World Theatre Day: Mumbai’s pocket theatres- A boon for lesser known artist groups

Mumbai hasn’t been anything less than a theatre, as millions of people around the world come to the city’s stage to showcase themselves. Many struggle to stand out, while others spectate as an audience. Such is the life of performing artists in the maximum city, who have been sweating it out day after day in order to invigorate this art form. But in a plethora of options taking the centre stage, does this city of dreams have space for anything that is organic or new? The answer lies in pocket theatres scattered across Mumbai that are providing the right kind of fortification to keep it authentic. On World Theatre Day, which falls on March 27, we take a look at this underdog of an art from that is hustling its way out in the spotlight.

Struggling to Sustain

Ethiros Theatre Group, is the brainchild of Nishil Kamalan, who has produced and directed plays like Future Tense (d), and shows for kids like Let’s Puppet, sheds light on how he is pursuing his passion and what kind of push this medium needs. He says, “For a theatre group which has just started and doesn’t have a known face, expecting revenue is next to impossible.”

When asked what the scene of theatre is as of now, Kamalan maintains, “For me to exhibit on a larger platform, will need 10 to 15 years of rubbing shoulders with the right people, except for that if you’ve got a bomb of a creation and acting, then you might get there. Meanwhile, profit margin for me as a producer is an alien term even as of now.”

So how does an artist break the monotonous form of entertainment amid digitisation? “Everything begins at a grass root level. There has to be a cultural shift. I have never seen my parents take me to a theatre. Also, now the medium is a bit expensive, so people who can afford, do come to watch. But for a middle class family, even if they want to, they can’t afford it. However, regional plays are getting a boost because they have been parallel to their culture and also their ticket prices are inexpensive, compared to English or Hindi plays,” he adds.

Anshu Bhatacharji founded Cadence Theatre Mumbai after giving up his full time job as a banker. However, the city of dreams, offered him an opportunity to believe in himself and take a step ahead of mere survival. He says, “Rather than chasing my dream I was more focussed to settle because surviving in Mumbai was the main concern. I worked with more than 17 companies in Mumbai and simultaneously was searching for good theatre groups where I can chase my passion and develop my acting skills. But as my financial status and working hours were not supporting me, so I failed to follow the same. This led to me starting my own theatre group.”

Anshu Bhatacharji

Akanksha Bhardwaj who has been heading Pancham Productions speaks on her recent sabbatical from producing content due to several hurdles. She says, “I did around 5 productions in a year since 2017. But since all the funding is done by ourselves, most of the times we incurred a loss. After a point, it gets out of hand to be sustainable. However, I did realise that the audience is more driven towards mediocre content just because it has a renowned face and goodwill. They have a limited perspective towards theatre. They will appreciate and watch plays that even lack quality.”

Akanksha Bhardwaj

Enlightening on the close knit theatre community, Akanksha says that there is a silver lining when artists support the content and the quality without being commercially driven. “There are people who will support you selflessly. Had it not been for these people, I wouldn’t have been able to put up anything that I have so far,” she adds.

Cracking the Cost

Roshan Shetty, an actor, director and writer who owns ‘Roshan Ke Production’ has delivered plays such as Blueticks and Ink-ka-Laabh.  Just like any project, there comes a cost and not many production houses can afford the big bucks in one go. Shetty breaks down the math that goes into listing out the monetary aspects to put up a single show. He explains, “Many theatre groups die every day just for two factors- money and space. For example – a cost of just space for rehearsal will be Rs 500 per hour. There are also additional costs like food and refreshments which are quite necessary, apart from that you have to pay the actors too. Now imagine by the grace of God we put up a house full show in a decent 150 seater auditorium which does a business. But the recovered amount after a show gets divided into venue, service charges, GST, costume, props and set designs. It takes too many days and too many successful shows to come on par with the production cost.”

Roshan Shetty

Varun Kulkarni, who has been in this line of work for the past 13 years, has seen the highs and lows of the medium at large. He speaks on why theatre being so constructive with its art and narrative is struggling despite artists wanting to pursue it. According to Varun, “Everyone in theatre is essentially an actor. We all simply double as light man, sound guy, backstage, writer and even directors. In Mumbai, apart from the obvious financial and space constrains, retaining good actors in theatre is a challenge. Since the actors have to run their kitchens too, they are keen to take up TV and Film jobs more than theatre work. The fame that TV/films bring with them is another reason for actors not doing theatre. They do get to work on their craft in theatre but money is money. We have better content to sell in India. Funding is essential for making it better.”

Varun Kulkarni

Kulkarni has his own production called Neo Ensemble, which has given plays like Bamboo Shoots, Halwa, and Shamshaan Main Khada Bevkoof to name a few. Speaking if theatre creates content that is in demand or creates demand for its own content, he states, “It can be both ways. If theatre has to create demand for its own content, it is deviant in nature. Theatre is entertainment also, it can be catered to any number of audience al-a-carte.  I feel limiting theatre performances to a niche audience will be suicidal.”

Miniscule but Marvellous

Kiran Pavaskar runs the Kirdaar Arts Foundation, a young theatre group that aims to generate a thoughtful audience for such a diverse performing art form. Kiran, who has mastered this art form academically as well, has engaged into a different mode altogether. Apart from directing and producing prolific plays, she also creates an audience. She states, “The aim of our group is to do something that our generation needs in order to speak up our own thoughts, concepts. We try to connect with corporate, schools, to generate a good audience to watch theatre. We are not only focusing on creating actors or directors or writers. Theatre today needs an audience. This is why, we are reaching out to people, door to door, and conduct workshops on similar lines.

Kiran Pavaskar

Speaking about pocket theatres in Mumbai, Pavaskar reveals how these not so miniscule podiums came into existence and how they’re benefiting the theatre community as a whole. She says, “People like us come together as small groups. We’re not amateurs, but have our own professional concepts and style. However, the big lobbies wouldn’t allow those who aren’t well established to perform. There was an increasing demand for space and no one was giving out. This led to the emergence of pocket theatres like Studio Tamasha, The Cuckoo Club, and Clap to name a few. The positive part of these places is that they don’t accept rent. It is a 50-50 sharing basis. This helps the group to survive on a minimum basis and explore opportunities.”

Popular Pocket Theatres in Mumbai:

  • Canvas Laugh Club- Lower Parel
  • The Cuckoo Club- Bandra
  • Odeum- Andheri
  • Clap- Malad

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