Sujith Nambiar, Ahmedabad: There is an infectious energy and child-like exuberance in Pratik Gandhi’s voice as he answers my phone-call to talk about his upcoming play Sir Sir Sarla in Ahmedabad. Maybe it’s the excitement about the fact that this critically acclaimed play will be premiering in the city, where the theatre scene is seeing a steady growth with several locally produced popular plays seeing packed audiences. In a free-wheeling chat with me, Pratik speaks about his play and the character he portrays, his successful run in the Gujarati film-industry and his views on the winds of change blowing in the Gujarati theatre scene in the state. Excerpts:

Sir Sir Sarla and Prof. Pithadia, the sir…

Sir Sir Sarla was first staged in 2001 in the Hindi language and had a great run. It was written by Makarand Deshpande and he himself acted in it as Professor Palekar. This is a story of the relationship shared by a teacher and his students and the complications arising in the love amongst them. The professor admires and loves each of his students equally. He is aware of the romantic attraction from one of his students, Sarla, which is stemming from her great admiration for him. But, he maintains the distance that Sarla is trying to cut. The professor convinces her that another student of his, Keshav (Played by Ojas Rawal) is the right man for her, unaware of the fact that a third student of his, Phanidar (Shivam Parekh) is smitten by Sarla, but cannot express his love to her. ‘I portray the role of the Sir, named as Professor Pithadia, a literature professor in the Gujarati adaption. This character of mine had several layers to it; he loves and adores his students. He teaches and guides and at the same time he commands respect from them. The audience will get to see the beautiful relationship between a teacher and his student. I could get into this character as well as I personally know many such people who exude a different charm and is the favorite amongst students, one of them being my father. He was the most loved teacher in his school,’ says Gandhi.

This play got adapted in Gujarati in 2018, and it’s also the debut of Makarand Deshpande as a writer-director in Gujarati theatre. This also the first play where I get to share the stage with my wife Bhamini (Oza Gandhi), who plays the role of Sarla. This play is not your typical run-of-the-mill, comedy Gujarati play. It is a classic play. This play had opened in Mumbai and later staged it in Surat and Valsad too. Now we’re bringing it to Ahmedabad. The receptions from the audience have been great so far. In fact, we saw an overwhelming response from the audience in Surat and Valsad, where on popular demand we had to stage additional shows too and people came multiple times to watch the play.

His toughest/most challenging role ever…

I think the hardest were monologues. You see, there’s no margin of error there. And the kind of monologues I’ve been doing, there’s just one guy on stage in front of an audience and he has to ensure that every single scene is represented well with his expressions and actions. One has to make believe things, characters and scenarios that are not even present on the stage. The first monologue I performed was Saat Tari Ekvis in two parts, the first one being a 15 minuter and the second one, a 20 minute one. Then Mohan no Masalo and Hu Chandrakanth Bakshi were such, but they were of longer duration, with Hu Chandrakant Bakshi being the longest, 95 minutes. Mohan no Masalo was performed in three languages, English, Hindi, and Gujarati. The performance got a mention in the Limca Book of Records for the performance of a monologue in three different languages in a single day. It takes a great amount of skill in such plays because every language has its own flavor, own grammar, its own style; this also includes the grammar of performance. Recreating the same emotions, the same jokes and their timings and scenarios in three different languages is a task.

The awe behind a ‘Mumbai production theatre’

First and foremost, theatre productions from Mumbai have faces that are known. People have seen them on the screen like television and films, so there is a relatability, a recall value to it. Secondly theatre is a full-fledged, separate, parallel industry in Mumbai. A full-fledged theatre artist can survive in Mumbai, being dependent only on Gujarati theatre. That happens, because there are shows almost every day, the artists get to perform almost 25 to 30 days every month and they get to perform in about three plays in a year. Secondly, theatre is a medium of practice. When you perform this craft every day, there is a different level of finesse that comes with it. Plus the professional touch from the production, in terms of set, the music, the overall look and feel of it. It would be very different if the same play comes from a local production. At the end of the day, the audience wants a fine product in return for the time and money they’re investing in when coming to a play. I belong to Surat and have done a lot of theatre in the city before I moved to Mumbai. And the locally produced plays lacked something. The pre-decided notion that the audience will not come in hordes to watch their play, they took the production for granted, like sourcing the costumes from someone, the chairs from another, etc. The necessary expenditure and investments would never be done back then.

