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Director/Producer

171 – The first Indian woman to perform on New York Broadway

Gopal Sharman & Jalabala Vaidya. Rome, Italy. 1967

Gopal Sharman & I, Jalabala Vaidya. Rome, Italy. 1967

Image courtesy Akshara Theatre Archive. Text by Jalabala Vaidya, New Delhi

I was born in London (UK) in 1936. My English-Italian mother, Marjorie Frank-Keyes was a concert singer and my father Suresh Vaidya was a successful young writer. He was also on the editorial board of Time Magazine in London. My father was arrested by the British authorities when he refused to join the British Army to fight in World War II. He declared he would gladly fight as a free man, but not as a colonial subject. He was imprisoned in Canterbury and fought and won a case in the British Court. His case was defended by well known lawyers like Sir Fenner Brockway and Lord Reginald Sorensen. In a landmark judgment, the court ruled that the British Army could not compel a person to fight because he was a colonial subject.

Of course I was one my feisty parents’ two daughters. I completed my schooling in London then in Bombay (now Mumbai). Later I graduated from Miranda House, standing third in Delhi University. I was also actively involved in theatre and was awarded the best actress for performing sections from Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Later, I began working with Link Magazine in Delhi as a journalist that also had a daily paper called The Patriot. Gopal Sharman was suggested to us as an independent writer who could write very well on the arts. Up until then I had been writing them.

In the 1950s, at the office, I was in charge of putting the month’s issue to bed and I had been told that Gopal would come by with the copy on the Arts columns. He came to the office early and sat several glass cubicles away, typing away, but by late morning the copy was still not done and I began to lose patience. I went bossily through the cubicles and asked him about the text. He looked up and said “Don’t go through the roof, this isn’t a spoof, I am writing it and here it is.” and that’s it, we fell in love. 
I have no idea how, why and what it was, but that’s how we met and were together since. We began to live together in a garage in Bengali Market. Later, we got married.

Gopal at the time was also writing two popular columns under a pseudonym – Nachiketas for the Indian Express and the Sunday Standard. One was about artists and the other was about the Upanishads, Vedanta, mythology, questions on philosophy, life and death. Unknown to us the time, the second President of India, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was a fan of Nachiketas’s (Gopal’s) columns.

In early January of 1966, Dr. Radhakrishnan underwent a cataract operation. Unable to read and restless, he asked a close friend Prof. K Swaminathan who had edited the Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi and was a former editor of Indian Express, to find out who was this ‘Nachiketas’ person writing these fascinating pieces, and to invite him to the Rashtrapati Bhawan (Presidential Residence) for a narrative session. Prof. Swaminathan found Gopal and was surprised to find out that it was a young man who went about on a bicycle, with a shock of unruly hair, and wore a polo neck shirt & trousers. He asked Gopal if he would come and read his works to the President. Gopal happily agreed.

When he returned home, Gopal told me about the President’s request and insisted that since I was much better at it, I should perform Gopal’s Full Circle for the President. Full Circle was a dramatic recitation of stories and poems with philosophical concepts narrated with voices of regular people. I would perform and recite the stories & poems, while Gopal, a classically trained singer, would sing songs ranging from Meera Bai’s bhajans (songs with spiritual themes) to songs written by the poet, philosopher and politician Muhammad Iqbal. After some reluctance, I agreed and we both decided to go. I always needed glasses to read, but since I didn’t want to read off a paper, I learnt all of it by heart.

When the day came, a big Rolls Royce came from the Rashtrapati Bhawan to pick us up, along with the formal invitation. To our shock it mentioned my name, but left Gopal’s out! We informed the officials about the confusion, but they did not accommodate the mistake and no change could be made. Nonetheless, now there was no turning back. Gopal came along with me up till the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s reception, wished me very well and went off to another meeting. I still remember watching him walk down the slope of that road.

When I was escorted upstairs, the door was opened by the President, with a bandaged eye. He exclaimed “Ah Welcome! But where is the poet?!” I explained what had happened, he insisted a car bring Gopal back, but with 20-30 people in the room including foreign dignitaries already seated, it seemed a bit awkward so we let the matter rest. I began to narrate the pieces, and I remember now and then the very impressed President would interrupt to explain the contexts to his guests and what was being said.

When I ended the performance, Dr.Radhakrishnan was extremely happy. He had loved every bit of it. He insisted that this work should be performed for a proper audience and that he will have ICCR (Indian Council for Culture Relations) arrange a performance at Azad Bhawan. And so it was arranged. When we went and met the director of ICCR, Inam Rahman, I think he was a bit put out at the order of accommodating young unknown people. Perhaps to be a bit difficult, he said the only date available was January 13, only a few days after, and will we take that? Gopal and I looked at each other and immediately said yes.

