The other name of passion

Kapoor clan’s theatre torch-bearer shocked everyone this year when she quit Prithvi theatre, the Mumbai heaven she nurtured for two decades. Sanjna Kapoor speaks to The Thumb Print about Junoon, her ambitious new theatre venture, growing up with strong theatre roots, and more


1. How has the journey from Prithvi to Junoon been? How is ‘Junoon‘ different from other theatre groups?

I learnt a huge amount from my years at Prithvi – and will treasure it always. Setting up Junoon has been enormously gratifying. A big concern for me always is why India never seems to have institutions that live beyond the charismatic personalities that set them up. This must not happen with Junoon. Bringing people who believe in our dream, on board, and setting them free to contribute in serious ways, has been wonderful. I wish we had the luxury of a two-year set up period with finances, to establish ourselves. We are risking “everything” we have and keeping our wits about us – exciting and daunting. Guess it’s the “Junoon” that simply keeps us going!

Junoon is not a theatre group. It is a catalytic organization, an organisation to create opportunities and platforms that engage theatre and the performing arts. There is no other organisation like ours in this country. We are very ambitious about impacting lives in urban India, developing the ecosystem to sustain and build a rich cultural world.


2. How do you plan to reach out to children and the youth? Do you think today’s cyber-savvy youth is interested in theatre?

I believe with the right kind of exposure and engagement we can develop generations of people who value performing arts. Today more than ever before, live engagement and human interaction of the arts attracts youth to the theatre. Their lives are otherwise so riddled with the ‘disconnect’ of electronic media.

We need to engage with this cyber world. Junoon needs to find its ‘home’ in this world – where we can continue to connect beyond the physical interface. This we are consciously working on.


3. Do you plan to associate with theatre practitioners from across the country? Have you ever explored the rich theatre traditions of Northeast India? For instance, Manipur has a rich tradition of courtyard theatre called Shumang Leela and Assam has a unique mobile theatre tradition.

We primarily focus on urban theatre that we believe is of the highest quality and needs to reach a large audience. Because of our Indian reality of the enormous lack of infrastructure, we have to build sustainable platforms of accessibility. In Western countries, the infrastructure is strong – from theatre training, to insurance, to social security benefits, outreach facilities, auditoria with subsided rental rates, system of building audience in place. In India, we struggle against apathy of functioning systems and the lack of them. However, we believe that once people are toughed by the experience theatre’s magic they can get hooked! We wish to establish this regular, habit building engagement.

Modern day Manipur or Assam traditions are rooted in their reality and practice. It is not something we would need to engage with. Nor would the commercial Marathi theatre be our focus area. We are looking at contemporary “parallel” theatre – for the lack of any other word. Theatre that explores a ‘language’ of today and pushes boundaries of theatrical expression. So we would never reach the popular audience numbers that commercial theatre reaches. But we would still impact generations and build the value of the arts as an integral part of our lives.


4. Junoon is slated to host the travelling theatre Company, Footsbarn this year. Please tell us something about this.

Sadly we have had to decide against presenting Footsbarn this year. We had to make a tough decision, given that Footsbarn needs considerable sponsorship. We cannot take this sort of a risk at this moment. So sadly we are not presenting Footsbarn in Mumbai. But I do wish their tour all the success and audience it deserves.


5. Will it be correct to say that you have inherited your love for theatre from your illustrious parents? Please elaborate.

My maternal grandfather Geoffrey Kendal is my all-time hero! His absolute stubbornness, passion and fearlessness is what drove him to travel the length and breadth of India and the Far East with his touring theatre company Shakespeareana, and live a life of a true adventurer! In fact it is his travels to schools and colleges that impacted nearly two generations of English speaking Indians who clearly remember the impact of these annual shows by this magnificent professional theatre company in their school. It is this that is an enormous inspiration to me.

I grew up listening to their stories and travails of their travels and adventures – it was this life that I wanted so much to be part of. The life of a travelling theatre company.

Footsbarn is very close to my heart for this very reason!

And what attracts me so deeply to theatre is the fact that theatre can deal with deep, philosophical intellectual concepts and yet be enormously popular – as is exemplified so brilliantly with Shakespeare! That both Shakespeareana and Footsbarn brought alive magnificently!


6. What does theatre mean to you?

Theatre is a lifestyle to me! A choice you make, of the way you want to live – the thrill of live performance and the magic of that engagement as well as the constant risk of failure – and yet having to bear it bravely and carry on. The romance of knowing that you are stirring something in complete strangers’ hearts and minds, that can affect their lives and stay with them forever! As all arts can do.


7. Please tell us about your team and how do you co-ordinate and work together?

Sameera Iyengar and I are the Co-Founders of Junoon – she works out of Mumbai and I out of Delhi! Thank heavens for technology!!! We bring our different skills and talents to the fore and take on specific responsibilities in the organisation. Swati and Satyam bring their experience in the professional corporate world to the fore – and work on outreach and corporate connects as well as marketing respectively. And Ayaz pulls it together on the ground by handling the production aspect of our work. We are fortunate to have super office staff. It is a joy to see each day build on the last as we move towards realising our dreams!