Gujarati Theatre and its growth…

I’d actually love to use the term ‘growing Gujarati theatre,’ because until recently, the Gujarati theatre had gone down as we lost a lot of younger audience. Our constant fight and strive is to bring the younger audience back to the theatres. Now things are changing, the theatre scene has grown in leaps and bounds, especially in Ahmedabad. There are some local productions that are doing a great job in bringing out good plays. It is very heartening to see that there are new alternate venues like Ouroboros and Scrapyard that are coming up across the city, providing a much-needed platform for this art form. It is altogether a different phenomenon to see the industry working out together in the state for its growth, which is quite gladdening. The future is bright.

Theatre as sustainability….

Not many take up theatre in Gujarat as a profession, as their means to earn their bread and butter. In fact, coming from any town or city apart from Mumbai, one doesn’t think of taking theatre as a profession. Not just in Gujarat but across the country, artistes take up theatre during college to feed their passion, but then when it comes to sustenance, they tend to take something typical and more sophisticated job as a profession instead of theatre. But with the Gujarati film industry coming up, many such artists are getting opportunities, thus the performers getting a good exposure. And the audience too has now come out to watch plays and other theatre forms. Television and films are a bigger canvas, if more people see me and recognize me by my face, I am definitely going to get more people to come to watch me in plays too, and that’s how it has been working for all the other artistes too.

His run in the Gujarati film industry…

Pratik has done only a handful of movies in Gujarati. But his success ratio is enviable compared to his peers, with the internationally acclaimed film Wrong Side Raju, urban Gujarati film Be Yaar, which ignited the upward growth streak in Gujarati film industry and the recent one being Love Ni Bhavai that have earned him some rave reviews from audience and critics alike for his role as Aditya. Ask him about the success of Love Ni Bhavai, the ever grounded actor says, “I think this movie belongs more to Aarohi (Patel) and Malhar (Thakar),’ completely unfazed when I tell him about the huge number of admirers he has earned with his portrayal of Aditya alongside Sagar and Antara. He tells me that there are a string of projects he is working on, including his first Bollywood film Loveratri a Salman Khan production which is also the debut vehicle of Aayush Sharma.

What/who inspires him and fuels his passion…

Talk about his inspiration and he has no dearth of words to praise his mentor and friend Manoj Shah, a stalwart himself in Gujarati theatre. “My bond with Manoj Shah is such that we go beyond the teacher-student relation. We bounce off ideas with each other and absorb a lot from each other while talking, joking and pranking around too. Some of the plays we’ve done were ideas that had come just from the top of our heads. For instance, Mohan No Masalo was a thought that came to me while having lunch together. I pitched it to him and we thought and worked upon it, giving a very good spin to the life of Gandhi as Mohandas, before he became the Mahatma he is known today.

Ask him, if not theatre, then what? Pratik says ‘I had no option. I knew this is my passion but at the same time sustenance was important too. So I had to juggle jobs and rehearsals. I could have easily chosen the trodden path and did a 9 to 5 job where I work in the day and relax in the evening at home watching TV. But no, I had to do this for myself, to quench this passion, and now that I look back at the years of struggle, I think I am glad about the decisions I took as I had this belief that things will definitely sort out eventually.”

Pratik lives in Mumbai with his complete family consisting of his elder brother, parents, his wife, and their four-year-old daughter. “I think I have become a little lazy now…” says Pratik with a chuckle as he concludes and invites me for the play.

Sujith Nambiar tweets @sujith17nambiar. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more.