While Pratik Gandhi is gathering praise for his performance as Harshad Mehta in the web series Scam 1992, revisiting an interview with him about his theatre work:
More often than not, an actor who has gathered a fan following from films, attracts audiences to his plays. “With me, I think it has been the other way round,” says Pratik Gandhi, star of many acclaimed Gujarati films, stage actor and director. “Whenever I am out promoting one of my films, radio stations and newspapers first ask about my plays, because I am better known for theatre.”
Of the many plays he has acted in, his monologues, directed by Manoj Shah, Hun Chandrakant Bakshi, Mohan’s Masala (also in Gujarati and Hindi) have taken him to several places in India and abroad, and established his reputation as an actor of immense talent.
“Mohan No Masalo is a play very dear to me,” he says. “I had this idea about Gandhi in my mind—everybody knows the Mahatma, but how many know what went into making him great? Everybody is interested in success, but nobody cares about the process behind it. I find it very exciting, because that’s where you get the ingredients of anything in life. I discussed this with Manojbhai and he said let’s explore it. He did the research, the writer (Ishan Doshi) put it together, we did it in three languages and went all over with it. I explored new territories like the Leh Ladakh Siachen Glacier base camp where we performed for the army; at naval bases in Chennai and Mumbai, at the Sabarmati Jail for the inmates.”
Pratik had performed a short monologue in a production of Saat Teri Ekvees (Seven Times Three Is Twenty-one), and found the format suited him. “The monologue is an interesting space for an actor,” he explains, “I have to explore myself to the core in a minimalistic setting, where all eyes are on me. So there’s no cheating, just pure performance. There were a lot of things that worked for me; in my early days of struggle, I used to compere shows for quick money, where I had to capture the audience’s attention without a script. This experience helped me a lot on stage; I can sense when I am losing an audience, and how to get them back in tune with the character’s intensity and the text. Acting solo enhanced my skills, honed my craft and helped me grow.”
However, for a young man from Surat, reaching this position was a mix of struggle, serendipity, fighting the odds and taking tough decisions. After years of exposure to theatre in school, he trained as an engineer and came to Mumbai, which, he believed was the only place that would allow him to indulge what he calls his “multiple passion disorder” for plays, films and engineering and management.
Surviving in Mumbai on just an income from theatre is well nigh impossible, so he took up a well-paid job with a large company, which immediately ruled out commercial Gujarati plays, that demanded daily shows and travel. “Besides, in the family dramas that were—and are– popular, there was not much for me to do. I was searching for something that could keep me connected with theatre. Luckily, Manoj Shah does plays that explore new subjects and works under no pressure to perform every day or give an average number of shows to the producer. When we worked on Hun Chandrakant Bakshi (about a famous Gujarati writer), he was kind enough to adjust rehearsal timings with my work schedule. We rehearsed very early in the morning before I went to work, and late in the evening when I returned. On the very long commute to and fro, I learnt the lines, so I didn’t waste anybody else’s time.”
When Pratik did his first two films—Bey Yaar (Two Friends) and Wrong Side Raju—which were trend-setters in Gujarati cinema, he took leave from office to shoot. This hectic way of working eventually made him realise that he was losing out on opportunities. “I had to turn down films and plays because I had a job, and I could not take up better job offers that required me to relocate, because I did not want to lose the link with theatre. It was a huge decision for me to quit my job. I had just taken a loan on a flat, and had EMIs to pay, so it was a weird thing to do, but I went with my gut.”
His well wishers thought he was ruining his life by giving up a lucrative job. “I could have also come home from work, watched TV and slept, instead of rushing for rehearsals and shows. The biggest compromise was, of course, lack of sleep and time with family, and I had to decide on my priorities’ There was a period when I was homeless and living out of my car, because we left our rented flat and the company apartment didn’t materialise. Later, my father and my wife (actress Bhamini Oza Gandhi) suffered serious ailments. Now I think the word struggle is negative, I look at it as adding to my experience. Everybody’s journey is different—I had to stick around and deal with problems; there was no other way to create these experiences that are unique to me and will stay with me forever.”
Had he not met Manoj Shah, his theatre career might have been very different. “We have a karmic connection. He is willing to explore new ideas and I am able to do plays in which I am not jut delivering lines, but constantly feeling the resonance of an audience and giving it back. Every time I do the same play for a different audience, Iearn something new. It’s not something I can explain in words, it’s just what I experience. Like when I performed Mohan’s Masala at the naval base, everybody came in uniform and sat in pin drop silence. I know at which points the audience usually responds and this rattled me. Afterwards, there was loud applause and a standing ovation for ten minutes, and I was told that the audience had been instructed to sit quietly so as not to disturb the actor! I wish I had known earlier. When we did the play for prison inmates, their attention spans were even shorter than normal. But at the end, one of them came to me and wept. And I thought to myself, if I can speak to even one person, theatre is worth my while.
“I have made it a point that after every film, I do a new play or at least shows of a play immediately. I strongly believe that theatre is like an akhada (wrestling arena) for an actor. This is where I sharpen my skills, theatre is what keeps me going, and also keeps me grounded. Then, doing films is helping me get a younger audience into Gujarati theatre. The stage is a constant with me, I don’t recall a day or time when I decided to be an actor, it was almost second nature for me.”
Directing Womanologues (a series of monologues with women) was a “natural progression” for the actor; he intends to direct a play by a new writer very soon, and act in the next Manoj Shah production. He has also been cast opposite his wife in a yet untitled film. “I have been telling Manojbhai that now we should up the game, give the audiences something extravagant. The play may be simple, but the presentation must not be, only then will people take it seriously. If we keep giving them even diamonds for free, they will start questioning it.”
And finally, he wants to do something for Gujarati experimental theatre. “We have no place to perform regularly. We need equal, parallel opportunities. It’s time we fight for Gujarati theatre.”
(This piece first appeared in The Hindu on February 7, 2020)