FLASHBACK & FORWARDby Aparajita Krishna July 26 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 20 mins, 39 secs
Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal, Om Katare, Ishitta Arun are performing artists who represent three generations respectively, writes Aparajita Krishna
This article carries a flashback account and the present one in the life-work of these three persons connected with the creative world of theatre, television, films, fashion. They share their recall of the start-up work in their lives, what followed and a work or work-status in the present. This ‘Then & Now’ gives us interesting anecdotes while in a small way highlighting their work.
At 77 she not only carries a beautiful face and carriage, but in her bearing and beliefs, she holds a combination of a sensitive and feisty actor and citizen. Theatre audience and colleagues know of her incredible repertoire of acts on stage, while the film audience would connect her with Black, Little Zizou, Guzaarish and Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi. Actor, theatre producer-director, and founder of The Make-a-Difference Foundation focussed on ending violence against women and children, Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal shares in brief her dialogue and monologue with theatre in particular.
I acted in my first play at the age of three. I am 77 now. I also studied for many years under the legendary Hima Devi who saw a lot of potential in me. I performed in many school plays. After my 11th standard I was selected to study acting in New York on a full scholarship. My father put a swift and cruel end to that opportunity. Clearly, for someone like him, the arts were not a suitable avenue to pursue. He said, “No good Parsee girl takes up acting as a career.”
Devastated by this aborted passion of mine, I went to St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai and got a dual B.Sc. degree in microbiology and geology. At a crucial moment in my family’s life, I worked at a lab in the USA. My earnings helped support our family and helped put my husband through dental school where he specialized in orthodontics. We returned to India after his studies and I began living a life neither in the sciences nor in the theatre.
Later, very unexpectedly, my first theatrical opportunity in my adult life landed before me. My son, Kaizaad Kotwal, had returned to Bombay after his first undergraduate year in USA and had brought a script of a play, Eden Creek, written by one of his theatre professors, Dr. Dwight Watson. It was a series of five monologues, delivered by five women who lived during the great American Depression. Kaizaad wanted to stage it in Bombay and had about two and a half months to set it up. I recommended actors and put him in touch with Nirmala Mathan, her daughter Poornima, Yasmin Palsetia, D’Jenna Rohani and Bindiya Mathur. They were in the original cast of the play. Kaizaad had a hard time finding the right actor for the fifth character. I remember Kaizaad asking me if I’d like to do that piece. I jumped at the opportunity. I was excited to get on to the stage again at the age of 44.
Eden Creek was first given a small production grant of ₹3,000/- by the United States Information Services (USIS), a branch of the US Consulate in Mumbai. It was staged in 1988. The first four shows were at the USIS auditorium at Marine Lines. It was for audiences by invitation only. The response was tremendous. Some years later, we also performed it at the British Council Auditorium at Churchgate. It was the first American play to be performed there. The Grindlays Bank then asked us to perform three shows for their clients at their branch at Breach Candy. It was a great experience. No performance fee was given. We all did it for the love of it. Over the years, I’ve realized that art is not respected in our country. With all the experiences I’ve had, today I would not work for free. Not even for God! The next two decades brought several plays my way.
It seems that right from the start with Eden Creek, monologues seemed to be a very significant part of my performance and theatrical destiny. The mother of them all came to me in 2003 in the form of The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler (who now goes only by the letter “V”). She had requests from many theatre people in India. She told Kaizaad and me that many groups, directors and producers from India had approached her for the rights, but she chose us because we were the only ones who had not asked her to change a word of the script in order to put it up for an Indian audience.
It took a very serious vetting process by V and her team, taking them two years to give us the rights. We had to take a special trip to New York to meet V.
Now the first challenge was to get the censor certificate from the Maharashtra Censor Board. That art should be censored is the most regressive and outdated notion. In many states local police departments are put in charge of vetting scripts and determining whether they may or may not be performed. Anyway, we got through that censorship permission hurdle quite easily, without having to bribe anyone and without the board suggesting even a single word be cut or changed.
The next major hurdle was casting. I started making calls and was amazed that actors who wore skirts short enough to exhibit their vaginas refused to say the V-word. One of them said, “Chee, how can I say the word? What will I tell my Guru? My parents too will never allow it”. Kaizaad was down for the holidays and happened to meet Dolly Thakore, who jumped at the offer to join the cast. She brought in Avantika Akerkar, and I got Jayati Bhatia on board. Rehearsals were a hoot. So much bonding took place. Unfortunately, we were warned by many that we should have a posse of policemen present at the opening show. The late Alyque Padamsee even advised us to contact some lawyers.