The ICCR invited many well-known people & important dignitaries from the Embassies, and they all loved Full Circle. After the performance we received invitations from the Embassies of Yugoslavia (now seven independent states) and Italy to perform in their countries. But there was a hitch, ICCR refused to pay for the tickets, and we had to find the tickets on our own. We wrote to Air India and asked if they’d like to sponsor us. They wrote back and said they could, for one person and one way only, but that too on the condition that we distribute their advertisements in Europe.
Something had to be done, so I decided to go to Bombay and request the TATAs if they could help. There was a special secretary to J.R.D Tata, I forget his name now but he agreed to arrange another ticket. This was the year of tourism so there was no problem getting a visa to foreign countries. Neither was there a problem with one-way tickets at the time. We managed to get two one-way tickets but only till Rome, Italy.

In Italy, we performed at the Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East (IsMEO). Through that performance we got invited to perform at the famous theatre, Teatro Goldoni and so we did. Then we went to Yugloslavia and performed in three cities and they were all wonderful performances. I remember as guests, we were even offered tickets, twice, to the well-known Opera La Boheme but unfortunately on both occasions we had such a time of partying and drinking the night before that we never made it to the opera.

Back in Rome, we did another round of performances, each with a theatre-full of audiences. In the audience we also noticed a lot of red cardinal gowns. Soon, we were invited by the Assistant Father General of Jesuits, an Indian at the time, to perform at their headquarters near the Vatican. We were hosted at a lovely convent and the nuns were so extraordinarily impressed with us because we were vegetarian. They thought it was such an austerity and it was so spiritual, and made lovely vegetarian things for us. Later, the Indian Assistant Father general also organized for us an audience with the Pope Paul IV and so we also got to meet the Pope.

One night, I heard that Joan Baez was going to perform at a theatre, and I was a particularly big fan of hers. It was disappointing to realise that I couldn’t because we too were performing the same night. Next morning when we went to see the papers, I was on the front page and Joan Baez was somewhere in small print. It was amazing and unbelievable. Nonetheless, we did get to met her later, but missed seeing her perform. And that’s how we began our theatre career.

In the next few months we were invited by ITV (Italian TV) to record our performance. After the recording they said that they were cash strapped and couldn’t pay too much. We were used to that, because in India no one really paid or paid well at all – In Delhi we got Rs.250. But the Italian TV pay turned out to be a lot more than we had ever imagined. Excited about our big pay, we spotted a second-hand car sales place across the TV station and Gopal and I immediately bought ourselves a Black Volkswagen Beetle, with a Number 1 plate. We excitedly discussed how we could drive back home to India, because in those days you could’ve driven back home to India.

In 1968, we drove to Munich, and the Southern German Radio & TV : Bayerischer Rundfunk, also recorded our performance. After the recording they enquired how much the Italians had paid us and simply upped our pay by a lot more. We were so happy and amused. I remember in Frankfurt, I also went and got myself my first pair of contact lenses.
We met and made so many amazing friends along the way, some famous and some not. While we performed and drove all over Europe, our beloved second hand car would often break down. I remember a lot of our friends like actress Vanessa Redgrave and even the Qatari ambassador to India were among the many people pushing that car.

In London we performed at various places, including the Mercury theatre, where T.S Elliot had performed his plays. Everywhere we went we received rave reviews. London is where we finally settled down for a while and continued to perform. Gopal began writing on the arts for The Times and The Sunday Times in London and wrote a book on Indian music, Filigree in Sound that was published in London. At the time the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) had an event called the World Theatre season. It was the most prestigious theatre festival and they approached us to bring a play to the event. Gopal said – “Yes, we’d like to, but the play I’d like to bring I haven’t written it yet.” He wanted to write a Ramayana relevant to our times, a modern, dramatic and humane interpretation of the Sanskrit epic. RSC happily agreed and signed a contract with us. When our event with RSC was announced, a TATA representative from London came forward to financially back the venture because we were getting India a good name. They awarded Gopal with a Homi Bhabha fellowship, the third person in the country to get it.

