February 16, 2020
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The Prithvi: Moving Earth

The theatre movement started by Prithviraj Kapoor, as a three-act play across generations

The Prithvi: Moving Earth
The Prithvi: Moving Earth
The Prithviwallahs
By Shashi Kapoor By
Roli Rs 895; Pages: 151
I am a sucker for family histories. And here is a book that in some ways is a history of the most eminent family of actors of the Hindi film industry. For the devotees of Hindi movies, this would be quite enough. But The Prithviwallahs is much more. It is primarily the history of Prithviraj Kapoor’s Prithvi Theatres and its resurrection as the Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai.

Written as a book in three acts, the first act tells the story of Prithviraj Kapoor’s single-minded, single-handed creation of Prithvi Theatres, a theatrical company that ushered in contemporary Hindustani theatre in India. In the 16 years of its existence (1944-1960), Prithvi Theatres with its lead star and director, Prithviraj Kapoor, travelled the length and breadth of India performing original plays in theatres, halls, schools, maidans—anywhere and everywhere, from metropolitan cities to mofussil towns. Prithvi Theatres was a popular professional repertory company but, as it happens, could never really make ends meet. Its frequent liabilities had to be covered by Prithviraj himself from his earnings as an actor in the cinema. Prithvi Theatres was essentially the playing out of his vision and ideal of a professional theatre movement that would eventually become part of the country’s cultural landscape.

The real success of Prithvi Theatres was the theatrical culture it propagated, whose influence is felt even today. Egalitarian by nature, Prithiviraj was only the first among equals in Prithvi Theatres because that’s the way he wanted it to be. This has rubbed off not only on his immediate family but also with everyone associated with the Prithvi movement. In some ways, Prithvi Theatres was an institution. The success of Prithvi Theatres can be measured from the number of hugely talented bunch of actors, musicians, composers, writers and technicians it ultimately provided the film industry. The roster reads like the who’s who of the Hindi cinema of the past 50 years. The story of Prithvi Theatres and Prithviraj’s constant struggle to keep it alive makes for fascinating reading.

The second act deals with Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor’s resurrection of the memory of Prithvi Theatres not so much by starting a theatrical company, but as a theatrical space they created on a plot of land in Juhu that had belonged to Prithviraj. This new Prithvi Theatre has since become a landmark institution in developing and catalysing experimental, amateur and professional theatre in Mumbai. One can’t imagine theatre in Mumbai without the Prithvi. During its seminal years, however, Jennifer tragically passed away—leaving the job of running Prithvi Theatre to the next generation. Two generations down the line from Prithviraj, Kunal and Sanjna Kapoor (Shashi’s son and daughter) expanded its activities with annual national and international theatre festivals—call it Act III. And now Sanjna has seen to it that its activities are no longer confined to its Juhu theatre. Plays part of the festival now have several venues throughout the city; some of them improvised spaces in schools and gardens. Soon Prithvi Theatre plans to include other cities of India, recalling Prithviraj’s efforts to reach audiences in other cities and towns of India.

The charming quality of the book is the presence of Shashi Kapoor himself: he is not only a great repository of his family history but also a pretty compelling raconteur. Deepa Gehlot, who has authored the book, has wisely allowed Shashi’s voice to come through. Reading the book brought back memories of the time when I directed a couple of films for Shashi.It never took much persuasion to get Shashi to talk about his beloved "Papaji" (Prithviraj) or Jennifer (the daughter of yet another great theatre family, Shakespeareana) or his illustrious brothers, Raj and Shammi Kapoor. I am glad that many of those anecdotes have found place in this book.

This three-act book is extremely well conceived and written. It is certainly a welcome addition to the rather sparse collection of books on Indian Theatre.

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