pune, not in use during the day, turns into the rehearsal space. Surrounded by palm trees and towers of red chairs, Takalkar says, “Gajab Kahani is based on the novel, The Elephant’s Journey, by Jose Saramago. It is a beautiful story about an Indian elephant that was gifted by King Joao III of Portugal to Archduke Maximilian of Austria in 1551. Man and beast travel through Spain, Italy and the Alps, where nobody has seen an elephant before. What touched me are the lives that were affected during the journey and the fears and fallacies it highlighted.”
He did Gajab Kahani in Marathi in 2011. It is the first time that the director, famous for shutting down his plays after 25 shows, is revisiting a script. “What draws me back to the story is the politics of it. Saramago, being a Communist, wants to make a comment on capitalism, about kings and queens, who on a whim make a decision to ask an elephant to travel 3,000 miles. I think the play has become more relevant to me now because I am more aware of its politics than I was six-seven years ago,” he says. There is a scene in the play where a king casually changes the mahout and the elephant’s names because he wants things his way. “This is what is happening around me. Names of streets, towns and cities are being changed and no one’s asking why,” says Takalkar.
Last month, he made the audience of Gajab Kahani sit in a way never done in theatres. The play was presented for Aadyam Theatre Festival at G5A Black Box in Mumbai. Takalkar and stage manager Ashish Mehta created platforms on four sides and put the audience in the centre on swivel chairs. Traditionally, crowds form a ring around a performer. Takalkar, possibly the first time in India, turned that inside out — the onlooker was inside, surrounded by performers.
He is now working from a new set, which is a three-level platform made out of rough planks. “Earlier, I wouldn’t have kept the set so bare. I would have covered the planks and painted them red and it would be in your face,” he says. “Earlier” means before he went to the University of Exeter, in 2010, on a Charles Wallace scholarship for his post-graduation studies. Phillip Zarrilli, a master of psycho-physical theatre, was his teacher. “Earlier, I thought that the eyes and the face are the only ways one can communicate. With Phillip, the shoulders started speaking, the knees started whispering, the spine started shouting. I think it is when the body starts singing that you don’t require many things on stage. The other things automatically fade out,” he says.
Over time, Takalkar has become the master of sparse aesthetics. He used a low stool to symbolise a graveyard and covered the floor with dry leaves that crackled under the actors’ feet in Necropolis (2010). In Main Hoon Yusuf Aur Yeh Hai Mera Bhai (2015), which won the Best Production, Best Innovative sound design and Best Director awards at META last year, there is nothing on stage except characters broken by the UN resolution on Palestine. In the play, Ipshita Chakraborty Singh delivered her career-best performance as Nada, a young girl who becomes old taking care of her dead lover’s brother. “Mohit told me that he didn’t want to see a young actor playing an old woman on stage. He wanted to see an old woman. For 20 minutes, I stood and listened to Mohit say, ‘Imagine your eyelids are drooping, your cheeks are sagging, your limbs are getting weak…. You are a Muslim girl living with a man who is not your husband. What have you told society? There is great trauma locked inside you’. When I came from the wings as the old Nada, my voice texture had changed, my posture had changed and I had transformed. People around me saw this and I saw this in myself. It was like hypnosis,” she says. This is Takalkar’s psycho-physical acting process, when the awareness of body and the mind are in unison.
The stage continues to be where Takalkar deals with his emotions, but he has also made a film and written two plays. Yellow Orange Sunshine (2008) is “a crazy, mythical play” based in Varanasi, where he also shot a large part of his film, The Bright Day, available on Netflix. He is also a trained chef (a skill he brought to the stage with the play, Pira Peri Pora) and is opening a restaurant, Barometer, with friends in Pune next month.
The director isn’t in a hurry to perform any of his own scripts. What he is pursuing is silence. “The other thing I learnt from Philip was stillness. It was missing in my theatre earlier,” he says. Gajab Kahani has an astute actor, Gitanjali Kulkarni, playing the elephant Solomon. Takalkar watches closely as she lowers an arm and gently touches a group of people as an elephant would with its trunk. Wordlessly, the actors communicate the sense of wonder of seeing an elephant for the first time and being touched by it. “This moment is not there in the book but I found silence in this scene. I found the stillness I am look for,” says Takalkar.