The show opened in India at the Prithvi Theatre, after several years of pre-productions. The day we opened at the Prithvi Theatre, we were sold out days in advance. People were willing to pay ₹1,000 for a ₹500 ticket to people who had already bought tickets. The audience response was unbelievable. Little did we know that it would continue on till today. In places like Pune and elsewhere, we have had to add an extra show after the three shows advertised were housefull.
The play has been performed in forty countries and V does not allow any additions or deletions.
We have travelled to all the major cities in India and Sri Lanka. In 2004, a year after we opened, we got V, and two Oscar-winners, Jane Fonda and Marissa Tomei, to come and perform shows with us. These shows held in Mumbai and Delhi helped us raise lakhs of rupees for shelters for battered and abused women. We’ve helped acid attack victims, rape victims along with organizations battling the age-old pandemic of violence against women and girls all over India. We have done many shows for residents of the bastis of Mumbai. One of our most significant shows was for 1,200 policewomen from Maharashtra at the request of the then Police Commissioner, Rakesh Maria.
In 2007 I had the play translated into Hindi by Ritu Bhatia and Jaideep Sarcar. Unfortunately, this show has been a financial disaster, although more appreciated than the English version by audiences who have seen both. However, we do get full houses for the Hindi version at Prithvi.
In 2019, I went to Gainesville, Georgia (USA) and directed eleven women to help raise money for rape victims there. Not one of the eleven women there were actors. They came from various professions, like law, architecture, and there was even a female pastor. In one evening, they collected US $30,000. No one was paid and I even paid for two trips to Gainesville to get the play rehearsed and ready for performance. It was my way of giving to a cause that is very dear to my heart, which is to empower women by trying to end the scourge of violence against us.
Over the twenty years, we have collected thousands of comments from audience-members in our special comment books. Hopefully, one day, we can publish a book of the comments and other audience testimonials.
A flash-forward. Next March 8th (International Women’s Day) as we enter our 21st year, we have many exciting things lined up for this wonderful play The Vagina Monologues. The downside is that we are banned by many theatre venues including the NCPA and St. Andrews. But we march on, come what may. This play has been written with such passion and purity of purpose, that no one can stop it.
The Vagina Monologues is one of the most potent examples that art can be used so effectively to empower a cause one really believes in and that art can bring about real change in our world, mitigating many age-old, intractable problems.
Om Katare and his Mumbai based theatre group, Yatri, have contributed much towards creating and sustaining the audience for Hindi theatre in particular. Ask any theatre practitioner or theatre-venue owner in Mumbai and it will get unanimously endorsed that Yatri’s popular plays have popularized theatre-going in Mumbai. He has sustained his theatre through the decades by some innovative marketing ways too.
A boy from Datia, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, Om Katare graduated from Filmalaya in Mumbai, to go on and establish Yatri in the year 1979. Since its inception he has staged more than 100 plays for Yatri, performed more than 5500 shows of the productions. The group has performed across India and also around the world.
Yatri has to-date held 43 Theatre Festivals. Om Katare the actor, director, writer, set-designer in theater has also been a teacher who has trained more than 1500 actors through 50 workshops. Most significantly Om Katare has penned original Hindi plays in a scenario that is challenged and lacking in theatre-play-writing. He has been awarded the Hindi Sahitya Akademi Award on completion of 25 Years in Theatre. Besides this, he has been recognized and honored by various private and social organizations for his work and contribution to theatre and society.
I stepped onto the Prithvi Theater stage, or, let’s say performed my first show on the 16th January 1979. It was Sharad Joshi’s Ek Tha Gadha urf Alaadaad Khan. We had a cast of twenty actors and not a penny in the pocket. We would even have tea from our own money. Back then there was no system of selling tickets. We artists would, after the show, stand at the Prithvi gate with our jholi spread out. Whatever money the audience dropped into it would be our show-collection. First time we received a total sum of Rs 240. But the high of performing at Prithvi did not leave us. It is like an elixir. Yatri was born at Prithvi theatre. It was love at first sight. I have spent more time of my life at Prithvi than at home. So, my attachment to this space is embedded.
On 31st December 2017 we broke all the box-office records at Prithvi. It was a Sunday. We had four shows: two shows of children’s play and two shows for adult play. All the four shows went full in advance.
Shri L C Singh has been partnering (patron) Yatri since the last three decades. Shri Ashok Mukhi, a businessman, has been a great supporter always and has seen our play Kaal Chakra, on senior citizens, fifty times. He patronized every show whenever it was performed. Shri L C Singh is the Vice Chairman of an IT company called NIHILENT Technologies, Pune. He is a great theatre lover.
I had early on in years realized that economic survival purely on theater is not possible. So, I gravitated towards corporate synergy. For the last thirty years I have been doing corporate launches of company products through theater plays. Companies like TCS, HUL, Mahindra, Birla, ONGC, to name a few. We create a play around their product/s launch. They market the products after the show-launch.
