The World’s a Stage

Mahira Kakkar,a well-known face in the off-Broadway theatre scene in the US,on what it takes to follow your passion in a foreign land

Written by Dipanita Nath | New Delhi | Published: June 8, 2012 3:07 am

Mahira Kakkar,a well-known face in the off-Broadway theatre scene in the US,on what it takes to follow your passion in a foreign land

There’s a new play that’s touring theatres in the US. Jesus in India tracks the “lost years” of Christ,trying to fill in the gaps in his life between the ages of 15 and 30,some of which,scholars say,were spent in India. The script is strong,the cast young,but it’s the actor who does the double role — of a girl smitten with Christ,as well as that of Mother Mary — who seems to have caught the audience’s attention. She recreates adeptly both the teenager’s angst as well as Mary’s suffering. Backstage,as she wipes off the stage-paint,actor Mahira Kakkar says she feels incredibly light. “Acting,for me,is like trying to find the truth,and getting closer to it with every show. On the one hand,everything about the stage is really a lie,but,on the other,we strive to make it as truthful as possible,” she says.

Kakkar,who grew up in Kolkata,arrived on off-Broadway — the non-mainstream,less-commercial fringe of America’s theatre world — seven years ago,after having graduated in acting from the prestigious Juilliard School. “Sometimes,it was difficult,because of my skin colour. I would walk into a room for auditions and everybody else would be white and blonde. I’d think,‘they’ll never hire me’,but another part of me would say,‘they’ll,at least,see me. Fifteen years ago,they might not even have auditioned me’,” she says. Today,Kakkar,based in New York with her army man husband and a dog called Missy,is one of the foremost ethnic faces of off-Broadway.

If Kakkar is looking for a fictional parallel to her life,she would find it in Grace,the protagonist of her 2007 play,Opus,about Beethoven’s Opus 131,a notoriously difficult piece for a chamber music quartet. The story revolves around Grace,a young violist,who finds herself a part of a chamber music quartet in which the other members are accomplished musicians in their fifties. They shun her instantly — and Grace must let her music prove her worth. Reviewing the play,The New York Times wrote,“Ms Kakkar makes a particularly fine impression as the eager newcomer,trying to tread lightly as she negotiates the unspoken emotional terrain of the closed circle she has suddenly stepped into.”

Kakkar first felt the pull of the stage as a 10-year-old when she watched the Bolshoi and Kirov ballets in Kolkata. “I immediately wanted to be a dancer,” she says. Her parents,amateur theatre performers,would take her to every concert in the city,even the “boring ones.” Jadavpur University,where Kakkar enrolled for a graduation course in English Literature and emerged with a gold medal,encouraged its students to stretch their imagination beyond books. For Kakkar,this was a gold mine as she worked hard to be a part of the department’s theatrical productions. The doors to the Julliard School,however,needed a little more effort to open. A desperate Kakkar accosted the head of the department of Juilliard’s drama division and said,“You have to take me in. You haven’t seen anything like me yet.” She was told later that she was the first Indian to have made the cut.

Kakkar brings the same never-say-die attitude to theatre. “Sometimes,it’s hard to be just the brown girl and not the supermodel brown girl,but nobody said life would be easy. If I get obsessed with ethnic bias issues,where’s the energy to do my work?” she says.

Some of Kakkar’s best roles have been strong women characters — Viola in Twelfth Night,Emily Webb in Our Town,Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Irina in Three Sisters. Her acting style is detailed,based on observation and packed with conviction. “When I am working on a play,everything I do,becomes about the play,” she says. She based her teenage character in Jesus in India on girls she’d see hanging outside school and cafes,or in the subway. For the role of Mary,she went through piles of books on motherhood and parenting,and on war survivors,and locked herself up in a room where she asked herself,‘What would be a cause big enough for me to sacrifice the person I value the most?’”

She agrees that a theatre actor’s life is fraught with insecurity. An actor auditions for jobs on a regular basis,and can get rejected on a regular basis too. “If you can’t live with the uncertainty,walk away. And if you’re going to do it,you can’t let anyone get you down. You have to move forward,improve your skills and raise your own bar. The times when you can do that,that’s rewarding,that’s joy,” she says.

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