Once a villain, always a villain. Actor Puneet Issar has tried being other people. Two years ago, he even became another anti-hero, Ravan, in the play, Raavan ki Ramayan. The moment the play ended, the public, after the applause, had one request, “Puneetji, please say a dialogue of Duryodhana.” “I used to think, ‘I have performed for three hours as Ravan and you tell me to say something as Duryodhana,’” says the actor. He used to say only one word to the audience, “Mamashri”, and they became so nostalgic they kept clapping and cheering. Thirty years from the time he played the antagonist in BR Chopra’s television series Mahabharat, Issar remains Duryodhana in popular imagination. It is a role he is returning to as he recreates the epic in his own theatre production, Mahabharat, which will open in Delhi on November 17.
Why did you decide to stage a play on the Mahabharata?
It was high time I paid back my debt to the Mahabharata. Whatever I am today is because of BR Chopra’s television series. I am a writer-director of many films and I thought, why not bring Mahabharata back, but as a live performance on stage? The Mahabharata is in our veins.
Is there a political reason as well for presenting the epic of war?
It is important to know that the Mahabharata teaches us what not to do. The play is focusing on telling people what we can learn from this epic. We have a title song of five or six minutes in which we have summed up the whole Mahabharata. Its chorus is: Yeh Mahabharat hai / sangram Mahabharat hai / chhal, bal ka aur kapat ka/ parinam Mahabharat hai.
How is it different to do the Mahabharata now from 30 years ago?
At the time, I was 30, and did Duryodhana with full josh. For two years before the TV series, I had researched the epic. When that became a superhit, I read a lot more. I can recite Jayadrath Vadh by heart, I can recite Rashmirathi by Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’ by heart. I realised that the Mahabharata is a deep well and every small character is important. The best part is that no character is completely black or completely white. Everybody is grey. That is what I want to show in my play.
How did you pack the entire epic in a three-hour production on stage?
I have taken two years to write the script in verse. It was a huge challenge because the canvas is so vast. I am presenting the Mahabharata from the perspective of Duryodhana and Karna’s friendship. But, I had to keep in mind that every character is presented in his or her glory, from Lord Krishna and Yudhistira to Draupadi and Bheem. Umeed karta hoon, people will like it.
The friendship of Duryodhana and Karna shows a defiance of caste and class, issues that India is grappling with at present.
The friendship is a beautiful thing. Imagine, among all the greed, politicking and betrayals, the only pure thing in the Mahabharata was the friendship between these two characters. Duryodhana, on the one hand, did not want to give a needle-point worth of land to the Pandavas, but, on the other hand, he gives two kingdoms to Karna. And Karna stands by him till his last breath.
The audience has an indelible image of you as Duryodhana. At 60, how will you play this young man’s role?
It was a very big challenge for me that 30 years later, I have to look the same. For Raavan ki Ramayan, I had become 120 kg, during the Mahabharata on television, I was 96-98 kg. I want to look the same that people had seen at that time. I want to surprise people. It will be as if there is a miracle, as if time has frozen. After 30 years, I will capture the same personality and aura of Duryodhana. There is another twist in the play — my son is playing the young Duryodhana. We want to show how Duryodhana was made and what was his attitude and mental state in childhood. The younger Duryodhana says, ‘If Abhimanyu can learn how to break through the chakravyuh in his mother’s womb, what did I learn? I was an unwanted child’. Astrologers played a huge role at the time. When Duryodhana was young, people said, he was unlucky and should be killed soon after birth. Duryodhana developed a sense of resentment since childhood. He says, ‘If you sow the seeds of hatred, the tree of hatred alone will grow.’ I got this out of a lot of research.
You have packed the play with stars.
I have maintained a blend in the casting. I have taken some people from Delhi theatre, some from film and some from TV. We have been rehearsing for six months, and, for two months, we did reading. Urvashi Dholakia is playing Draupadi. Some old names have been retained — Gufi Paintal and Surendra Pal. Gufi Paintal has recall as Shakuni. Yashodhan Rana, who played Shiva in the TV series Om Namah Shivaay, is Krishna in the play. He is brilliant. I know that the audience thinks of Krishna as Nitish Bhardwaj and this was a challenge.
The other memorable character was Samay (Time) in Chopra’s Mahabharat. Do you have a parallel character?
I have created a character called Dharti, which is Mother Earth. In the opening scene, we see the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The war is over and only corpses remain. That’s when we have Dharti Mata getting up, her clothes are torn, and she says, ‘Till when will you have fight over me? Humans were my most important creation. I called you my children, and what did you do in return? Only war? You kept fighting over me.’ I feel that we need to listen to Dharti in real life as well. At Siri Fort on November 17, 4 pm and 7 pm. Tickets: Rs 300 and Rs 500 at BookMyShow