Yatri’s latest work is the first biographical play in India on the living legend Dr Mukesh Batra. Jeena Isi Ka Naam Hai. It was written and directed by me. It is a theatrical production on the life and times of Padma Shri recipient Dr Mukesh Batra. We had a show at Sophia Bhabha Auditorium, Mumbai, on 10th April 2022 with an audience of 700. It had a count of forty actors and technicians working on the project. Sahil Ravi played Dr Mukesh Batra.
In June 2022 we had four houseful shows of Jeene Bhi Do Yaaro and Perfect Family. Now the collection at the box-office of a houseful show is Rs 90,000. It thrills one’s spirits to recall that one has spent forty-three years of a theatre-journey at Prithvi Theatre. Each and every nook and corner there is witness to our journey. It is that space where I can, for hours, just sit alone or in the company of colleagues. Today when I look back at it all, it seems like a dream. I believe that I will never get over this creative intoxication.
I have over the years directed such big names, such as, Shri Shekhar Sumanji, Kirti Kulhari who is now big in films, then Nakuul Mehta, Kishore Namit, Rajiv Verma. They became friends too. This is our heritage.
I also strongly believe that theatre ought to be practiced with complete devotion and allegiance. It is only then that one will experience an inner change. Detached theatre does not give you anything. In and around the world of theatre lie culture, behavior, modalities of life and many other qualities. What you learn and grasp from it is up to you. I had not imagined back then in years that I would be where I am today in theatre. All I can say is that if I could make it in theatre then so can anyone. Though it was not easy back then and neither is it now.
Despite having done so much of work I feel that there is still so much to do. It is my attachment to theater that made me forgo films, television. But never mind. I am satiated with the feeling that I did what I wanted to do.
From Rs 240 in 1979 at the box-office to Rs 90,000 in the present is not just the story of numbers and box-office calculations, but the yatra of Yatri through the decades, crossing many milestones and consolidating a reputation that keeps growing with each show. Jeene Bhi Do Yaaro - the latest work on stage lives and rocks in the present.
This actor, VJ, model has come a long way, but she lives on in the collective memory as the little three and a half year old winking, adorable kid of Vicks advertisement that said, ‘gale mein khich khich.’ A cult commercial has its unimaginable longevity. Herein is also a lovely recall of a serendipitous or fated chance-meet that she had as a child-artist on the sets of a Shyam Benegal film. It would be with her future husband. Her theatre work inspired by her indomitable mother Ila Arun has continued through the years. Ishitta talks of her flashback and the work in the now.
I was born in the performing-arts family. My father was a sailor, but a great lover of the arts and encouraged my mom to pursue her interests in Bombay while he was at sea. She formed the Surnai theatre group in 1982. I was born before Surnai. So, I was literally there from the inception, with rehearsals at home, and amidst mom’s first play. Lot of artists kept coming home. My early childhood memories are of people like Soni Aunty (Soni Razdan), Neena Aunty (Neena Gupta), Raja Bundela walking in and out of our home.
A lot of sittings and music mehfils would take place. I was fortunate and privileged to be born in this environment. Subconscious ingraining of culture was there. One of the anecdotes is about Riyaaz, which was mom’s 2nd or 3rd play with Surnai. The play is about a couple facing a problem in marriage and they have a child. The child is not shown on stage, but they needed a cry. That’s where I made my sonic debut on the Prithvi stage. It’s so far back. I refer to Prithvi Theatre as my playground. It was backstage where I was most comfortable. I also remember accompanying my mother to a shoot where Ekta Kapoor was around; the same age if not older to me. Out of the whole crop I am most in touch with Juhidi (Juhi Babbar).
Music and folk music in particular have been a very important part of my growing up. Literature, music, theatre, culture was all around me. When we would go back to Nani’s house in Rajasthan a lot of local, native performers would visit. My aunts were all very well versed with Hindi so the normal bol-chal ki Hindi at home was very prolific. Many dialects were spoken. A lot of mohawaras, quotes would float.
I was a precocious kid, very confident and knew what I wanted. A big influence in my life was my maternal uncle Piyush Pandey (India’s leading advertising executive, chairman, creative director for Ogilvy & Mather India and South Asia). When he first came to Mumbai he stayed as my roomie for 5 years. That experience exposed me to the O&M advertising crowd. Lot of after-parties would happen at home. He taught me how to jive. On one such occasion Suresh Mallik, creative head of Ogilvy and Mather India, had come home. I went up to him, all of 3½ and struck up a conversation. We sat and chatted for hours. I danced with him. He was taken in by me. Legend has it that Vicks’ advertisement was being shot in the same week. They had cast Jalal Agha’s daughter to play the part of Jayant Kripalani’s daughter. This chance meeting with Suresh changed it. He changed the cast and brought me in in the advertising film. Within a few days I found myself on the sets.
