They arrived at their calling through vastly different paths—one was bored with college, another eager to boost his self-esteem. Yet, one thing is clear: These young actors currently gracing the national stage have arrived, armed with a lot of talent. From starring in Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder to headlining improvisational acts, they have impressed critics, directors and audiences with their singular abilities and skill and, somewhere along the way, also racked up nominations for the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) 2008. In our quest to whittle down the list, we polled theatre veterans Ramu Ramanathan and Sanjana Kapoor, and scoured dozens of productions to determine the five most promising names in Indian theatre.
• KRITI PANT
Before she steps on stage, Kriti Pant feels an immense urge to go to the bathroom, which is followed immediately by a nauseous churning in her gut, prompting her to wonder why she ever got into this profession.
But then the lights come on, and something magical happens: that sinking feeling turns “electric”.
Pant never thought she could act, and probably never would have, had a friend not called in a favour. The friend was directing The Importance of Being Earnest for the annual Rajpal Theatre Festival of St Stephen’s college in 2004. “The lead actress had fallen ill, and I was just a last-minute replacement,” Pant says. “I had a ball. I botched it up completely but it introduced me to the camaraderie within theatre.”
The camaraderie may have been the initial attraction but working in Raghav Chanana’s Closer convinced her to pursue acting professionally. “It was all about the thrill of being on stage, the instant gratification when the audience lets you know whether or not the performance is good, and the motivation to improve,” says the 21-year-old.
Pant is eager to earn her master’s in theatre, and eventually involve herself in all aspects of stage production. Before she plunges into the application process, however, Pant is committed to running Prospect Wide Aisle, a Delhi-based theatre project founded by Anirudh Nair, which brings Shakespeare to schoolchildren.
She has also recently finished two one-act plays, Mouse and Positions 2, directed by Neel Chaudhuri as part of the First City Theatre Foundation.
And though Mumbai is every aspiring actor’s beacon, Pant is content to stay put for the moment. “I picture Mumbai as this big, bad city… I know it’s the place to be in, but there is a change happening in Delhi theatre right now, and I am excited to be part of that.”
Director’s cut: “The incredible thing about Kriti as an actor is that she has a lot of mystery to her method. This makes it exciting as she will do five different things and they will all be good, but one out of the five will be perfect. I don’t direct her, I watch her till she finds what I am looking for and then I tweak it,” Chaudhuri says.
• CHANDAN ROY SANYAL
Few actors would give up a chance to act alongside Naseeruddin Shah. Yet, for 28-year-old Chandan Roy Sanyal, the decision, though heartbreaking, was fortuitous. He accepted the part of Lysander in Tim Supple’s highly lauded A Midsummer Night’s Dream, garnering critical acclaim for his performance and, eventually, travelling around India and the world as part of the production’s world tour. The role called for rigorous physical movement, and Sanyal, bouncing and energetic even when not acting, was happy to oblige.
Little wonder, then, that Sanyal’s path to acting was born out of boredom. Unhappy with the monotonous routine at Zakir Hussain College in Delhi, he attended an acting workshop with veteran theatre personality Habib Tanvir. The class was enough to hook him for life. In his second year of college, Sanyal left for Bhopal, joining Tanvir’s repertory company and returning only to take his exams. “It was never my ambition to become an actor, but once I started, it became my dream, my hunger,” he says.
In 2002, intent on breaking into the business, he moved to Mumbai with only Rs7,000 in his pocket. He spent the first few years struggling to land acting assignments, teaching math at Sharda College in Goregaon West to supplement his income. “I was thrown out of that job because I shaved my head and the principal did not approve of what I represented,” he says.
(Photo: Madhu Kapparath/Mint)
He got his first big break when Quasar Thakore Padamsee offered him a role in a collection of three short plays called Minorities. As a Pakistani student who befriends a visiting American, Sanyal was beguiling enough to catch the attention of Alyque Padamsee, who would employ him in numerous roles for the next one year.
Yet, Sanyal was restless, eager to break free of the constraint of acting under others. “I did not like a lot of stuff that was being done on the Mumbai stage, and felt that I could do something different,” he says. Galvanized by a desire to direct, he set up his own theatre company, Proscenium, and has already staged plays such as Sakharam Binder (2004) and Ashadh Ka Ek Din (2005).
For now, Sanyal is thrilled with the success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to which he devoted the past two years. After his contract with Supple runs out later this year, he plans to spend time with his theatre company, and maybe even try his hand at Bollywood.
“You need to be mad to be in this field, that’s where the passion comes from,” he says.
Director’s cut: “Chandan is a superb actor. He is truthful, physically thrilling, and devoted to whatever he works on,” Supple says.
• HARISH DINKAR
(Photo: Harikrishna Katragadda/Mint)
“Look into the lights” was the advice Harish Dinker got from a colleague and fellow actor just before his first stage performance of the play KL Saigal. Luckily for him, the tip worked, and his fear of facing a live audience disappeared.
Dinker was first drawn to theatre because he read that it could help boost self-esteem. “I never wanted to while away time after college. I wanted to do more than just study and hang out with friends, so I decided to join theatre,” he says. In 2005, Dinker joined his uncle, Solanki, who was part of Sayeed Alam’s Pierrot’s Troupe, a house noted for its Hindi and Urdu productions.
The decision has packed the 21-year-old’s schedule, which now includes finishing his degree in journalism at Madhu Bala Institute of Communication and Electronic Media, Delhi, and appearing in performances of popular Hindi plays such as Ghalib in New Delhi and Big B. “I go to college and then head off to rehearsals. By the time I get home, it’s almost 11pm, but I am very happy. I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he says.
