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The MAVERICK

Theatre stalwart Lillete Dubey shares how her company became a pioneer in the Indian English theatre space in the last two decades.

Written by Rinky Kumar | Mumbai |
January 7, 2011 6:04:33 pm

Theatre stalwart Lillete Dubey shares how her company became a pioneer in the Indian English theatre space in the last two decades.

When actor-director-producer Lillete Dubey set up Prime Time Theatre Company (PTC) in early 1991,she had set some goals. After staging critically-acclaimed plays in the last 19 years,life seems to have come full circle for her. But rather than resting on her past laurels,Lillete is raring to go. 2011 seems to be an exciting year for her as her company is not only celebrating 20 years in theatre but also has new projects.

Primetime Theatre Festival,which will be held from January 8-16 at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre,will feature six of the company’s most prominent plays. These include one of its earliest productions Dance Like A Man and its most recent work Love On The Brink. This will be followed by shows spanning a fortnight in London.

Walking down memory lane,Lillete shares how the idea of PTC came about. She says,“I was working with acting guru Barry John for 15 years before I set up PTC. There were three reasons that prompted me to do so. Firstly,I discovered that theatre is my passion. Secondly,I was keen that we should start doing plays on original Indian English writing. Earlier,productions based on popular western literary works would be staged. I was clear that we should become a distinct voice for English theatre in India.”

“Thirdly,theatre was quasi-professional those days. Various groups would just stage five-10 shows of each play. I wanted to stage at least 40-50 shows and take my productions abroad. A lot of foreign plays would be staged in India courtesy the British Council of India and the Alliance Francaise. But Indian English plays would never be staged abroad. I wanted to see how foreign viewers would react to our work.”

After setting up PTC with a close friend in the capital,she moved to Mumbai and consequently the company also shifted its base. One of her earliest plays was Dance Like A Man that also opens the festival in Mumbai. Written by popular playwright Mahesh Dattani,it tells the story of Jairaj and Ratna,two Bharat Natyam dancers past their prime,which is juxtaposed with that of their daughter Lata,who is on the brink of establishing herself as a brilliant dancer. Lillete says,“Dance Like A Man is our most successful and longest running play that was first staged in 1995. Till date,we have had 378 shows. It highlights topics like gender issues,sexual preferences,society’s attitude towards male dancers. It has travelled across the globe and has been loved by critics and audiences alike.?

Womanly Voices,Sammy,30 Days In September,Love On the Brink and Wedding Album comprise the rest of the productions that will be staged as part of the festival. Lillete mentions that the aim of the festival was to showcase the company’s diverse productions and give theatre aficionados a chance to see the range of work that has been done in the last two decades. “Each play highlights different issues. Womanly Voices comprises three stories written by Indian women authors — Wajeda Tabassum,Mahashweta Devi and Gita Mehta. The Urdu story written by Wajeda Tabassum is just three and a half pages but it’s extremely powerful. It makes an impact because it’s so short. Gita Mehta’s story is soul-stirring while Mahashweta Devi’s tale is set in the jungle of Jharkhand. It’s an experimental play where five actors play 25 characters,” says the actor-director.

Sammy written by Partap Sharma,is a historical that examines how Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi became the Mahatma. So there are two characters who play Mohan and Mahatma and through their interaction,the audience learns how Mohandas thought about satyagraha. “We have neither idolised Gandhi nor chastised him. The play shows his human face,” says the artiste.

Lillete counts 30 days in September as a special work that not only handled a delicate subject but also created awareness about it. “It is about a mother-daughter relationship that harks back to the past and deals about sexual abuse. I remember I was shooting for Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding when I met Mahesh Dattani. He was writing this play and I offered to do it immediately. We had thought of doing only 20 shows but today we have staged 140 shows. It depicts the power of theatre. Two people saw the play and set up NGOs to save children from sexual abuse.”

While Love on The Brink is a hilarious absurd comedy,which premiered this year in May,Wedding Album written by Girish Karnad takes a different look at marriage and is an intelligent yet entertaining play.

But as of now,the artiste is most excited about her first Hindi play that will open this March. Titled Aadhe Adhoore,based on renowned author Mohan Rakesh’s most famous work of the same name,it features Lillete in the main lead. She says,“I have never acted in a Hindi play before. Aadhe Adhoore is a powerful work written 40 years ago but the protagonist is contemporary. She is torn between her commitment to her family and her own sexual needs. She is neither black nor white but multi-dimensional. I first saw it when I was in college and absolutely loved it. I told myself that whenever I do a Hindi play,this should be the one.” Quiz her,why didn’t the company attempt Hindi plays before and she says,“We were in the Indian English space and wanted to appeal to the foreign audience too. Ninety-eight per cent of non-Indians know English but they don’t know Hindi. But I feel that if the audience wants to watch and enjoy a play,they will do it any way. I remember once we had staged Sammy at Brussels where most of the population comprises French and Finnish. So a screen was put up with sub-titles that helped the audiences to understand the play. But now the time is right.”

Over the last two decades,two things have been constant in PTC — plays on diverse subjects and Lillete producing all the works. She says,“I’m a reckless director who gets bored of doing the same thing. So our future projects are works that we have never attempted before. They include a historical,Dreams of Tipu Sultan written by Girish Karnad and a semi-solo piece on the life of veteran actor Zohra Sehgal.” She also emphasises that she has always produced her own works as she likes to have full creative license. She says,“I don’t want any one to impose on my creativity. I do plays that inspire me. When I start working on something,I never expect what will come out of it.”

Looking back,Lillete is quite happy with her company’s achievements. She says,“PTC has been the pioneer in staging original Indian English works. When I started out only five percent of the play were written by Indian authors today it’s just the opposite. Dance Like A Man’s success gave a huge impetus to young theatre actors and directors. If we don’t do our Indian work,then who will? We have staged 2,000 shows in the last two decades. We have broken new grounds and achieved much more than what we had set out to do. That gives me immense joy. “

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