When the world recently observed William Shakespeare’s 400th death anniversary, many missed the contribution of Rajat Kapoor in keeping the Bard’s works fresh and contemporary. In 2008, after the success of “C for Clowns”, Rajat thought what if “Hamlet” is performed by clowns. So “The Clown King” was born and what started as a whimsical experiment has become almost a trend now. Next week his troupe will perform “As You Like It” as “I Don’t Like It As You Like It” as part of the Aadyam Theatre Festival in New Delhi. Meanwhile, “Macbeth” as “What’s Done, Is Done” is fast becoming theatre’s multi-starrer with Ranvir Shorey, Vinay Pathak, Jim Sarbh and Kalki Koechlin headlining it. A modest man that he is, Rajat doesn’t want to be described as some authority on Shakespeare or clowns for that matter. “I have no grand plan. Life has no grand plan. I am doing it because in the process I am beginning to understand him. The best way to understand Shakespeare is by watching his plays,” says Rajat, who is in the city for the ongoing Habitat Film Festival.
Clowns help him liberate from the text but Rajat is not seeking freedom from the context. The aim, says Rajat, is to find the essence of the play. “That’s very important for me. In ‘The Clown King’, when clowns ask why Hamlet is treating Ophelia like this and go on to add, ‘you know how difficult it is to be a woman’, it contextualises the play and yet it goes back to those characters and lives their ethos.”
Similarly, when he was adapting “King Lear”, he pondered over the themes of Lear. “How themes of father-daughter relationship, betrayal, loss of power, blindness and bastard brother play out vis-a-vis us. As Vinay (Pathak) Atul (Kumar) and I were doing the play, we discussed our relationship with our parents and daughters. Soon we started finding truths in it. That’s why the play is called ‘Nothing Like Lear’ and yet it is very Lear.” For ‘Macbeth’, which is a political play, Rajat has found the timeless context of power and greed and is using scary clowns to put the point across.
As for fidelity of the text, Rajat openly says he only knows the text of his play. “I don’t remember the original text. I know gibberish Shakespeare.” He enjoys the editing process, though. “The way dialogues change mouths and new text takes shape.” He feels Shakespeare would have loved the process. “I would rather die than watch Shakespeare in a conventional way.” He is not the only one. Shakespeare has always been the favourite of Indian theatre practitioners and Rajat’s favourite is Habib Tanvir’s adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. “The title, itself, is mind blowing: ‘Basant Ritu ka Sapna Kamdev ka Apna’. Kamaal hai!”
After some serious stuff, Rajat has tweaked “As You Like it” to explore the possibilities of psychological manipulation in the play. “This one is my favourite. Rosalind goes to the forest and dresses up as a boy and there she meets her lover and tells him that come and woo me like Rosalind. When I read it, I said wow! Now in Shakespeare’s time a boy used to play a girl’s part. So it was a boy playing Rosalind in the play. It gets even more complicated. In our play the director decides all the boys will play girls’ parts and all the girls will play boys’ parts and so apart from all the fun, it becomes a play about gender. It’s topical but I feel there is never a wrong time to talk about gender.”
Rajat’s biggest takeaway from the process is the joy of discovery. “The script gets ready after the first show. Till then I don’t exactly know what the play is. This is very exciting and very scary at the same time.” Something very funny happened with the premiere of “As You Like It…” in Mumbai. “Normally we set up during the day and the show is in the evening. This time we got an extra day to set up. When I watched the rehearsal at Mumbai’s NCPA, I felt the play is terrible. Then I went home and when I was talking to my wife at 1 a.m. I realised I was feeling like that because I watched it without the audience. We are used to silence in the rehearsal process but not in an auditorium with lights and costumes. Next day, the audience came and they laughed and I said bach gaye!” Rajat feels the play might be doing great in your head but the public response is crucial. “Only when I watch the play with audience in a collective way that I make out where it is dragging.” And the genial Rajat is known to be brutal about it. “It is, of course, for the play and not for an individual’s performance. And if the play works, it works for everybody. I carry the same attitude to film sets. It is difficult to work where there is possibility of ego.”
And perhaps that’s what makes Rajat a misfit in mainstream cinema. He seeks creative control. The student of Kumar Sahani has made six films in 15 years including the highly acclaimed Ankhon Dekhi and Mithya still he has no producer to back the three scripts that he has in hand. “The fact that Kumar hasn’t made a film in the last 10 years kills me. At 75, he has a child like curiosity for new subjects but there is nobody to back him.” He separates himself from the league of Sahani and Mani Kaul. “If they had a vision with which 10 people could identify with, my language is deciphered by 5000. But I am not the last one. There is young Chaitanya Tamhane, who showed remarkable rigour in Court, and Amit Dutta who is silently working.”
People say things have changed in Bollywood, Rajat, who acts in mainstream cinema with Kapoor & Sons being the latest, says the pace is so slow that it doesn’t even register. “They still ask for the star you have. The difference is now they want us to bring Kangana, Anushka or Alia. It is not that I am against stars. I toyed with the idea of casting Amitabh Bachchan or Paresh Rawal in Ankhon Dekhi. The film wouldn’t have been bad but what Sanjay Mishra brought to the film, I don’t think they would have. I want the star to surrender to my world. I don’t think in Hollywood George Clooney decides how the film is going to take shape according to his image. Here I get to hear that now Raees has a Sunny Leone number. Remember it is a Rahul Dholakia film.”
As for funding, Rajat finds the trend of international co-productions complicated. “I don’t know how to write a proposal, a one page note for my script or how to pitch my film in two lines. And I can’t endlessly wait for the film’s release because somebody is waiting for the right time to release the film. I can show you the script. If you like it, come along. I can’t explain the viability of the project. If I could I would have been in a corporate job. I would better ask my friends to lend me some money.” Rajat says if nothing works out he would write a fourth script and go for his tried formula of crowd funding to start his next project. “I have to shoot by the end of the year. If Jafar Panahi can make films despite the ban, why can’t I?”
Ironically, theatre is proving more commercially viable for him. “Every show gives you 2 to 2.5 lakhs and if you do 10 shows you make around 30 lakhs. In fact, my ‘Hamlet’ has made more money over the last seven years than ‘Ankhon Dekhi’.” And originally it is not our story. “Exactly!”
2015 Kashmir Despatch