Silhouette editor Amitava Nag catches up with young, talented Bengali stage actors Manas Mukherjee and Keshob Bhattacharyya on theatre, cinema & more.
Bengali theatre group Mukhomukhi celebrated its 20th year with a theatre festival which concluded recently in June. Amongst the other plays, their children’s production Bidhata Purush was notable for being one which had only the child actors in all the roles. It was a demanding task for the children’s wing which is in its second year and where the kids range from a minimum of 3 years to a maximum being barely 12. The group was tuned by two young actors of the Bengali stage Manas Mukherjee and Keshob Bhattacharyya who have already created a name for themselves as actors. Silhouette editor Amitava Nag catches up with them, discussing their journey so far in the maverick world of theatre.
Amitava: Tell something about your background – how you came into theatres?
Manas: We are from Kanchrapara near Kalyani. Both of us are from the same school and class. When we were kids we never really thought of joining theatre professionally as such. There was a theatre group called Alor Paras which used to have theatre competitions for different schools of the area. When we were in Class 9 we acted in Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. A person called Debasish-da, who is with NSD (National School of Drama) now, used to come to school to train us in theatre acting.
The performances were well appreciated and all these senior people there used to encourage us all the time to remain committed and excel. We then started frequenting Alor Paras group so that we can learn more about theatre acting and in parallel had been doing these theatre performances in school till our +2 levels.
Our passion for theatre continued to our College days and we studied together again in the same college and in the same department. At that time we hadn’t yet watched the productions of the professional group theatre in Kolkata. It was around 2008 when we joined another theatre group in our locality called Nandik.
Our first director was Partha Pratim Bhattacharya. It was during this time at Nandik when the first serious thoughts of taking up acting as a profession came into our minds. We had actually watched a lot of productions from the mofussil groups by then and we were immersed in our thoughts on theatre almost the entire time. I think at that time even if we had seen only mofussil productions, we actually started thinking about theatre in a way in which most Kolkata based groups think.
Amitava: Can you elaborate what you mean by a difference between the Kolkata-way (if I am allowed) and the mofussil-way?
Manas: The productions were different and I think that is because of financial constraints which are more in the mofussil groups. The way we started, we did our own makeup, built our own set, stitched our own dress, we did everything. Our schooling was like that, we had to do all the things in our theatre. We even created our own music. And all of this is purely because we couldn’t financially sustain by outsourcing these to professional entities which are done in the Kolkata groups.
Keshob: On the other side what I have seen is, in the mofussil groups the way a young talent is accepted and nurtured is exemplary. In most, obviously not all, Kolkata groups, the director expects trained and professional actors to work in the productions to minimize the risks. We had the schooling towards Total Theatre.
Amitava: Do you really think that this is a good idea where everyone can do everything and you don’t need specialized people for the different aspects?
Manas: In a professional theatre you are bound to have different specialized roles for professional people. That is what we mentioned before. But I think as a theatre actor and a theatre worker one should know all the different aspects of it so that if the need be he can do it himself.
Keshob: Also, people can’t take unnecessary upper hand if you actually know the tricks of all the trades.
Amitava: In theatre how do you keep yourself abreast with the contemporary trends in world theatre? In cinema it is easier since cinema moves around. But theatre in that sense is more geographically static.
Keshob: Yes, it is a bit difficult. But when we go outside, even within India in theatre festivals or when some foreign groups come and perform here we do discuss with them and within us. These exchanges of ideas help us to identify our gaps and we get to know what theatre workers of other areas are thinking.
Manas: I remember a German group performed Ibsen’s Enemy of the people. And there in one scene where the doctor is to be stoned, we find he is thrown water balloons which actually messed up the entire set. What I loved watching it was, the director was not afraid of doing so. You can imagine that the set has to be redone before every performance, it becomes that expensive. But the director had the creative freedom to attain what he wanted. We don’t have that freedom in our theatre due to financial constraints.
Keshob: I think in Kolkata we don’t have a professional structure as in Delhi or Mumbai. Here, it is still very much individuated. That is why it is difficult to survive here by doing theatre alone. The maximum ticket price of a performance in a Bengali theatre is INR 200-300 whereas the minimum ticket price of a Hindi theatre or Indian English ones are on an average at least 3-4 times this price.
Amitava: Earlier, when you mentioned that the Kolkata groups generally don’t shapeup acting talents, do you think it is actually the job of a theatre group? Or that should be taken care of by acting schools like NSD etc?
Keshob: There are groups who have done this activity and with success. Nandikar has done this for long. Then Minerva repertoire is another example. I think the group has some responsibility to identify, train and support young talents who will rule the Bengali theatre in the future.
Amitava: Coming back, when did you start acting in theatre productions of Kolkata?
Manas: 2011. There was a newspaper advertisement looking for young actors for the play Supari Killer by Prachya group. We then acted in 3 other theatre productions of Prachya. Then we did Sabjanta, written and directed by Soumitra Chatterjee followed by the other productions of Mukhomukhi.
Amitava: Tell us something about your directorial ventures.
Manas: We had worked with young children since 2012. Then we did another work with the street children of a slum area through a NGO. That was very challenging. Not only they were quite illiterate but it was also difficult to hold their attention for long. But they soon loved us very much. I think only theatre can provide such a bonding.
In 2013 we did another project with the students of the dance academy of Poulami Chatterjee (actress, director and dancer). There we did Bonge Byango which was written by Keshob.
