Bishnupriya Dutt Talks Women In Theatre And More At The Media Launch Of META 2023

She also spoke about her family’s rich history in theatre and film


Sara Siddiqui 

Former theatre director and professor of Theatre Studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Bishnupriya Dutt talks about her family’s legacy in theatre, feminist theatre, and writing. In conversation with BW Applause and Everything Experiential, Dutt spoke to Sara Siddiqui at the media launch of the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) 2023. Here are edited excerpts of the interview.

Your family has a background of theatre, could you tell me more about that? How that started and how that has had an impact on you and your career choices? 

Yes, my parents launched this theatre group in Calcutta, and started their work in People’s Theatre Association. My father, Utpal Dutt, being one of the major playwrights, directors, actors of the post-independent Indian theatre, he really believed that theatre can make a difference. Political theatre could go and reach out to the people, and that is one of his major works. People know him as this film actor and comedian, but his real work has been in theatre, so that’s what he really did for his passion. His belief that theatre can make a difference in society, in politics, cultural politics, so he was very invested, and the family has been invested in that. 

When I was 3 years old, I started acting. We had this very old theatre called the Minerva Theatre, and in 1965 they did this play called “Kallol”, for which he was arrested under this draconian act, something like the UAPA today. It is a sedition act called the Preventive Detention ordinance, where you could arrest people and keep them for 6 months. So, of course we faced a lot of that pressure, people used to come and attack our homes. My mother used to run the crew and there used to be gundas who used to come hit out. Ultimately, the theatre ran into a huge debt, 14 lakhs at that time in 1969. My father had also gotten into radical politics, and that was the time when they had to give up the theatre because they were in debt, and he joined the Hindi cinema. He paid back the debts and restarted with a group called the People’s Little Theatre.

I’m actually trained as a theatre director, but when JNU came up, I was invited to be a part of the department and I went into more academics.  We don’t teach people to become performers, but theatre histories, research, more to the academic side.

How do you think projection of women in theatre is different from what it is in other forms of media, for instance, Bollywood and television?

I can’t talk about all theatres because there was a commercial professional theatre which would do the same thing. In fact, it preceded cinema in a way and brought in that idea, the first generation of actors who came into this professional theatre we know about the big actresses. But the sort of theatre we belonged to came with a progressive mind and a progressive theatre practice. It was very conscious of how they portrayed the women. The roles my father wrote for my mother, or the actresses, were women who had an agency, empowered women who were sort of part of it. We were one of the first group theatre that believed in a collective, so we didn’t have that big actor-manager sitting on top and the patriarch dominating from the top, so we were very conscious of that. Then the other theatre I work with, is a feminist, which is Amal Allana, Anuradha Kapoor and others. With them, you can expect them to have a different sensibility about how they portray the women, how they work with their actresses, how they collaborate, and one of the reasons I have worked with this theatre is because I feel these are the things you can write about. 

In terms of writing, how does the way of writing of the script impacts what is shown on stage? 

It impacts it a lot as a foundation. Even if you don’t start with a written text, you create a text. A lot of these feminist practitioners create texts from novels, or they improvise, and that remains an important part. But dramaturgy from the text to what is shown is very important and even important directors like Vijaya Mehta when she worked with XYZ’s text, she actually did a lot of dramaturgical interventions. Like when my father and others used to work with Shakespeare, they created a new post-colonial Shakespeare with these dramaturgical interventions. 

How do you think the representation of women in theatre is in terms of actors, the backstage people, and the writers?

It’s always a problem like in society it’s reflected. In a lot of these theatre companies, theatre groups, it depends a lot on their ideologies, their politics. They actually make a concerted effort to try and represent them in a different way, treat women in a different way. They have complex ways of not objectifying them, and there’s a huge feminist history and discourse around it.

What is the condition of feminist theatre in India in comparison to the West?

I don’t want to compare to the West, they have very different conditions. They have a proper theatre industry, and they have these radical theatre groups. Also, in the West, UK, or Germany would vary. But I think in the 1990’s and the first decade of the 2000’s, there was a very active feminist theatre and they really played with the idioms, they made that big break and things like that. So, that work remains and that legacy remains. And of course, Neelam (Mansingh Chowdhry) still works, Maya Rao still works, they still reinvent themselves, Anuradha does some of her old productions, Anamika Haksar made this fabulous film, ‘Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon’. So, they still work, and I think their work is at par with any western artist. 

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