At the end of our two-year adventure, in 1970, we returned to India and began preparations on the Ramayana. We also needed to find a space to rehearse the play. We began with the process of auditioning actors and actresses in Bombay for our new play. I remember Amjad Khan came, and others from FTII (Film & Television Institute of India) and soon we had a good crew. While in Bombay, I heard that Morarji Desai, deputy to the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was also in-charge of allotting government housing to artists in Delhi, so I approached him about a place and he called me to his office at 7.30 in the morning. Gopal had written a preface on our Ramayana, and I showed it to him. Morarji Desai said he would read it and that I should return the next morning at exactly the same time. I thought he was a nasty man for calling me at 7.30 am in the morning. Nonetheless, I went and he had read it, had made some notes and said it was wonderful. I was shown six locations, and asked me to choose whichever house I’d like. I chose this one in Lutyen’s Delhi. Gopal hollowed out the bunglow, redesigned the space, and included a 50-seat indoor theatre. He did a lot of the work all by himself.

Soon after rehearsals began, the cast went on strike over some grouses. Now when I look back it was probably an attempt by some envious people whose incitements sabotaged our crew. It was dreadful and we were upset, but we went to the bank, paid them their dues and said our byes. On a trip to Simla to pick up my daughter from her boarding school, Gopal who had clearly been doing a lot of thinking, asked me to perform all the 22 roles in the Ramayana he had written, by myself. He was inspired by the narrations of Kathas (the traditional Indian storytelling format) at his home in Lucknow, UP. I was not so sure, but Gopal rewrote the script into the form of a Katha and it began to look very good – and we began working on it. But there was more disappointing news. When RSE heard that our Ramayana was going to be a one-woman show, their interest in the project turned cold. They had envisioned an epic story with a large crew. That was a big blow. Nonetheless, we didn’t stop the work and I performed it for the first time in 1970, for a small audience above the porch of Ashok Hotel and later at other venues, including our own theatre.

One day, a team from USA Educational Institute sent 15-20 people to see the Ramayana. It was their last night in India but they were quite impressed with the show and asked us to meet them for breakfast before they flew out. They said it was the first time they had seen something that displayed a contemporary spirit of India, moreover it was in English and hence understandable. They invited us to USA and to perform through their colleges. We went to America, and in the course of travelling, we were also asked to perform at the 1000-seater National theatre School of Canada in Ottawa. Along the way we met with a big New York based lawyer and an angel investor, Robert A. Hendrickson who was known to fund the arts, and was interested in our work. He came along with us to Canada to see how we did with a big audience. Of course, we did splendidly well, and soon he contacted us to do a season on Broadway and that’s how we got to New York Broadway. It was most fantastic. So far, we are the first and only Indian production to have performed on that platform.

In 1981, TN Kaul, the Indian ambassador to USA, suggested that we perform the Ramayana at the NCPA (National Centre of Performing Arts), Bombay, but NCPA’s response to sponsoring the show was at best luke-warm. Kaul then invited actors Sunil & Nargis Dutt to watch us at Akshara. After the show, the Dutts insisted on paying for the play to be staged at NCPA. We agreed and played for 10 days straight to a full house. I remember after one of our shows, JRD Tata invited us for tea and said that he hadn’t watched the play, but it wasn’t because he did not want to. He had sent his driver to buy tickets but even the cheapest tickets were being sold in ‘black’ outside.

Our Ramayana has since been staged more than 2,000 times over 45 years at the most prestigious of institutions around the world and everywhere we went the theatres were filled with audiences. We did a lot of more work after that. A play called Karma, which was funny and moderm. I produced, performed in and narrated most of Gopal’s acclaimed television films like India Alive, The Kashmir Story, The Sufi Way, Gitanjali and Gandhi’s Gita, a play about Mahatma Gandhi’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita into Gujarati and how he and his wife Kasturba went through the final revision in the Himalayan foothills.

Gopal passed away in June of 2016, and his last appearance on stage was on April 13, 2016, when he played the part of the British Presiding Magistrate in the play about my father in the English Prison: Suresh Vaidya vs The British Government.
I miss him a lot. But we both believed in our work, the wisdom of life, love and theatrical arts and that should never stop. These days I am writing a play on Gopal and my life. A life that we have so loved, enjoyed and shared. We built a wonderful world together.

But this story is about Akshara Theatre, Gopal Sharman, me, our family, friends and well-wishers. We have been theatre performers for so many years and we have been extremely fortunate. Built in phases over a decade by Gopal himself and his team, the Akshara theatre, a non-profit arts institution, is spread over an acre of land and has grown to a 96-seat indoor theatre, and a 300-seat amphitheatre at the back of the property.

