'Many actors feel that you don’t arrive until you do cinema, I never felt that': Shernaz Patel on completing 35 years in Theatre
The daughter of Gujarati stage veterans Ruby and Burjor Patel, Shernaz Patel grew up absorbing theatre from all corners of an auditorium, be it backstage or the green room or the actual seating area. Quite naturally, she progressed towards the medium, making her debut with The Diary of Anne Frank in 1984. As Shernaz marks 35 years of being in the industry, Indulge speaks to her about the present theatre scene in India, how initiatives like Aadyam (where she plays the role of an Artistic Director) is helping the theatre industry, why we don’t see her often in cinema, her experience of lending voice to films like The Lion King and her dream to see a culture where actors who started from theatre come back on to the stage to support it. Excerpts:
Q: It has been 35 years to your debut with The Diary of Anne Frank. How do you see the Indian theatre scene over the years, especially now that we have so many big productions taking centre stage?
Shernaz Patel: I think it has been in its best phase that anyone could ask for! As far as big productions are concerned, I come from a theatre family and I have seen my parents doing massive productions, I have seen Pearl Padamsee’s Godspell, so big productions aren’t new to Mumbai. Yes, it was much more limited. Where earlier you could do 25 shows, now you can do 100. And, I think the Internet has contributed to that because there is only that much time that you can spend alone watching or doing something on your mobile phone or laptops and then there is a desire to go out to places where other people go and share something with them. I feel that has drawn a lot of young people to watch theatre. And, everybody is thriving, big or small. You go to Aram Nagar, Prithvi or Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, they all are wonderfully co-existing and that’s the way theatre should be.
Q: So, can people now survive solely on theatre?
SP: No! It is not possible, especially for actors. Even if it is thriving, you don’t make as much as you do while doing any other job on this planet. In a city like Mumbai, you cannot buy your own home or car while doing theatre, you have to find other ways of earning a living or you have to have another profession going on side-by-side, which is what everybody is doing. Otherwise, for how long will you survive living in a PG with five other people?
Q: But, where are we lacking?
SP: Every single day, people call and ask, how do I get into theatre? What do I say? There is no system, the community hasn’t come together in a strong way. Infrastructure wise, we are exactly where we were the day I was born. It hasn’t changed at all. In a city like Bombay, we have a handful of auditoriums. We have one drama school that is worth anything. I can literally count on my hands how many good directors we have, we have a dearth of designers, we have no backing and there is no organisation!
I call us a cottage industry — we survive. And, it is too much for anyone alone to fix it. When you think that you should change it, you can only do your bit. So, when I do Writer’s Bloc, an initiative by Rage Productions (the company I had started in 1992 with Rajit Kapur and Rahul da Cunha), out of sheer joy, I am trying to benefit the writers. I am, in my small way, helping people find themselves.
Q: When is the next edition of Writer’s Bloc coming up?
SP: When we raise money (laughs). Hopefully, next year.
Q: This is also the fifth edition of Aadyam. What do you think Aadyam has been able to achieve in the past five years?
SP: I think it’s two-fold. On one hand, it has been able to provide support to the theatre community in order to do productions that we otherwise couldn’t... like, having such a big cast for A Few Good Men or having a live-music in Detective 9-2-11. On the other hand, it has brought in a lot of new audience because of the way it is positioned — the kind of ads that it puts in the paper, on the hoarding or on digital sites. Looking at them, youngsters today get lured and I think once we lure them to come and watch, they become theatre lovers. So, it is really heartening to see that audience base growing.
Q: You grew up absorbing Gujarati Parsi theatre, and yet most of your plays are in English, why?
SP: I don’t know. We grew up on Gujarati Parsi theatre but we are three siblings and none of us speak Gujarati. Besides, I think, I was brought up with a convent education and by the time I reached college and decided to pursue theatre, my parents had moved on to the English theatre. So, by the time I reached the age where I decided to pursue theatre, they moved to English. (thinks) Even though they influenced me so much, somehow the language never influenced me.
Q: Were you always certain of doing theatre? Or, did you give a chance to other things?
SP: This is not the only thing that I did. I have done many other things. First, I thought of becoming a psychologist. A lot of actors think that, since psychology bent is always there. So, I joined a Masters in Psychology and lasted exactly four months before I ran away. Then I did a television show and I got fascinated with how it functions, so I joined a television company. I worked with them for one year and then I joined UTV, where I worked for four years. Then I had my own company for a good eight years where we made corporate and ad films. It was when I was about 38 that I said theatre is what I want to do and I went back to academics.
Q: You have also lent your voice to The Lion King. How did you become a voice-over artist?
SP: Yes, I have. I have given my voice for Simba’s mother Sarabi and it was lovely. I enjoy doing voice-overs and watching what the voice can do and the power of voice. I have been doing voice-overs since college days and over the years, I have done it for a lot of big movies like Avatar and Doctor Strange. Right now, I am doing audiobooks for Audible.
Q: Although you have done films like Black and Guzaarish, we don’t see you doing them often. What keeps you away from it?
SP: I did whatever work came to me. I just never pursued it and it wasn’t that I ever felt incomplete because I wasn’t doing films. A lot of actors feel that you don’t arrive until you do cinema. But, I never felt that. I always felt that theatre is everything for me, I am happy here and I don’t need anything more. But, of course, whenever good roles came to me like Khandaan, Black, TVF Tripling or even Band Baaja Baarat, I did them and they were great fun. And, to be honest, I earned whatever living I could for buying a house doing those small parts and I am very grateful that they happened. Now, I am in my 50s and the problem with this age group is that the roles that come to you are of grandmothers and whenever that happens, I ask them to call me after 10 years. But, if a great opportunity comes to me, I will jump at it. Because I have done so little work, I think, people have a misconception that I am choosy, I am not. I just won’t do bad roles.
Q: And, what is a good role?
SP: I will go for a good script, I am a huge lover of text. The more interesting it is, the more I would gravitate towards it. Then I am looking for good parts, which theatre gives me. Take for example, my role in The Glass Menagerie.
Q: Lastly, what’s your dream for the theatre community?
SP: I would like it to have more cohesiveness, i.e. if we could all come together and be there for the younger generation, who would then come in a more systematic manner. If the government realises the importance of arts and if we could reach more children. Last year, we did Class Act, which was a workshop with 60 school children and it was fantastic because the stories that these kids have are not some silly family stories, they are good stories. But, where is our youth theatre? However, the only good thing is that more people from the younger generation wants to do theatre now and they are trying to see how to do theatre. Otherwise earlier, apart from Naseeruddin Shah, everybody has left. Aamir Khan started at Prithvi, Amitabh Bachchan started with theatre, Shah Rukh Khan started with Barry John, they are not there, not even to support the theatre. When I went to London, I could see all the big actors. They find the time and come back to the stage because they know what the stage gives them can’t be given by films. We don’t have that culture. And, this theory that theatre is the stepping stone to the cinema is ridiculous. They are two different mediums and an actor should want to do all!
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