For Dinker, who believes in completely immersing himself in the role, the attraction of the stage is ineffable. “I can’t really explain how I feel when I am on stage. For those 2 hours, it’s like I am in my own world. Nothing and no other relations exist,” he says. He claims that as long as he is in Delhi, he will devote himself entirely to theatre.
And, like some of his peers on this list, Dinker is eager to eventually take the director’s seat. “Some day, I also want to direct movies and work behind the camera.”
Director’s cut: “Harish is a very hard-working boy. Within six months of joining the troupe, he had a lead role and did justice to it. He is multifaceted and I don’t want him to confine himself to just acting,” Alam says.
• AYESHA RAZA
(Photo: Harikrishna Katragadda/Mint)
Her mother Saleema Raza is a well-known theatre actor, yet, Ayesha Raza wanted to be a teacher rather than be on stage. Halfway through her master’s degree in education in the US, however, Raza decided to chuck it all up and follow in her mother’s footsteps. “Acting for me is an innate instinct; I grew up with theatre,” says Raza, a brilliant mimic who, with a little prodding, will do her Hema Malini impersonation for friends.
“When I decided to join theatre, a lot of people told me that I should have done it long ago, but when I was younger, my dreams were different,” says the 31-year-old actor.
In the last few years, Raza has starred in an impressive roster of productions, including Zuleikha Chaudhri’s The Mahabharata Project, and Karodon Mein Ek with Makarand Deshpande. She was also recently seen in Manav Kaul’s play Ilham, for which she earned a META nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
“It is kind of ironic that the last two plays I have done are kind of similar roles where I have to play opposite characters who have somewhat lost their minds, but the challenge was in finding how I could make the characters different,” she says with a laugh. In Karodon Mein Ek, her character’s father-in-law is afflicted with Alzheimer’s, while in Ilham, the world believes her husband is crazy.
Raza’s personal life is far from her stage avatars. She is happily married to actor Kumud Mishra, the lead in Ilham. “I had seen him earlier and thought he was brilliant, and when he complimented my work in Karodon, I was amazed that he thought I was good,” she says. Nine months after starting on Ilham, the couple was married. “Now, I don’t have to act as his wife,” she jokes. “I am.”
For the moment, audiences not yet familiar with Raza might well recognize her—or, rather, her voice—from television. She has done voice-overs for a number of advertisements, including Lakme sunscreen lotion, and Pond’s anti-ageing cream.
The work has given her the freedom to pick and choose roles. “It is a great levelling platform,” she says of theatre. “Maybe because there is no money involved, the snobbery and hierarchy has not set in yet.”
Director’s cut: “Ayesha is a spontaneous actor. Some actors think and act but actors like Ayesha become part of the family on stage. Her voice is beautiful and she has complete command over English, Hindi and Urdu. And she is not rigid, though she has her opinions,” says director and fellow actor Deshpande.
• RADHIKA APTE
By her own admission, Radhika Apte is easily distracted. Yet, even though the 22-year-old says she is unable to stick to any task for long, she is totally devoted to acting.
Apte’s involvement with theatre started while she was studying at Fergusson College in Pune. “Mohit Takalkar, the founder of Aasakta, saw me in a college play in 2004 and got in touch,” she says.
Since then, Apte has acted in plays such as Kanyadaan, directed by Lillete Dubey, and Bombay Black by Anahita Oberoi, and is currently shooting a Marathi film with Sumitra Bhave. She was also a META nominee for Best Actress for her performance in Matra Ratra. An accomplished Kathak dancer who has also trained in contemporary ballet, Apte has used her skills to inform her roles. In Bombay Black, Apte starred as Apsara, a dancer who lures men through her seductive performances. “Bombay Black is a completely Hindi movie sort of a play,” she says. Despite the Bollywood overtones, Apte has little desire to take that route. “You need a different mindset, and must be willing to take shit. People don’t treat you like a human being but like a commodity,” she says. “Sure, someday I would love to do a different kind of cinema, but now I want to focus on Aasakta and getting a master’s degree in math or economics.” After all, she says wryly, “there is no money in theatre.”
Director’s cut: “Radhika is sincere and hard-working and that is really going to benefit her. She has a wide range and is receptive to different types of roles and theatre. Her natural talent will stand her in good stead,” Oberoi says.
EXPERT VIEW | AMAL ALLANA
SET THE STAGE
A few years ago, I would never have recommended acting as a profession. I used to feel that there was never enough work to sustain a livelihood, but things are different today. If a person wants to take up acting, I would encourage them as various fields within the media have opened up and the options that actors have are limitless. People with confidence and stage presence have nothing to worry about. If you opt for a career in theatre, there are always other things that can support you, such as dubbing, or becoming an emcee. Being bilingual is an added advantage. Begin here:
• Join a local theatre group. It will help you break into the scene. Always find out what the requirements of the group are, though. For example, in my theatre group, I prefer to take people either with prior training or experience. It would be difficult for me to work with a beginner.
• If you are a student, try and be part of every college production. It’s a great learning experience.
• If you are unsure whether or not you want to get into theatre full-time, try a short intensive course first. That way, you will be able to gauge for yourself and find out if you have the talent and perseverance required to make it on stage.
• Of course, joining institutions such as the National School of Drama is an option. But these institutes are very intensive, and normally require a week-long workshop or its equivalent to even get admission.
The pay in theatre is always unsure. There are productions that will pay you nothing. Some will just provide basic transport costs. And, then, there are commercial shows in Mumbai that can pay up to Rs50,000 per show. I am proud to say that I am able to pay my actors Rs2,000 per show. But, again, it depends on the type of theatre you want to do, your experience and talent.
Amal Allana is theatre director and chairperson, National School of Drama, New Delhi.
As told to Aarti Basnyat