Poster of the long-running play

While watching Hamlet, the Clown Prince at GD Birla Sabhaghar, a member of the audience was going to pick up a call on his mobile. His seat was far into the auditorium, away from the stage and he must have thought that a quick word on his mobile would not harm the proceedings! But to his complete dismay, someone in the dark rushed forward and pleaded with him to please forgo the call. The man found that it was none other than the director RAJAT KAPOOR himself, who was sitting three seats away, quietly, watching the play from a distance. Those who know Kapoor would not be surprised by this act. Because like the brilliant play he has directed, he is full of gentle irony and total lack of pomposity. And those who do not know him would be delighted to know that he is as charming off camera as he is on it and that too, without having to try too hard. 

He was in the city for a tour of his Shakesperean tour de force and he came across as a man so comfortable in his skin as an alternative performance and cinema artist that it would seem that he has trained himself for it. He is one of the few people who effortlessly juggles his roles as an actor and director (perhaps the only one in Indian cinema apart from Farhan Akhtar and the one-off cases of Aamir Khan and now Rituparno Ghosh) and takes his art rather than himself seriously.

 “Theatre is one art that helps you to keep alive. Without that passion, doing theatre is meaningless”, he said, beginning the discussion on a high note. But doing theatre is one thing and doing a globally admired Shakespearean play as comic farce is a different thing altogether. “I have always been fascinated by the motif of the clown. For me, cinema begins with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and I think the underlying archetype of a clown/tramp/joker is a very powerful one. It never left me and I always wanted to know how far I can take the motif.” 

Is that how the clown version of Hamlet came into play? “Yes in a way. We started by trying to do a comic version of Hamlet but slowly, through rehearsals and improvisations, the script got a shape. In fact, at the rehearsals, we realised that we had a pretty interesting play if we could keep the play-within-a-play structure. And as we moved ahead, we threw away some, we kept some and the play you see is a concerted, collective effort. There is no writer of this play. The six brilliant actors as actors and the actors as characters have given the play its language, or the lack of it.” That’s something unusual and typical of Kapoor and his team. 

But didn’t Samuel Beckett lurk somewhere? “Of course he did! Who can forget the tramps in his Waiting for Godot? We did that play ten years ago and since then I wanted to do Shakespeare with clowns. Our next play was C for Clown and then Hamlet. But Beckett was one of the two influences. The other, as I said, was Chaplin.” 

Whoever may be responsible for it or the inspiration behind it, there is no doubting that Hamlet, the Clown Prince is no short of a masterpiece. A play within a play, it talks about how six clowns decide to stage Hamlet for a ‘discerning’ audience and how their life, mannerisms, desire for out of turn and often forced attention and penchant for whacky sleaze make their way into the tragedy. Sarcastic, poignant, impromptu and genuinely funny, Hamlet, ‘a play in English and gibberish’, calls for the highest acclaim, if for nothing else but just being a thoroughly original interpretation of the great English Bard’s most philosophical play. 

Kapoor also emphasised the importance of doing a deeply philosophical tragedy like Hamlet with clowns as against the more obvious choices like the bard’s comedies. “Comedies are easier to do but then again I would love to do plays like As You Like It. But it can wait. “ The cast of Hamlet includes Namit Das, Atul Kumar, Pooja Swarup, Niel Bhopalan, Sanjay Saple. They have recently been joined by Kalki Koechlin, one of the leading actresses in Bollywood’s countercultural cult Dev D. She plays Ophelia or rather the clown who plays Ophelia and who dies (actually drowns) of heartbreak. 

But Kapoor is much much more than the director of Hamlet, the Clown Prince. He also leads a niche team in Bombay who come together to produce small but independent or at least independent-minded cinema like Mixed DoublesMithyaBheja Fry etc. 

Do these guys think of themselves as the Woody Allen of Mumbai? They do Hindi cinema but your stories and the ways of telling them are different and delicate. Is this alternativism a planned one? 

“I really do not know if we have been able to become a sub-culture, so to say. But it is not as much about flaunting our indie-ness, as it is about being able to make the cinema you want to. For example, our most recent effort Phas Gaye Re Obama is a runaway hit. We released it along with Asutosh Gowarikar’s Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se and in its third week, our film was doing better business while the big film had vanished. And I am a great believer in the multiplex culture. Multiplexes make making and distributing smaller movies easier and you can reach out to a very wide audience.” 

But it must be a struggle to live on your terms in both theatre and alternative cinema. His theatre teammates, for example, have to make a living by working in cinema. Because Bombay is said to have little mercy towards struggling artistes. “Yes”, says Kapoor in his a half-shy smile. “But it’s not that only theatre demands struggle. There are many strugglers in mainstream Bollywood too. We see a few successes. And for each success, a hundred other strugglers are getting dropped by the wayside. But that does not deter the next aspirant who at this moment must be heading for Mumbai for a break in the movies.” 

But if cinema is this difficult, theatre must even be more so! There is always this paranoia that the theatre may vanish soon. “I do not see any threat to the theatre. It has survived three thousand years through all kind of most spectacular changes. I am sure it will find a way to survive well into the future. It has the wherewithal. As long as people are ready to feel passionate about theatre, the theatre has no threat from anyone.” At this point, Koechlin quips in, saying “As long as people suffer for theatre, it will survive.” Kapoor nods vehemently. 

Will his group get more into Shakespeare? Or will this one remain a one-off experiment? “No, we have plans to do more Shakespearean plays. In fact, after we tour the UK with Hamlet this summer, which we are very eagerly looking forward to, we plan to start work on King Lear. The Fool in King Lear, you can say, will assume centre stage now and his minions will act out the rest”, he quipped. 

Kapoor may now be a big fan of the small movie, but he struggled a lot with his first small movie, which he managed to make after collecting money over the net, much before the social networking boom! “I waited to do Raghu Romeo for at least 5 years. When no one came forward, I said chuck it, I will produce the movie myself. So I sent out an email to everyone. I said, buy shares in the movie. You will get it back. If the movie flopped, I will return the money. Unfortunately, the movie flopped and I am still returning peoples’ money.”

He may be giving back some well-regarded film finance but it is in actuality about clever entertainment. Kapoor stands for clever entertainment in Indian cinema today and that is one thing he wants to give back. And may he continue to do so.