As the iconic Piya Behrupiya embarks on its final tour, Atul Kumar reflects on what made this musical a runaway success
The last run of the play is covering Mumbai, Bengaluru, Pune, Ahmedabad and more
Premiered at the world-renowned Shakespeare’s Globe in 2012, Piya Behrupiya is a rip-roaring musical adaptation of one of the Bard’s most celebrated romantic comedies — Twelfth Night. Directed by Atul Kumar, The Company Theatre production is easily one of the most popular shows in India’s contemporary performing arts arena.
Translated by Amitosh Nagpal, the 135-minute piece has tugged at the heartstrings of many around the world over the past decade, with a cast of remarkable actors — including Sagar Deshmukh (as Orsino), Geetanjali Kulkarni (as Viola), Mansi Multani (as Olivia), Gagan Riar (as Toby), Mantra Mugdha (as Andrew), Trupti Khamkar (as Maria), Neha Saraf (as Feste), Saurabh Nayyar (as Malvolio) and Amitosh (as Sebastian).
As the play draws to an end, making its final run of shows across India, TheatreRoom caught up with the director to know more about what makes Piya Behrupiya so special. Excerpts from out conversation with Atul:
Q. Piya Behrupiya has been one of The Company Theatre’s most illustrious productions. So, why shelve it?
A. There are a couple of answers to that. One is, frankly, I think I’m made like that. Two, whenever I start feeling very comfortable somewhere, I like to just challenge myself and say, okay this is it. Let’s move on; let’s look in more directions; let’s find something new. Places where there is struggle, where there are challenges. That is something very exciting for me.
Piya Behrupiya has done more than 250 shows now. It’s working on its own accord. Sure, it brings in money and all that. One reason is purely just that. Second, and a bigger reason, is that we could, perhaps, do it once a year or something like that to just keep the play alive. But the problem is that the actors have become established, and they are now very busy. They don’t have time and dates. In fact, this time they are performing after a year and a half. So, it’s very difficult to get their dates now. And I really don’t want to do this play with another team, find new actors to do it, because we have stuck with each other for 11 years, and there’s been a lot of love and respect for each other. So, I thought it would be a good thing to end it with good memories in people’s minds and a good taste saying, this is what it was.
Q. Tell us about the opening of the last run of the play, and what makes it so special?
A. Piya Behrupiya opened last weekend, and it was very overwhelming. Even before the play started, there was a minute-and-a-half-long applause and hooting. It was how people usually welcome their famous film actors or rock stars. It was in no way like the beginning of a theatre piece. Although it was in a way a little disturbing, owing to the fact that it’s the last run of the play, it was also a very endearing experience.
It felt very warm and nice that the audience was so in love with this piece. There were people who met us later, who’ve seen the play 16–18 times. Meanwhile, people who’ve seen it three-four times are in the hundreds. So it’s amazing that this play has the value that people come and revisit the piece. And then, of course, after doing the play when all of us meet the next day, we all just look at each other and say what is with this play, we ourselves don’t know. Is it Shakespeare? Is it this music that we managed to bring together? Is it all of you actors who bring this warmth on stage? Or is it a comedy? What is it that leaves an amazing amount of happiness, joy and smile on people’s faces, and even us actors. It just makes you extremely positive and happy about life. And there’s something I’m still unable to really specifically pinpoint. But we must have touched upon something in this play.
I mean, it’s not a highly intellectual play. We’ve not taken on the idea of gender that Shakespeare plays with. That they are disturbing and challenging, like many people from our LGBTQIA+ community, especially the artistes who work on gender, do. Perhaps, we could have. We have one stupid kiss between two women, and that’s all. That’s the thing of passing. But there’s so much in that play that we can actually do. It’s like simply put. I don’t know what it brings, but it is there.
Q. What impact has Piya Behrupiya made on Atul Kumar as a person?
A. It’s the people who are involved in the play. It’s quite commendable with all the ups and downs that we face in all our work, which I think holds true for every field, and not just theatre. Whenever there is a group of people involved, it will be different. There’ll be diversity of thought, values, morality, priorities, professional and personal, et cetera. It is bound to create friction. And people will get on the wrong side once in a while.
