Deepali Singh (DNA; June 25, 2017)

A few days ago, director Manish Gupta put up a post on Facebook, informing that casting is on for female actors for an important role in a film he’ll be directing. One of his main requirements for the role? A background in theatre. “Theatre provides you with the tools and skills for acting. When you want a good actor for your film, and don’t want to rely on other frills such as costumes and foreign locations, that’s when the need for an actor from a theatre background arises,” says the filmmaker, who has written Sarkar and last directed Rahasya.

Some of Hindi cinema’s most powerhouse performers have had a connection with the stage. Right from Prithviraj Kapoor, to Naseeruddin Shah, Paresh Rawal, Shabana Azmi, Pankaj Kapur, Anupam Kher, Om Puri, Ratna Pathak Shah and others, many owe their acting careers to the stage. The reigning superstar of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan, studied under Barry John and acted in a number of plays during his college days in Delhi University. While theatre actors were few and far between in movies till a couple of years ago, a look at the current crop of films, and you will find that they are peppered with actors who have had their training in theatre.

Whether it is Nimrat Kaur, who received critical acclaim for her turn as the lonely housewife in Lunch Box, or Kalki Koechlin, who made her debut with Dev D as a young girl who turns to prostitution after a leaked sex tape scandal, or Manav Kaul, whose performance in Kai Po Che! as a right-wing politician was appreciated by all, they all have theatre as the common binding factor. Actors such as Radhika Apte, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Irrfan Khan, Ayushmann Khurrana, Piyush Mishra, Huma Qureshi, Rajkummar Rao, Atul Kumar, Kumud Mishra and Danish Husain among others, have taken their training in theatre and made Hindi cinema richer with their powerful performances.

One with the craft
While producer Tanuj Garg believes that it’d be unfair to generalise, he does agree that theatre, being a tougher medium, creates extremely mature, confident and seasoned actors.

Tumhari Sulu, a movie produced by Tanuj, Bhushan Kumar, Atul Kasbekar and Shanti Sivaram, features Manav Kaul playing husband to Vidya Balan. “Manav has been around as an actor for a while. He has being doing some exceptional theatre and playing small key roles in several renowned films. The casting of Ashok was crucial as we needed a brilliant actor who could match up to Vidya (Sulu). Nandini Shrikent (casting director) worked diligently on this casting. When we saw Manav’s test, we were blown away. His performance was natural, effortless and nuanced. Just the sort of Ashok we needed,” says Tanuj.

Filmmakers are always keen to cast good actors in their movies, and if their training has been in theatre, it helps bring that extra magic to their performances. Madhur Bhandarkar’s next, Indu Sarkar, sees Kirti Kulhari, who comes from a theatre background, as its lead protagonist. Playing Manto’s wife Safia in Nandita Das’s next film as director, Manto, is Rasika Dugal, who too, started from the stage and has done small, but pivotal roles in Hindi films. The filmmaker met Rasika after she had seen her perform in the play Bombay Talkies, which had been filmed for Nandita’s theatre initiative, CinePlay. “I think what makes theatre actors different is that they are regularly in touch with their craft. Even when I didn’t have film work, I was regularly attending rehearsals and doing plays. Being in touch with your craft is extremely important,” says Rasika.

Discipline on stage
Although Dinesh Vijan had not seen any of Jim Sarbh’s theatre performances — he has till now not even seen him play the terrific villain in Neerja — his recently released Raabta had the actor coming in the way of the lead pair, played by Kriti Sanon and Sushant Singh Rajput, another theatre actor turned filmstar. “My process of casting is very instinctive,” says Dinesh, “When I saw the auditions, I saw an unpredictable energy in Jim, an inherent grain that made me feel he was the character.”

Acting, feels Sayani Gupta, like a lot of other things, is all about practice. The actress, who made her debut with the role of a blind activist Khanum in Margarita With A Straw, has a couple of interesting roles lined up, from playing a 14-year-old in Jagga Jasoos to the female lead in The Hungry, also starring Naseeruddin Shah. Sayani, who has worked with theatre stalwarts like Habib Tanvir and MK Raina, believes that theatre has helped hone her acting skills. “The most important thing that theatre teaches you is discipline and respecting everyone equally. Theatre also helps you in persistent rigour and the importance of rehearsing every single day in order to ‘find’ something. Everyday is a new challenge, every show is as exciting and nerve racking. Also, you are thinking on your feet and really learn to ‘listen’ to your co-actors while acting. You are ready to improvise at any time and yet, know the whole play by heart including other people’s lines. All of these count and pay off in acting for any other medium. You just figure out other technical nitty gritties when you face the camera,” says the actress.