Director Amal Allana has always been surrounded by actors,though she has never acted on stage herself. I live an actors life all the time. I play all the roles with them,I know all the lines they utter. A director develops a close relationship with actors because we are helping them do such a difficult thing be somebody else, says Allana,chairperson of the National School of Drama (NSD) and veteran of more than 60 productions. So,while most discourse on theatre focusses on directors and playwrights,Allanas new project,a lavish coffee table book,turns the spotlight on the greatest actors of the Indian stage. Titled The Act of Becoming Actors Talk,the book has been published by NSD and Niyogi Books and priced at Rs 3,000.
The 22 actors who fill the 300 pages of the book are as interesting for the roles they played,as for the lives they led. While Binodini Dasi was a 12-year-old sex worker who became one of the stars of the Bengali stage,Bal Gandharva played women characters with such success that his saris and hairstyles were copied by fashionable ladies of the era. He had long hair,and appeared in print advertisements for hair oil, says Allana.
In Karnataka,on the other hand,a woman actor called R Nagarathnamma played mostly male characters such as Bhim and Kansa on stage. The stage was the centre of a great deal of churning and upward mobility, says Allana,as she flips through the glossy,colourful pages.
The journey of actors in the book spans 1880 to 1980,with the stalwarts revealing their stories either through translated autobiographical text or interviews conducted by Allana herself. Divided into three segments,the book travels through the early generations,the commercial theatre of the 20s,the actors of the pre- and post-independence eras and modern stars. Girish Ghosh,Sombhu and Tripti Mitra,Utpal Dutt,Uttara Baokar,Zohra Sehgal and Maya Krishna Rao emerge among the moving forces of theatre.
Supplementing the interviews are a large number of images,both commissioned works,as well as archival pictures that Allana has sourced from libraries,institutions such as National Center for Performing Arts,scholars,and private collections among others for more than a decade.
Becoming another character is never about putting on a costume and make-up. Even in the most stylised plays,the process is internal,as emotions play an important part in acting, says Allana,adding that Surekha Sikri would be so consumed with playing Alison,the protagonist of Look Back in Anger,that she would never come out for a curtain call at the end of the play. An actor is somebody who is living a very difficult life. His body has to become a king or queen or neurotic or something or the other. It is a painful process, says Allana. In the earliest folk theatre productions,priests would often put actors in a trance before they could play the role of gods.
Allana says that her decade-long research has yielded more than she could fit into the book. It was tough to decide who to leave out, she says. Actors such as Om Puri and Rohini Hattangadi are among those who havent made it to the pages. The next book perhaps, she says.