But again, I don’t know why but this team has stuck together. It’s not like we are thick friends and we meet every weekend. All of us only meet when we are rehearsing and doing this show. But I feel extremely humbled, frankly, that it’s not just me who has kept this group together, but each one of them together by giving themselves into it fully. And I think they all realised what the play brought to them, vis-à-vis the public appreciation and recognition. So, they’re very humbled by that as well, and they realised the value of that. But I think more than anything else, it is really the human aspect of this event, this coming together that has affected us.
It humbles me. Many times, I have lost my temper, I lost my cool trying to achieve this or the other. But I realised that finally achieving those things was secondary. And what was really of more importance was the happiness of these people who are involved in it and their peace of mind and our understanding with each other.
So, I think that it travelled into other works as well. And now I constantly strive to work with that sensibility in my workspace. So it’s really on a human level, I would say that this play… It’s all love, heart and just basic humanity, which many a time, many artistes, including me, forget. And we keep it on the side when we are trying to make work.
Q. Has this musical influenced your other works?
A. A couple of things. One is this very precise thing that I have learned how to be with people that affect the other productions. But more than that, two things I would say — one creative and one very production based. Piya Behrupiya was my first play, in which I attempted song and dance. I never thought in my life that I would do a musical. In fact, I grew up nearly hating and detesting and getting terribly bored during plays where dholak and the harmonium used to play and people used to sing. It was just not my cup of tea.
But when I read this play and we were going to open this play at the Globe Theatre in London, I saw that he had written a lot of poetry in the play. And a thought just came to me. I said, what if? Because that’s the challenge, and I like basically putting myself in situations where I struggle, where I don’t know. Then, I push myself to find out more and then to delve into areas.
That led me to look back at my own traditions. I come from North India. All my life, I went to Mathura and Vrindavan and watched raas leela and nautanki. So I said, maybe that’s where it lies. Maybe, I need to explore that form. The very fact that I did that and it worked, gave me a lot of confidence. It gave me the strength to let go of things that I’m comfortable in and to not be complacent and delve into areas that are challenging. Because the success of this play holds me saying, it’s okay, take the leap, jump, and let’s see what happens, even if you don’t know anything about it.
I’m also trying to attempt a new play next year, for which I’ll probably rehearse for 12 months. It involves cinema and something that I have never put my hands in before. I’ve never really held a camera, and I don’t know anything about filmmaking. But what is exciting me is this new form of theatre that’s evolved around the world, called ‘live cinema’.
For this, you use multi-camera live feeds on stage, and the cameras are held and operated by fellow actors only. It’s a very complicated thing, but it uses technology and I am honestly a little scared. But then, of course, that is precisely why I will get into it. It’s very interesting. I’m trying to see if I can explore the life and times and works of Charles Chaplin. He has been someone who’s been my inspiration. But he’s also an extremely controversial figure. Post #MeToo, people realised all the misgivings of the man. But yeah, as an artiste, he is someone who I identify with deeply, and would like to delve deeper into his life and work. And more than just him, it’s the ‘Chaplin-ness’ that has travelled into so many of my works and my being, in fact. I saw how he was also called out for his behaviour and the misuse of his power, and that’s something I would really like to address within me, my group and our community. So let’s see where that goes. But yeah, that’s the second thing — Piya Behrupiya gave me strength to be able to take risks and I’m doing that constantly since this play happened.
Another very good thing that happened with Piya Behrupiya was that it brought in a lot of money, because it travelled all over the world (covering 25 countries). Again within India also, it’s performed in so many places. It gave me a lot of strength to be able to make other plays. So, I could cross-fund. I used a lot of earnings from the musical to make theatre, for which I will never find sponsors or supporters, plays that are site-specific as well as the immersive pieces that I have done in the past few years. With that money we also supported other theatre groups to make their plays. There’s a theatre space that needed light fixtures. Then, there are theatre groups that needed money to be able to put up a production, so we could actually cross-fund all that. So yes, Piya Behrupiya has been very crucial on that front too.
Q. Have you thought of preserving the play in any form for posterity?
A. We have recordings of the play, which is our archival material that will always stay. But about seven years back, Zee TV had contacted us, and they bought the digital rights of the play. So, they shot it. So, it’s available on Zee Theatre, and many people have called me and told me that they’ve seen it. It’s nowhere close to the live performance, but it’s there. It’s online and people can actually subscribe to it.
Piya Behrupiya is currently on a multi-city run. You can book your tickets for the play here.