Our life is about our work, and anyone who is a part of our family or the theater has to willy-nilly perform, including our dogs and cats.


154 – She was sent to London to learn production for films

My maternal Grandmother, Jaya Phatak. London, United Kingdom 1972

My maternal Grandmother, Jaya Phatak. London, United Kingdom 1972

Image & Text contributed by Rohit Kulkarni, Pune

This is a photograph of my grandmother, Jaya Phatak. It was taken at a film studio in London in 1972.

My grandmother was born in the Phatak family in Pune, Maharashtra in 1926. Her father Duttatre Phatak worked with the British Indian Railways, and was also the manager of a record label ‘Orion‘ that no longer exists. I am told he was instrumental in the first ever recording of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, a well-known Hindustani Classical Singer and appointed musician to two royal courts in Baroda, and Mysore. Duttatre died when my grandmother was very young and over time her life turned out to be very different for many of the women of her era. She was very interested in sports and also represented the State at the Kabaddi Nationals in 1964.

She was very young in 1942, when she became involved in India’s Independence movement in Pune. She was jailed along with other 6-7 of her mates and sent to Yerwada Jail for disrupting and distributing Anti-British leaflets at a British military gathering at Nowrosjee Wadia College grounds. At the jail, she discovered many more imprisoned freedom fighters across castes and classes. They were detained and went through a one-month trial, and offered either Bail or an arrest for a month in jail. The family didn’t have much money so there was no bail forthcoming. Despite an arrest for only a month, my grandmother says that they were still not released and instead were kept for another 11 months, because British law stated that it did not need to justify or give reasons to detain anyone. She notes that in prison, despite the fact that everyone was fighting for the same cause, a section of the higher caste would not share their meals with other castes. There was unsaid  segregation along caste lines and at that time, castle lines were not questioned very much.

My grandmother was married twice. After divorcing her first husband which was unheard of at the time, she met and married my grandfather Vishwanath Modak, a journalist, who ran a daily political /social commentary column in the Marathi newspaper Prabhat and they fell in love. My grandfather used to call my grandmother “the man amongst the women”. She was fiery, opinionated and an atheist. My mother is the only child they had and jokes that her birth was an experiment that was never to repeated again.

My grandmother Jaya found a good job at the Department of Education and was sent to England in 1972, to study and receive a Diploma in Production for Films – for education specifically. This picture is from that time when she was studying there. She also established a charitable trust called Kishor Mitra (“friend of the young”) where she produced short films on simple science – for instance how a Thermos or bread is made and helped publish Marathi books for making learning fun. Inspired by Sesame Street, the well known American Television series for children, she developed and produced puppet shows that were made into educational films. It was her first and last job until retirement. My grandmother Jaya continues to be a trustee of Kishor Mitra and lives in Pune with her granddaughter.

 


145 – “The most amusing thing about the movie was that we had no script”

Amitabh and I. On the sets of 'Mr. Natwarlal'. Bombay, Maharashtra. 1979

Amitabh and I. On the sets of ‘Insaniyat’. Bombay, Maharashtra. 1990

 

Image and Text contributed by Tony Juneja, Mumbai

My name is Ramanjit Singh Juneja, however family and friends affectionately call me Tony, and now everyone knows me as Tony Juneja. I was born in 1954 in Patiala, Punjab, and my father worked as a liquor supplier to the Army Canteen stores and Indian Army Troops.

Even as a child I was attracted to cinema. While studying at Bishop Cottons in Simla, Himachal Pradesh, I would passionately read every edition of the ‘Picture Post’, a now forgotten english magazine about hindi films – even during class.

Our family used to own bonded warehouses for liquor in Nagaland, so we would travel and live in the region often. Once we grew up, my elder brother Kushaljeet (known as Tito) took a leap and began producing Assamese Films in Dimapur and Guwahati.  I too, would visit Guwahati often during summer vacations and watch them shoot and so the interest only heightened. I remember in 1972, the film we were shooting was called Mukta (later it received the President’s Award). And I joined my brother as a Production Boy. That was my first job in films. My role was to wake up early in the morning and ensure that the unit travels to the shooting location and then post the shoot, bring them back. Tito, my brother, went on to establish himself as a distributor of Indian motion pictures for the West Bengal territory and I moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) with him.

After a year or so my brother decided to move to Bombay, where all the mainstream movies were being made and I decided to join him. In Bombay, we rented a bunglow in Juhu and would travel everyday to Roop Tara studios in Dadar west, to work.