I don’t remember much of the shoot other than it was in a high rise. Flashes come from the famous, ‘Aur phir bhediye ne memne se kaha (cough) main tumhe kha jaaunga (cough), gale mein khich khich Vicks lo’. I am said to have nailed the act. Much after this advertisement was released it was banned by Doordarshan. The logic of the I&B ministry was that a woman cannot be winking. Herein the child me winked at her father. The makers wrote back saying that it is a kid who is winking. The ministry gave in and the advertisement was back in circulation. It is on record that it was the longest playing advertisement of its time. I think the wink was also not planned. I think it was something I just did on the spot. That was the beginning.
I went on to do many more advertisements. One was the Lijjat Papad one. I also worked with my father-in-law as a child model. There was a model-coordinator who would take me out. Once I stalled a shoot in a bungalow in Juhu. The choreographer was PL Raj. I had to do a kathak sequence. He was drunk so I refused to take any instruction from him. My parents were pretty clear not to make me get side-tracked with all of this. Study was the main focus.
While doing commercials I was also doing small cameos. My TV career was marked by doing Science Basics with Gulan Kripalani. It was an amazing experience. There were 5 kids in it. I also did the television serial Yatra with Shyam Benegal and accompanied my mom on this long train journey. I did a massive scene with Harish Patel. What I said in that scene were my own words, ‘Acting ke liye mar jaate hain log, thoda sa gala dabao darr jaate hain log’. I was then just seven and I wrote these lines. Shyam Babu said we have to use it. It was an amazing experience because of the exposure to such greats.
Then I did film Trikal around 1985. That was when I had my first tryst with my husband, Dhruv Ghanekar. Legendary story. I was not the first choice for playing the child-role. Dhruv and Joy were playing K K Raina uncle and Anita Kanwar’s sons in it. Big role. Dhruv was then massively doing work with Shyam Benegal. I was just a tag-along with my mom. My future mom-in-law, father-in-law, my uncle-in-law, brother-in-law were in the Trikal shoot. There is a party scene where I am 5, 6-year-old, Dhruv is 11, Joy, Ken, we are all sitting together. They had to once stop the shoot of Trikal because I had threatened to jump into the well if Dhruv or Joy did not marry me. Now here I am sitting and thinking I should have asked for fifty million dollars when I was forty. I want to go back to that well.
Then I took a break for schooling. Later I got into Xavier’s college. There I started doing proper theatre with mom. Goonj was my first play. I also entered the Miss India contest in 2000, in my 3rd year college. It was just an aspiration. I knew I would not win. I dropped out of college because I was not getting leave for a month even though one was to represent the country.
I later got Sonu Nigam’s Bijuria, which was my first music video. I also did a movie with Priyadarshan, which was a trilingual film, Sneghidiye, with Tabu and Jyotika. I did a couple of movies, but then I realized I was too tall, too fair, too husky a voice for a heroine. It was not the right space for me. I later studied sociology. Then went on to VJing for seven years. I did theatre with mom. Mom is a force to reckon with.
I am born into privilege. How can one deny that? But I have a different taste in literature from my mother. I prefer comedies, political satires, and dark comedies. I like things one can laugh at to elevate the daily drudgery of life. I enjoyed live shows a lot and also Vjing. I toured with the Merchants of Bollywood for three months in 2005. And I got married in 2005, to the same Trikal guy. I gravitated towards design. I believe jack of all master of none is better than a master of one. I designed three restaurants and Terence Lewis’s house. Then I got pregnant. I had two children while also moving houses. Every person has her/his own journey.
For the film Dhaakad (2022), I wrote two songs: the title song and So Ja Re.
Now finally at this stage in my life I am back to doing theater. I made my own theater company, IKIGAI & Co and produced, wrote my first play, GAA re MAA. It is about mothers, sons and music. It opened for the 40th year of Prithvi festival in 2018. It ran for twenty-five shows. It had a stellar cast. Now we are developing that for the Norwegian audiences. In the meantime, I got back to mainstream acting last year as well. I am doing three OTT projects and have wrapped up all three, The Cancer Bitch, Rana Naidu, Scoop. Many people don’t know that I act! Acting is now my focus. I am done with adhering to people’s perception of who I should be. I am a fun loving, instinctive performer. I got that from my mother. I hope it’s what my children get from her as well. I also use my free time to have fun on Instagram. I am determined to push my inner boundaries and explore as much of my potential as I can.