Then in 2015, Bilu Dutta of the Mukhomukhi group asked us to be part of the children’s wing of the Mukhomukhi group. Before that we were supposed to be part of another children’s production but ultimately we couldn’t be part of it due to reasons that are best left untold.
Keshob: At that time we were mostly sure that we will be doing these works at a professional level and not as a charity only.
Amitava: This brings us to an interesting juncture. How do you combat this expectation which is a typical Bengali psyche where doing things for free is hailed as an epitome of virtue?
Manas: Yes, it was difficult. Initially we had done a lot of work with less or no remuneration as such because we needed work and to prove ourselves. But then a time came when we realized that even after meeting the expectations we are being ignored in lieu of less deserving individuals for whatever reasons. We decided that we will stop letting people take us for granted.
Keshob: How long can you hold on to your inspiration and your ideals. You have to get something at the end of the day, not to have a lavish style but at least just to survive. Most young theatre workers here are exploited and they are expected to have an unfading love for theatre even if they don’t earn a penny from it.
Manas: We have given more than 100% to our theatre. I think we have the right to deserve this dignity. I can take a lot of pride in saying that both of us were involved in multiple aspects of each production, we never walked into the stage by applying the make-up only.
Amitava: Keeping that into account don’t you want to work in Television? Purely from financial considerations?
Keshob: Working in television means acting in serials and mega serials. They have nothing to offer but the money. We had got a few offers before and we couldn’t accept them because of conflict with show timings. But yes, we may get into television knowing fully that we are doing this because of our financial requirements. Theatre will always be there to satisfy our creative urge.
Amitava: And cinema?
Manas: Yes. Cinema has a bigger frame. We have worked in short films but if we are offered roles in cinema we will definitely want to do that. Cinema will fulfill the financial requirements and it is far better than TV serials any day. But if theatre could sustain us financially we will remain exclusively in theatre. Unfortunately the reality is otherwise.
Amitava: Coming to a different context, how was your experience with the latest children’s production Bidhata Purush which was staged in Minerva Theatre on 13th June?
Manas: Working with children is always challenging and at the same time it is very rewarding as well.Their love is so unblemished that it is bound to touch your soul. And we also have to upgrade ourselves to match their expectations. I become very emotional at times looking at how they try to do things which we are asking them to do. Most of them are below 10 years of age. You can imagine that generally kids of this age will get intimidated on stage the moment they will see the black heads in the audience. But our kids in the theatre have surprised us with their smartness and their eagerness to learn and do better.
Amitava: Apart from practicing in rehearsals what other aspects you think are required for training the young minds?
Keshob: A holistic development, so that a kid can understand music, appreciates good cinema, has knowledge about lighting and so on. Take for example reading books, they should ideally read good books as well. On one day we may have a film show, or we may discuss about a book. We didn’t have any mentor who would handhold us at this tender age. We will try to help the kids so that they can get a direction. Our job is to guide them in their own quests.
Amitava: What inspires you to do theatre even with so many odds?
Keshob: It is very difficult to answer this. Actually our very consciousness is related to theatre. We haven’t thought of anything else actually. Theatre is something where we can identify ourselves. When we are depressed then if we reminisce the applauds we get when we are on stage or someone whom we don’t know as such who came to the green room to congratulate us, then we start again. Theatre for us is not just acting, it is a lifestyle as well. These small things inspire us, I think.
Amitava: Any inspirational figure in theatre?
Manas: Oh definitely, who else but Soumitra Chatterjee. We acted with him in Phera under Poulami-di’s direction. And again acted in Sabjanta where Soumitra babu was the director. His commitment and his dedication are extraordinary. He gives so much respect to even newcomers. I am of his grandson’s age and a new actor and he is a legend. After a sequence with him in theatre he would often ask ‘Was it ok?’ Can you imagine this? He gives tremendous space to a co-actor.
As a director he would patiently deal with every actor. Here also his respect towards his colleagues is exemplary. I can recall an incident during the rehearsal of Sabjanta. It was during the initial rehearsal days and the basement of the hall where we were scheduled to practice was having some problem. Soumitra babu did come on time as always. The production manager told him that rehearsal couldn’t be done because of the problems.
We had already come by then and it takes more than 2 hours to come here. We were new to the group then. He could have cancelled the practice anyway. But he said he will do it since he asked us to come all the way. We found a spot in the 2nd floor of the hall. He was quite unwell then but he climbed the stairs just to fulfill his commitment and his respect for the two youngest members of his acting team. We haven’t seen anyone even close to him.
The other person who helped us in thick and thin is Poulami-di. There had been times when we were unsure how we will continue coming to Kolkata to do theatre. She had been a big support always. We couldn’t have come so far if Poulami-di wasn’t there. She treated us as part of our family. If there is a tree which gives us shelter and protection here in theatre it is Poulami-di.
Keshob: We must also mention the name of Bilu Dutta who is the mainstay of Mukhomukhi. Bilu-da is the other person apart from Poulomi Di who had supported us till date. We are really grateful to him as well.
Amitava: What are your future plans?
Manas: Frankly speaking, I think we are reaching an age where we have to seriously think of alternatives which will earn us the luxury of continuing our journey in theatre. I don’t know how it will happen, in which form that will come but I feel now that a financial support will be required pretty soon. I hope I can continue working in theatre no matter what comes.
Keshob: Yes, we can’t survive without doing theatre. The next 2 years are very crucial to me. I think I will try television serials to keep myself afloat financially.
Amitava: Manas Mukherjee and Keshob Bhattacharyya wishing you all the success in your personal and professional lives. May all your dreams come true.
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