We got into film production in a full-fledged manner only after working on our first Hindi film, Do Anjane directed by Dulal Guha. Starring Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha, Prem Chopra and Mithun Chakraborty it was made under our banner ‘Navjeevan Films’. At the time Amitabh, Rekha and Mithun were all relatively unknown, but promising actors. Dulal Guha on the other hand was an established star director. The film released in 1976 and it went on to become a major and critical success.

Over time, I got friendly with director Rakesh Kumar whom I had met through Amitabh. Rakesh was already an established director, and Amitabh had recommended that we should work together, so we did. I had co-produced many films before with my brother Tito, but my first film as an independent producer was Mr. Natwarlal in 1979, a movie inspired by the famous con man Mithilesh Kumar Srivastava, better known as Natwarlal. His life inspired several TV dramas and movies after. Starring Amitabh Bachchan, Rekha, Ajit and Amjad Khan the film was mainly shot in Kashmir.

The most amusing thing about making Mr. Natwarlal was that we had no script. We wanted to make a film purely for entertainment, and didn’t think it was wrong to begin shooting without a script in place. All we had were a few sequences that sounded fun and entertaining, and for us it was good enough to begin shooting with. Piece by piece, somehow we managed to knit and complete a script while shooting the film. In those days, emotional attachments and teamwork were far more important to people than scripts and contracts. Scripts were (and are) important, but we all trusted that the script would eventually be in place. And that trust usually paid off.

The film was written by – Kader Khan and Gyan Dev Agnihotri. Kader Bhai too had just begun his career in films. The music was composed by Rajesh Roshan and the lyrics were penned by Anand Bakshi. Everyday we would shoot from 7 am to 9 am R K studios in Chembur and Mohan studios in Andheri. Amitabh and Rekha would come daily to shoot for two hours, for a month and our film was finished in time.

The highlight of the film was the song ‘Mere paas aao mere doston ek kissa suno’, the first playback song ever sung by Amitabh Bachchan. It was Anand Bakshi who recommended we ask Amitabh to sing, as it would suit his character and the situation. Moreover, an actor singing his own song had not been done in a long while. It took a bit of persuasion, but once Amitabh understood why we need him to sing the song, he gracefully accepted. The recording took very little time because Amitabh came very well prepared and delivered a beautifully sung song. None of us had expected it to be that good. He indeed is a sincere professional and, a genuine artist.

The most challenging thing about the movie was transporting the large number of animals we needed for the shoot in Srinagar, Kashmir. The Tigers came from Madras (now Chennai), the Snakes from Delhi and the Horses from Bombay, and the funniest thing that happened during shoot was that a horse bit me! When I tell people that, no one believes me.

Prior to its release, when the distributors watched Mr. Natwarlal, they felt very disappointed and claimed that there was no story and that the film will not run. Reluctantly they went along and released the film, and were proven wrong, because the film as we all know, went on to become a box office success.

In the 1980s, I also began to assist director Vijay Anand, fondly called Goldie. I was the head of Production for Ram Balram, and later became the co-producer on the film. My job was to literally wake him up in the morning, take him to the shoot and then bring him back, and often even put him to sleep. I thought of him to be a very cool man. He was known for his excellent framing and song picturisation. He was an excellent technician.

When I directed Mr. Bachchan in Insaniyat, I must have been around 30 and I was the youngest director to have directed Mr Bachchan. The film began production in 1989 and was originally set for release in 1991. But when two of the film’s stars Vinod Mehra and Nutan passed away, the schedules went haywire, and the release was delayed until 1994. It was the last released film of Amitabh Bachchan who then temporarily retired from films in 1992 after a near-fatal accident. It was tough time for many of us in the industry.

Some of the films we made were Do Anjane, Mr. Natwarlal, Unnees Bees, Ram Balram, Ek Aur Sikander, Teri Kasam, Johny I Love You, Aasman, Babu, Abhimanyu, Ithihas, Ram Tera Desh, Insaniyat, Out of Control. And I cannot complain. I have had a really worthwhile and wonderful time as a film professional.

The best memories I have come from my children, my two sons Rohan and Gaurav, who are twins. The days and years I remember most fondly are when I would take them to Otters Club in Bandra and watch them play Squash. They were both excellent players, and have won many prestigious tournaments. My wife Meenu (real name Jasmine) is my life mate, soul mate and an excellent travel mate. We have travelled a lot together. I love my family as I love my God. When my grand children grow up, and if they were to ever want to watch any of my films, I would wish that they watch Mr. Natwarlal. Maybe even with me. It was truly a fun film and especially for children.