Debshankar Halder in and as Oedipus

Even in the dedicated community that makes up Bengali group theatre, he stands out. The director of his latest play calls him a miniature wonder. He is the only actor in recent memory who has had a festival dedicated to him. He is also perhaps the only actor whose name alone draws audiences to the theatre in a culture whose appeal historically has been the group, the play or the director. Currently, he is part of/protagonist of ten different plays of different groups, playing Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb today and Sherlock Homes incarnate tomorrow; and most things in between. Most of his work has been highly acclaimed and all of them are doing rounds in local and national theatre circuits. Debshankar Halder tells Sayandeb Chowdhury why his work is play and what makes him play anything. 

How did you get into theatre? Has it been Nandikar all along? 

I did some acting in school and then definitely some more in college. I was at the Scottish Church. I was into student politics full time. I seriously thought that politics is a way of service to the people. In those days, student politics still had that degree of idealism attached to it. Later it dawned on me that no party, not even those which call them ultra-Left, can survive without paying some kind of service to the establishment. So the usual heartbreaking happened. Then over time, theatre took over. And in terms of getting into it and making it my life, it’s because of Nandikar. 

When did it begin? 

It was 1986. I was just out of college and like most wondering what to do with my life. Theatre was a liking but never intended to take it up as a profession. One day I chanced upon an advertisement saying that Nandikar was holding a training workshop for actors. I came and auditioned without expectations. But was selected. Some serious training followed. That training was so intense and so rewarding, it got me hooked into theatre completely. Since then, I have been a theatre activist and actor. I can proudly say that I have done every kind of work associated with theatre — from auditing to backstage, to publicity — at Nandikar. 

You never thought of any other profession? 

I did as I grew older. I got a job as a school teacher and later in the government. But I did not take them up and one day I realised that I have passed that age where I could think seriously about other things than theatre. Theatre had engulfed me.  

When was that watershed moment in your growth as an actor? 

That’s difficult to pinpoint. From 1986, to till about the early 2000s, I was doing work mostly for Nandikar. Here I must mention the play Football. During my training and after, around 1988, Nandikar brought back to stage its perennially popular play Football and while it was being performed, I played every part in the play including the one that the great Ajitesh Bandopadhyaya used to play; every part except that of Mr Rudrapasad Sengupta. He was always there, always our guide and leader. Not just for me, but as a case study in theatre learning, I think this is unique, of having played (in Football) everything between a face in the crowd and one of the leads in a single play. That experience gave me confidence and boosted my chances to play bigger and meatier roles in future productions of Nandikar. In the early nineties, Nandikar brought to stage Sesh Shakhatkar and Feriwalar Mrityu (Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman). In both, especially the former, Gautam (actor Gautam Halder) and I had great roles and cherished them thoroughly. These two plays along with Gotrohin (Miller’s View From the Bridge), in which I played an effeminate character, brought the first taste of public adulation, acclaim and recognition. They are important landmarks in my career. 

And then came Winkle Twinkle

Yes. Just before Winkle Twinkle happened, a few of us had come together to stage an ensemble play, in the wake of the Gujarat riots. It was called Mephisto — based on a novel by Klauss Mann. This was a first full play that I had done outside Nandikar, though it was a coming together of my colleagues for a cause. Winkle Twinkle in that sense was the first play for a group outside Nandikar. Both Bratya (Basu) and Debesh (Chattapadhya) had been persistent that I had to play the protagonist, the communist Rip Van Winkle who slept for twenty-six years and woke up to find that everything he had fought for had been decimated by the Party. 

Did the role remind you of your college days, your politics? 

It did. Political activism was lodged inside me somewhere and when I rehearsed for that character which was written with so much empathy, I could feel what I had read about. It was like reading about love in poetry but once you fall in love your realise it’s another game altogether. 

Winkle Twinkle was a runaway hit and that too a controversial one.

Yes, it was much acclaimed, much vilified but much popular. Group theatre went to unlikely places with the play.

Was the play stopped from being performed in the hinterlands for its powerful anti-CPM message?   

Some shows were cancelled at the last hour or cancelled on a flimsy pretext after apparent threats from the local CPM. But on the other side, I must say that we had been able to perform in places we never expected to. It worked both ways. 

How difficult was it to convince Nandikar about Winkle Twinkle and your decision to continue with a career outside the group? 

Initially, it was tough because I have been such an integral part of the group. But Nandikar soon realised that if I need to grow as an actor, I must do plays for others as well. It’s a mutual trust and respect factor. Even if I am doing seven or eight plays at a time for as many groups, Nandikar will always remain the place where I can come home to. 

How do you manage to do several plays at a time? Do you follow a regime? 

Not really. I wish I could follow a regime. But yes, I maintain certain logic and discipline and practice my parts well. But all the credit goes to my training and how well it prepared me for varied and difficult roles. But I have to keep a check on the number of plays I am doing and from next year, apart from two new plays I am already committed to (one being Tagore’s Gora) I do not intend to do any new play. 

Among your more difficult roles is surely Iye – you alone on stage for over two hours. And now 221B Baker Street, where you play a world-famous Bengali economist obsessed with Sherlock Holmes.  

Yes, Iye was difficult and very demanding. But a lot of people have liked the play. So it’s worth it. 221B Baker Street is my newest play — sharp, intelligent and sophisticated — with very high production values. I hope people like it as much as I do. My other current plays include Kacher Manush (an ageing hardline Brahmin), Aurangzeb (Last Mughal emperor), Shuopoka, Ruddhasangeet (as Debabrata Biswas), Missed Call, Furut and Madhavi. In, fact for 221B also I had my doubts but Arindam (director Arindam Mukherjee) worked very hard to make it happen.

You seem to have a box office, that rarity in group theatres. 

Well, I am told people lookout for my plays and my part. Yes, that feels great but most importantly it gives the courage to do better and better and give your best. As a theatre person, you always test yourself and with each success, can get the courage to go a little further…. That is what drives all of us who are into the theatre. 

You and a few of your colleagues have brought a raw physicality, effective energy and performativity to the stage, an aspect that seemed to have been lacking in older theatre practitioners. 

I don’t think so. What I have heard about Sambhu Mitra or Ajitesh or others, that they had their energy, their physicality that they could build into their characters. You know there is a famous saying that an actor has to be athlete-philosopher. He has to think and if need be, jump high on stage. Take Gautam (Halder) in Borda. He sits on a chair throughout the play but his part makes you feel that he is running across the stage. That’s acting. 

Ever regretted that had you been more into serials and films, perhaps life would have been a bit easier. 

Well, can’t say I am fully contented as far as my lifestyle goes. Now that I am bit well known I don’t sit at home. I act outside the stage as well and I am managing. And maybe some lack of healthy living is made up by the audience who give us love and support. That’s great nourishment for actors. 

Had you been in what you are here in West End, you would by now land a major role in British film… it has happened to so many.  Well, for that to happen here we have to change everything. I have been there and seen how it operates and I have no illusion about the fact that it will never happen here. But I am fine this way.