8. How does doing theatre at school level help? Did you start early as well? When did you make your debut?

Firstly, I was really lucky to have gone to a school that had only 200 kids! So we all knew each other. What was really lovely about my school Bombay International, was that every month, each class had to do the Assembly. After a certain age, this was left to the kids to direct and put up on our own. The teachers had nothing to do with it. So being the director was thrust upon me. All I can remember is endless pleading with boys to play a part in the skits. They were fun. We were a hugely project oriented school. One year we had to do projects on Islam, Christianity & Buddhism. I was in the Buddhism group – and we could present our project in whatever way we wanted – we created a play of Buddha’s life! It was such fun! We were asked to perform it again and again!

We had a wonderful Parsee lady who taught Speech & Drama – she was wonderfully mad and energetic and I adored her! She also taught Trinity College which I did one year. She directed “Hiawatha”. I had to face cruel reality – as I was all set to play the main lead – but had to miss the audition since we left for London the night school holidays began – and the audition was the next morning. I could not be considered for the role without auditioning. I was deeply upset. But it gave me a good reality check!

Our school valued the arts in many forms. We were fortunate to have two art teachers – apart from our regular art teacher (who I also adored!) We had Badri Narayan come into school once a week. He told us stories and drew figures on the black board. He encouraged us to tell stories through art. He got us to make a huge mural all the way up our staircase. I felt so utterly blessed to have real artist teaching us.

When we did Shakespeare, my classmates would meet at home and rehearse scenes with my grandparents – to perform in class. Such fun to bring Shakespeare alive in this way!

My mother was quite exhausted by annual day performances (after having two sons and spending far too much time suffering horrid performances!!) By the time I came along, she would come in to help with the make up and finally, she would teach me so that I could do the make up on the other actors myself. As well as complicated Greek hairdo’s. A super training ground!


9. Which has been your best performance till now?

Oh dear that is not something I can answer.

I have done very little theatre. I enjoyed playing Honey in our production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf – the dotty wife!

I loathed myself in Gaslight – which my grandfather directed me in – because I was at a complete loss of what to do with my arms. I felt lanky and completely ill at ease! When my grandfather was asked after the opening night – what he thought of his leading lady, me – he said, “She is too long!” I adore him even more for that!

I worked the most as Chitra with Makarand Deshpande – and realised how much more I needed to work – and that I am a lazy actress!

I love acting on stage and am thankful I live in India, where I can rest assured knowing that I shall have a next life – where I shall act to my heart’s content and learn how to cook too!!!


10. Is theatre still a domain of an exclusive few?

Not at all! It is the domain of those who are brave enough to venture into other worlds! Nothing exclusive about it.


11. Please tell us something about your grandparents Geoffrey and Laura Kendal and their theatre company. Please narrate some anecdote/incident with them that left a deep impression on you. Are you in a way following their footsteps?

My grandparents’ devotion to theatre and to each other is an amazing story that has been my pivotal motivation always! As well as the amazing theatre life of Prithviraj Kapoor and his Prithvi Theatres – another amazing travelling theatre company. I believe India is now at an interesting time in history when contemporary theatre can begin to take itself a little more seriously and make its mark in the story of a modern India! There’s a great deal to be done. We can do it in many different ways – Junoon is just one drop in the ocean, which I hope makes enough ripples impact this change.


12. How different are the workshops conducted by Junoon?

Junoon’s workshops have a unique facet. They are conducted by professionals working in the field. They are actors, directors, writers, dancers, puppeteers, potters etc. It is this wealth of experience and constant discovery that feeds their work as workshop conductors.

The other unique facet of our workshops is that they are entirely process-oriented. They do not aimed at creating great artists out of the participants nor at creating a production at the end of the workshop. But in a 15-20 hour workshop, the participant goes through a vigorous process of discovery and creativity that is transformative.


13. How do you plan to take theatre to the corporate world?

It is this very transformative nature of these workshops and their process that we believe is valuable in the corporate world. Swati meets corporates, listens to their needs and then we work out how best we can design programme to address their needs.

We wish to touch the lives of key players in our city – children, because they are our tomorrow, their parents and schools because they influence the children’s decisions, corporates because they are key players in our world today. It is through this focus that we hope to influence a greater value of theatre and the performing arts.


14. How do you see the future of India’s theatre, especially in smaller cities and unexplored regions like the Northeast of India?

As I said earlier – our focus is urban India – and even that is vast! But if we manage to create models that can be replicated across the country by other organisations and people, we would be delighted. Theatre is being recognized more and more in small pockets across the country – now it is up to us – the theatre fraternity to take charge of our world and be truly effectual. I believe there will always be a need for theatre – it is up to us to see if we can make the shift from living a life of barely surviving to actually thriving. Inshallah this will happen!