Deja vu. It strikes you while watching Atul Kumar’s plays—and not always because of the proceedings on stage. It surfaces at the irrepressible laughter of the audience, the unabashed applause at regular intervals, the happy feeling of having been thoroughly entertained. It was triggered again by Noises Off, his latest production of Michael Frayn’s slapstick play, which after shows in Bangalore and Mumbai, ran three days at Delhi’s Kamani Auditorium to full houses last week. In the green room a couple of hours before the first show, Kumar, dressed in trademark hat and jeans and T-shirt, appears a picture of cool but is admittedly jittery. “There is no theatre without that feeling of nervousness,” he says, running back and forth between the green room and the stage, where the elaborate setpiece, a two-floor house, is coming up.
In the last couple of years, the fortysomething Kumar has become one of the most popular directors and actors of contemporary Indian theatre, expertly treading the fine line between experimental and popular theatre. His regular collaborations with friends and colleagues Rajat Kapoor, Vinay Pathak, Ranvir Shorey and others on productions such as The Blue Mug (as director), Hamlet the Clown Prince (as actor), Nothing Like Lear (as actor) have catapulted him to the “commercially successful” zone, a place unfamiliar in Indian theatre.
“I like to work in different forms, languages, improvised as well as straight scripts. The moment I get slotted, I’ll stop.”
An Old Delhi-bred Marwari boy, Kumar joined local theatre group Chingari in 1983 as a teen, along with Rajat Kapoor. After reading French literature at jnu in Delhi, he spent a couple of years learning Kathakali and Kalaripayattu in Kerala. “Ultimately, I settled down in Bombay, because theatre was really vibrant there,” recalls Kumar, who refuses to be boxed into any one genre. “I like to work in different forms, languages, improvised as well as straight scripts. The moment I get slotted, I’ll stop doing theatre.” Kumar’s The Company Theatre, which he runs from his farmhouse three hours away from Mumbai, will be 20 next month.
“Kumar has seldom strayed from his single-mindedness on theatre—save a couple of short acting stints on TV,” says Rajat Kapoor, who has known Kumar for over 30 years, and directed him as the gibberish-speaking lead in Hamlet the Clown Prince and more recently in Nothing Like Lear. “He makes a great clown, bringing a kind of precision to the role I haven’t seen before. He makes it work with minimum expression, maximum impact.”
In Nothing Like Lear, Kumar and Vinay Pathak alternate as the clown in the solo act, each investing the role with his own personality. “While Vinay’s clown is endearing, lovable, mine is more nasty, one who takes digs at the audience,” says Kumar. In his acclaimed play about remembering, The Blue Mug, devised during rehearsals, actors brought their own memories to the table. “That play was the toughest because it was too close to the bone. It was emotionally exhausting,” says Kumar. But it rang a bell somewhere. “Atul’s very relatable,” says Konkona Sen Sharma, who acted with him on The Blue Mug. “His plays make you laugh but it isn’t comfortable laughter. You’re aware that there is some kind of distortion, and he raises questions through the comedy of the absurd.”
“As a director, Atul has really come into his own,” certifies Kapoor. “He can be a little obsessive, but whatever works. He keeps looking for new actors and has the ability to work with so many different people.”
Back in the green room before the curtains go up, Kumar’s free use of theatrics during a photoshoot is reminiscent of his form and impact on stage. Of his work, theatre veteran Amal Allana says, “Through plays like the carnivalesque Piya Behrupiya, his interpretation of Twelfth Night, Kumar tries to find a physical expression to Shakespeare. Some of the nuances of the text may be lost, but it marks a return to a more basic and popular part of Shakespeare’s work, without being derogatory. Kumar’s appeal on stage is his use of body and expression, not wording and articulation. His work derives its strength from the urbanisation of theatre, it comes at the end of the phase in theatre when we were looking to draw from Indian traditions.” Bring on the clown, then.