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Udaya Bhanu

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“Society gets the theatre it deserves”

“‘I wish the stage were as narrow as the wire of a tightrope dancer, so that no incompetent would dare step upon it,’ said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,” read out Udaya Bhanu – theatre activist and one of the core members of the theatre group Bhoomika (estd. 1989). Having directed many plays for the group, he is now looking to taking theatre one notch up by focusing on rural talent outside Hyderabad, training them and producing quality theatre.

Q. How would you describe the theatre circuit in the city?
A. It is in the state of transition. I wouldn’t say it is hibernating or vibrant either.

Q. Are there any threats to the medium?
A. Theatre has always faced threats.  When films came, people had given up on theatre, but it survived. There is one serious problem: lack of quality human resources. Especially Telugu theatre has the same 40-year-olds playing characters that are 25 years of age. Though there may be claims on the number of theatre groups in Hyderabad, there are only 15 to 20 of them that are active. Everyone is allured by the small screen or the silver screen. The day an actor passes out from the University, s/he looks forward to meeting a Rama Naidu or a Cheeranjivi.

Q. Why do you think this is happening?
A. Mediocrity plagues theatre because of the new spurt in television channels. There are so many of them and they all need actors; no, not even actors, just people to go in front of the camera and speak a few lines and shake a leg. I don’t say it’s bad to go in for TV acting. But go in through the channel of theatre. There are sons and daughters of stars that get on screen very easily. People want to bypass theatre and jump in front of the camera. In Bengal, if you want to go into TV productions, the first thing they ask you is your theatre experience. And here I have a neighbour who utterly ignorant about acting and appears on screen on some channel.

Q. What would you suggest as a rectifying measure?
A. The new spate of channels is a problem and to overcome it theatre must reinvent itself by concentrating on its core qualities. It is possible though it’ll take time. Artists are justified in going in for TV; the theatre scene in A.P. is such. But of late, there has been a change. There are abundant grants. The central government doles out land and financial help to groups. People are gradually moving away from the idiot box and want to see good art; be it Bismillah Khan or Habib Tanvir. The society is feeling the need for community gathering that was killed by the onslaught of media.

Q. How are you, as an artiste, coping with this change?
A. I have started looking outside Hyderabad for talent. I look into rural pockets because I’ve stopped believing in Hyderabadis. Rural talent is raw and often has skills like the ability to sing. Urban people are difficult to hone because they have to unlearn and then have to be taught. I know my audience and then search for a grammar that is suitable to them. I am doing a lot of social, folk and musicals. I also did one mythological play. I look for my scripts in existing literature and translate them. I must say I am a good translator, but writer out of necessity. I have stayed away from competition and mainstream theatre.

Q. Any particular reason for that?
A. Competition has its own economics and structure. It is derogatory in certain respects. I’m neither for nor against it. But, competition mindsets are dirty at times. I’ve known instances when the play is tailor made to impress only the three adjudicators on the panel. My plays at best may qualify to enter these contents but the chances of them winning are slim. They are made for universal performances: in schools, halls and in the public. My theatre is never too serious or too much of a meaningless comedy.

Q. What has been a high-point for you?
A. In 2004, we came up with ‘Mungitlo Naatakam’. We went to colonies that had open space and an elevated platform to perform, we publicized locally and started free shows at exactly 6:30. All that we expected was: a power connection and a few chairs for the people to sit. The response was terrific! The idea was to habituate people to theatre and then some years down the line ask them to donate. The donations started from day one, first show. In some 60 – 65 shows, all our operational costs, except equipment of course, was met by the donations after the shows.

Q. What kind of plays drew such an audience?
A. We staged ‘Charandas’, which won three Nandi awards in 1999. We staged plays that were meaningful, not hoping to bring about change in the society: change is a gradual, evolutionary process. If an actor himself doesn’t get affect by the play that he rehearses for a month, how would an audience change in a few hours? You never know how an actor in a women’s rights play treats his wife. I personally enjoyed ‘Anji Garu’: the play juxtaposes bonded labour with the life of the wife of the landlord. It is the same situation on different levels of economy.

Q. What needs doing?
A. Elaborate seminars on the lack of rehearsal space, which is a common complaint, won’t help. In an area, if you can’t influence a school or a community center to afford you space for practice; how do you expect to affect a ‘change’ in the society? And what would you do of rehearsal spaces when there are no young people? Workshops in colleges have an impact on the students; they experience theatre and improve their communication, confidence and team spirit.
A message must be conveyed to the public: ‘Society gets the theatre it deserves.’ Theatre is the only platform where you can train actors for cinema. One can’t be trained in films: there is too much money involved. I’ve known directors who tell me about the lack of talent and the need to pass actors through the theatre channel; but the message isn’t loud enough.

Q. Is the media to blame?
A. I kept away from TV until I realized that I have to be seen and known to be heard. The print media competes with the electronic media and the electronic media competes among itself by sensationalizing everything; we get no meaning at the end of it all. ‘Mungitlo Naatakam’, probably a first of its kind initiative was covered only by Andhra Jyoti in spite of issuing press notes to all agencies. Had it received its due media response, we would have followed it with theatre workshops for children, art appreciation for adults and regular plays in the evening. But, I’m a practical man; I don’t aim for such a thing as utopia. If I fail, I shall have failed only because I could not search for talent that existed; I was not able to make the right choices to attract the inflow of people into theatre who could dedicate at least one year to theatre before moving on to TV. If I am able to, it’d be great.

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