The stage is where Joy Sengupta’s heart is

Joy Sengupta does not let anything come in the way of his passion for theatre

Joy Sengupta has at least four plays running at any given time, he also does films, ads and web series, which would pack any actor’s schedule to the brim. Still, he makes time to watch plays, reads a lot, attends film festivals, supports causes and does extensive research on some of the roles he selects, like the recent Devika Rani, directed by Lillete Dubey, in which he played movie legend, Himanshu Rai opposite Ira Dubey in the eponymous role.

“Some plays connect with you instantly,” he says. “Like Himanshu Rai, I am also extremely passionate about theatre and cinema. I work hard to get a grip on the character. I compensate for my average talent — I am quite aware of that — with dedication and research. Himanshu Rai belonged to the period when the country was colonised, but the Bengal Renaissance still happened. Rai was a direct product of that Rensaissance, so was Devika Rani.

“I always try to break down each role to its simplest form. When actors try to intellectualise, not everything gets conveyed to the audience. I broke down Himanshu Rai down to his unending passion to establish a new medium of cinema. When I played Gandhi, in Sammy, I saw him more as a simple, average, Vaishnav boy from Kathiawad and his search for the truth. There was also the research — reading, watching footage, hearing his voice, getting his body language right, but not mimicking. I bring in my own elements to every role and I would like to believe, it elevates the material. Of course, some directors are receptive, some are not.”

Joy spent the early years of his life in Delhi, where he did more plays that he can count, from street plays with Jan Natya Manch to intense avant garde productions, that lasted hardly half-a-dozen shows, with the same handful of people in the audience. “It is only in Mumbai that I discovered the other side of theatre, that plays must reach the maximum audience and must go on for years. So, barring some minor plays, which the producer or director could not keep going, each play I did in Mumbai, survived five to seven years on an average; Dance Like A Man has been running for 23 years.”

In Delhi, he had started his own group, Act One, with the intention to do quality plays. “That was the time when there was a movement of avant garde plays, with crazy dramatic structure and multiple character shifts, which were great fun to do. We were mentored by a National School of Drama (NSD) batch of 1981-82 that had started its group Sambhav.

“When I came out of college, the big question was, should I take up theatre as a profession. A lot of theatre people back then had jobs in ad agencies, banks, railways, that’s why they could do such good theatre — they were not victims of the market. Every evening they would gather at their dedicated rehearsal space, and did readings, poetry recitation, discussions. The reason for choosing a play was socio-political.

Playwriting then was a voluntary social activity, because playwrights never made any money. They were intellectuals, academics, who found an outlet of communication through plays. Playwriting has gone down a few notches in content today, because the writer can work on films, television, web, they are not dedicated playwrights.

He also wanted to study theatre, but not at NSD because he did not want to get stuck with the Repertory or do films. Joy thought of going to RADA (in London) but that was expensive. After Anamika Haksar returned from studying at the State Institute for Theatre Arts in Moscow and did phenomenal plays, he thought of learning Russian and going there. Then, luckily, his idol, Ebrahim Alkazi came back to India and started the Living Theatre Academy,. He underwent intense training there for four years. When he came out of the Academy in 1995, the first person Joy met was Lillete Dubey.

“Lillete said she wanted to do original Indian plays and work with actors who were not from English theatre. She also wanted to get paying audiences for theatre, and make it viable, which made a lot of sense to me. Till then theatre was a constant struggle. Mahesh Dattani’s Dance Like A Man (in which he played a classical dancer), became a landmark. That’s how the trip with professional theatre began, till then, for me, theatre was in the same space as academics or activism. Dance… was like my own quest as an artiste. For me, what is truly spiritual is art, the way you connect your inner spirit to a higher understanding is through the arts.”

By this time, apart from teaching and directing plays in schools, Joy had started acting and anchoring shows for television. One such show, Question Of Cricket brought him to Mumbai, and he was cast by Anahita Uberoi in a play called If Wishes Were Horses. He got offered more plays, TV shows and a film, Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Ma by Govind Nihalani, and he moved to Mumbai. “The beauty of it, is that theatre never stopped. I acted in plays with Feroz Khan (Dinner With Friends), Rahul D’Cunha (Class of ’84, Lillete had also shifted to Mumbai and recast Dance Like A Man. These plays not just became popular, they lasted.”

He tried to form a group in Mumbai, but discovered it was difficult to keep people together. “One call from a serial or film and they are gone. I am too much of an idealist to work around that. To be able to do theatre, I never pursued a career in mainstream Bollywood. Theatre always gives me better characters and more satisfaction. I work partly because I need to and partly because I like to,” says Joy.

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