Puneet Issar's new play delves into psychology of Duryodhan, finds out why he became the antagonist
In the course of history, oftentimes, a piece of work can become so iconic, it becomes synonymous with the person behind it. For Ramesh Sippy, it was Sholay, for Smriti Irani, it was Tulsi Virani and for Puneet Issar, it was Duryodhan in BR Chopra’s epic TV series, Mahabharata. Even three decades later, people continue to address him as Duryodhan. It is perhaps why he thought of going back to it in the form of a play. Titled Mahabharat - The Epic Tale, the play written and directed by Issar is coming to Mumbai this weekend. Ahead of the premiere show, Indulge sat down with Issar to deconstruct how he created Duryodhan for the first time, how is his play on Mahabharata different from the iconic television series, what made him explore the epic from the perspective of Duryodhan and what’s next for the actor-director. Excerpts:
Q: With this play, do you feel your journey is coming to a full circle?
Not exactly a full circle but it was my time to give back what God has given me. I became famous and a household name because of Mahabharata. They say Puneet is synonymous with Duryodhana. People still keep saying, ‘Duryodhan must be like you. When we think about him, we see your reflection.’ Even though I did it about 30 years ago and have done so much work afterwards, people still remember me with Duryodhan. So, that’s there.
Q: Tell us how Mahabharata happened? Were you approached or did you approach the makers?
In 1982, Coolie happened and afterwards I got stereotyped as someone who is a fighter, has 8th-degree black belt in martial arts, knows kung-fu karate, has strong built and I was getting those kinds of roles only. But, I wasn’t satisfied with them. I am a trained actor and was a professor for speech and diction but all that went to the backburner and all I was associated with was fighting.
Then I got to know about Mahabharata and I went to Chopra Sahab, he saw me and immediately gave me the role of Bhim because I had a great build. And, he was a big man, almost like present-day Sanjay Leela Bhansali and how would you tell him that you don’t want to do what he is offering, especially when you are a newcomer but I told him, ‘Sir, I have read Mahabharata and I want to play Duryodhan’s character.’ He was surprised. He was like, ‘we want you to be the hero and you want to be a villain and if you will play Duryodhan, from where will we find someone who is bigger and stronger than you physically so that we can do justice to Bhim’. And then, somebody from him team pointed out that there will also be dialogues and since I am a fighter, I might not be able to deliver them. I said, “Sir, I know you are right, I don’t have a body of work to prove you but if you will allow me, I want to perform something.” Interestingly, before Mahabharata, I had done Jayadrath Vadh, which was written by Maithili Sharan Gupt. So, when he allowed me to perform, I narrated the entire Jayadrath Vadh, which I knew by heart and he was mesmerised with my Hindi and diction. And, that’s how I got Duryodhana.
Q: Talking about Coolie, did the infamous incident where you accidentally hit Amitabh Bachchan affect your career?
I can’t say I was thick skin and it didn’t affect me at all. Of course it hurts you that even though by mistake, somebody got hurt. He is such a big star and such a nice man. I still have very good relations with them. But, work-wise, I didn’t get work for six years but it is okay, I think it was destiny. I am a firm believer of 'whatever happens, happens for the better' and at that time also, I kept telling myself that perhaps it is making me stronger or preparing me for the future.
Q: And, what brought you back to the stage and explore Mahabharat again?
I used to do amateur theatre during my initial days in the industry but then Mahabharat happened and I got busy with work. About three years ago, I came back to theatre with Atul Kaushik’s Ravan ki Ramayan where I play Ravan. It is a very well written play but even after hours of extensive performance, people would come up to me and say, ‘Sir, please Duryodhan ka ek dialogue sunaiye na (Please say a dialogue of Duryodhan)’ (laughs). And, people would invariably come and ask me why I am not doing something on Duryodhan. It was then that I thought that maybe I should do something, perhaps retell the Mahabharata from Duryodhan and Karan’s perspective.
Q: You have also written the play, take us about your writing process and reference material?
We started shooting in 1988 end but we were signed in 1986 beginning, we got almost three years to prepare ourselves and in this period, I read everything that I could lay my hands on. I already knew Jayadrath Vadh, I read Rashmirathi [a book which focuses on the life of Karna] by poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, I also read Urubhangam by Bhasa, it is from Duryodhan’s perspective. So, I was always familiar with a lot of text and perspectives and I drew from them while writing the script for this play.
Q: How is it different from the Mahabharata we all grew up seeing?
When it comes to writing, I spent two years developing this script. Even though I am writing it from the perspective of Duryodhan and Karan, I can’t do injustice to other characters. I have written it in a poetic manner. I didn’t want to repeat what I have already done. I read various texts again and again and picked things that weren’t there in Chopra Sahab’s Mahabharat. We haven’t kept samay (time) as narrator, we have created a character called Mother Earth, and it has increased the emotions in our play by leaps and bounds. What does a mother feel when two songs are fighting? This question is very relevant in contemporary times - where is the world heading to? We are at loggerheads with each other, we are facing a massive climate change… one nuclear war and the world will be over. The younger Duryodhan is another character, which takes you to the initial days of Duryodhan which were spent in Gurukul and it is played by my son Sidhant Issar, who has co-written the screenplay with me. This addition will delve into the psychology of Duryodhan and figure out answers to questions like what made him so negative? It will dive into how he was born and how he was called 'kaal' and how everybody saw him as disgust and wanted to kill him.
We have also stressed on the body movements, the placing of every character and the lighting. I have included Krishna's virat roop sequence, which is one of the highlights of the play. And, I have put live background music. The overall production value is outstanding.
Q: Take us through the challenges of putting this play together.
The biggest challenge was that if I play Duryodhan, I have to be physically fit. I started doing weight training, functional, cross-fit and martial arts. I lost 23 kgs. I went on a strict keto diet. People think Puneet Issar is Duryodhan and Duryodhan can’t be sloppy.
The casting was another big challenge. I couldn’t get those guys because everyone has aged. So, I got new guys and trained them for a while. I found a Bhim, who is 6’6’’ and got Arjun and Karan who look like their part. I also taught them acting. From the old cast, Gufi Paintal is back and he is playing Shakuni again. Casting and preps took me about 1 year.
Q: Lastly, what’s next?
I am writing another play, it is based on Ramayana and I am going to present Ram in a very different avatar. He is sampoorna (whole) - ek band (one arrow), ek vakya (one sentence) and ek patni (one wife). Ram is known for this. He was the best archer, one shot and the person is dead, if he said something once, he will act on his words and everybody in those days had three-four wives but he was the one who had only one wife. I have been writing it for about a year now. Besides, we will take Mahabharat to Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Calcutta, Hyderabad, Kanpur, Pune and other cities and then next year, we will take it abroad.
Apart from theatre, as an actor, I am in talks for two web series, one for Amazon and another for Netflix and I am doing two films. As a director, I am doing Gama (a biopic on an undefeated wrestler) for Salman Khan, who is the producer. It will be for an OTT platform.
Mahabharat - The Epic Tale will be performed at Nehru Centre on Saturday and at St. Andrews Auditorium on Sunday. Tickets available on bookmyshow.com