A theatre is a place where the intrigue of life plays out, and, in Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre, it’s more pronounced as the lights dim and one is seated in the
intimate space of the hall. You live the emotions of pain and laughter, literally, at an arm’s distance. At that moment, all that matters are two people — you and the actor. The 200-seater, with its thrust stage, was meant to be exactly the kind of space that allowed these encounters.
When Jennifer and Shashi Kapoor, revived Prithvi Theatres, named after Shashi’s father, Prithviraj Kapoor, in the mid-70s, they wanted a space that would honour his dream for Indian theatre. A space where, like traditional folk theatre, the boundaries between audience and actor were thin and the conversations thick and layered.
Prithviraj had leased two plots in Juhu within a residential conclave in 1962, where Didi Contractor had initially built him a theatre and a cottage. After his ill health and subsequent death, the theatre had turned into a warehouse for costumes. Shashi then decided to rebuild the theatre in his father’s memory. They got young architect Ved Segan to design the project, which was finally inaugurated on November 5, 1978.
Just as the stage has no curtains — its audience is seated on three sides — the notion of continuum is seen on the outside too, as one enters the premises. Bamboo hedges provide a porous fence for the dark-façade single-storey building — there are no intimidating gates or doors typical of halls across the country.
“Prithvi is inspired by the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, where you could come and spend a day, visit the gallery, drink coffee, and watch a play. Every inch of space is utilised. Make-up rooms can be combined and, unlike the ones of the ’50s and ’60s, ours even had showers. In fact, in the large makeup room, I placed a 15 ft-high mirror, and I thought how much more can you flatter an actor? Of course, the actors loved it. Initially, Sanjana managed to push artist Tyeb Mehta to get artists to display their work. But, ultimately, the practicality of a theatre was important. At Prithvi, the acoustics are so good that you can hear a paper tear even in the last row,” says Kunal Kapoor, Shashi and Jennifer’s eldest son and trustee of Prithvi Theatre.
Actor Naseeruddin Shah says, “Prithvi is, perhaps, the only theatre of its kind in the world — built against all odds and using personal funds — to encourage theatre, not make profits. Nurtured with almost utopian magnanimity, this theatre has so far sheltered three generations of theatre workers. Punctuality in starting performance and its support for lesser-known companies are the qualities Jennifer bequeathed to her brainchild and dream project. Apart from being an utterly gorgeous space to perform in, it has always been sympathetic to beginners seeking a haven. It has been my privilege to be associated with Prithvi theatre since it was built.”