All the World's a Stage - Manish Gandhi

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“Movies will make you famous; Television will make you rich; But theatre will make you good.”  - Terrence Mann


I can’t remember the last time I watched a play so I feel a bit nervous and unsure about interviewing Manish Gandhi about a subject that I know so little about. But, I am intrigued by this talented actor and most of all I am curious about his passion for theatre. About thirty minutes into the interview…I am practically ready to join one of Manish’s theatre workshops…such is his fervor for an art that is probably understated in our country. Manish is best known for his recent performance as the endearing and adorable ‘Addu’ on Na Bole Tum Na Maine Kuch Kaha on Colors.  “After the show, people would actually stop and ask me if I was really normal” he admits. If you thought that ‘Addu’ was the only feather in this young actor’s hat then think again because, Manish is a well established actor and director in Mumbai’s theatre circuit. He represents the generation of young theatre makers - people who want theatre to be understood...people who are willing to take the responsibility and do whatever it takes to make it a powerful, entertaining and meaningful medium. Charming, ambitious and extremely disciplined about his work, Tinsel Gupshup brings you Manish Gandhi, the actor who truly believes that all the world’s a stage…



TG: When did your love for theatre begin? Was it a play you watched? Was there a moment when you realized that theatre was your passion?

MG: Actually, my love for theatre started when I was very young. I went to a school that was based on the Arya Samaj practices. So all my schooling and moral science subjects centered on the Arya Samaj set up while at home my mother followed all the Hindu religious customs. So I was faced with this complete mismatch and clash. In school we were told that God cannot be found in idols because God is everywhere but then at home every morning before I left for school, I would have to sit in front of the idols for 5 minutes and pray. Now I was a very religious child so all these mixed teachings really confused me. So I thought that I had to find a way out of this situation because the information I got from my parents would be incredibly different from what my school would teach me. So, I tried to find a middle way, joined the moral science club at school and started experimenting and introducing new ways of worshipping. Basically, I used a lot of drama to find solutions for my religious confusion and that is where my love for theatre actually started. We would have a lot of ‘jagratas’ and I would get up on stage, take the microphone and just start singing bhajans, dress up for Ram Leela, dress up as Krishna at home…so I would do all those kinds of things when I was a kid. That was my introduction to the world of theatre. As a kid, religion really fascinated me and all the religious confusion pushed me into a world where I created drama to answer my own questions. I remember there was a theatre workshop taking place close to where I live and I went for the workshop. They were going to put up a play but unfortunately I did not get the part I wanted and I was so disheartened. So I decided to stage the play again and play the part I had been rejected for. I just wanted to prove that I was the perfect kid for that part. So, I got together with some friends from school and put up the same play! We performed the play at an inter-school competition and I won best actor for that part! I knew that I had found my creative space and that is when I decided that theatre is where I want to be.




TG: In this day and age of daily serials, television shows and Friday film releases do you feel that theatre gets its due?

MG: Honestly speaking, the fact that we are having this conversation about theatre…it is getting its due. So in order to answer this question I think it is important to understand that theatre can be used as a medium for different purposes. There are plays that entertain, during the independence struggle theatre or ‘Nautanki’ were used as a weapon, some plays are performed to put across a social message…so you have to look at the purpose and then decide if theatre gets its due. As a theatre maker, I don’t make plays to compete with films but if you start looking at plays from a commercial point of view, that is a completely different ballgame altogether. When I was in college, I noticed that the funds given to theatre were very different from the funds allocated for sports or Cricket. As a theatre person, if I make a play and even one person from the audience comes up to me and says that his or her life has changed because of the play…then theatre just got its due!



TG: Does that happen? Do people come and tell you that your play has changed their life?

MG: A lot of times…a lot of times! I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to tell us that our plays have been life saving or life changing for them. I was visiting home and I came to know that our family doctors teenage daughter had committed suicide. I was so shocked and I started asking why a young adult would take such a drastic step. I really wanted to do something about it and examine the lives of teenagers in our country in this day and age. We have all been through teen years and it is an extremely confusing phase in life. So we got together a group of people ranging from the ages of 17 to 25 and we started working on a bunch of pieces from some German and Indian plays. We worked together for a period of 4 months and it was shocking to find out that so many of us had all these repressed emotions. We realized that there was a need for teens to talk and they had so much to say but really did not know how to talk about their issues. It was like a whole bunch of emotions that has been shut away in some mental trunk and they refused to visit that zone. Those repressed emotions would definitely affect their thought process and the way they chose to lead their lives in the future. As theatre makers, we were able to access those emotions and I am not joking when I tell you that that workshop changed the lives of all the actors who took part! I still meet some of the actors and they are so different – the way they speak, the way they dress…they have really opened up. When we were staging ‘Cock’ in Bangalore, a young man came up to Nakuul and me backstage and admitted that his life had changed completely after watching the play. He decided to come out to his parents and tell them that he is gay.



TG: What does theatre mean to you?

MG: It is my world. I think theatre is culturally universal, you will find it in every culture…maybe through different languages but it is universal. For me, any human action that is worth watching becomes theatre. Watching an old woman knitting, children playing, a man reading a book…it is all theatre. More importantly, theatre is actually a language for me. As I mentioned before, we live in times when we have nothing to talk about so theatre opens up an avenue for people to express themselves through. You come back home, switch on your television, chat on your mobile phone, stare at your laptop…people go out for dinner but they have nothing to talk about! I set up a theatre company for children called ClustalZ Theatre Repertoire because as I mentioned earlier, I feel that there is a need for children to express themselves. When I was a kid, I could not express myself to my parents and there were times when I was feeling low or I was getting bullied but I could not talk to my parents about it. I believe that theatre will give children that language. Also, as a kid I had major trouble with some subjects and I would not do well in them. So I made a curriculum for the Education Department in Chandigarh asking them to introduce theatre as a means of teaching certain subjects. So the administration gave me a pilot project where they provided us with a specific syllabus and we worked with a small group of children to prove that theatre could used to make some subjects easier to understand. We were successful in our efforts.



TG: I have read that London theatre focuses on art whereas the New York theatre is all about commerce. What are your thoughts on theatre in India? 

MG: I think theatre is different in different parts of the country. For example, in my hometown – Chandigarh, even if you pay people to come and watch a play, they won’t! I am telling you this because I have performed in Chandigarh so I know what the situation is like. Even my parents won’t come and watch my work. In the West, theatre is very well established and you have plays and musicals that have been running for years. Theatre gets the right amount of exposure in cities like London and New York. There is definitely a change in India, for example plays like Zangoora actually do well at home and tour worldwide. We do lack a lot in terms of technical understanding and I feel that a lot of young actors look at theatre as a stepping stone rather than a career. The funny thing is that in Mumbai an actor might get into theatre to get noticed to land a role in films, if you are doing theatre after your job it is considered as a hobby and if you are involved in theatre full time then you must be a social worker! Come to think about it, there must be about 150 serious theatre people in Mumbai. The remaining just go in and come out for exposure.



TG: Do you feel that theatre is somewhat misunderstood? For example, I know some people who feel that theatre is very elitist, some people actually look down upon plays and some consider it very nerdy and geeky…

MG: You know, I would take partial responsibility for that because as a young theatre maker, it becomes my responsibility to find ways to draw audiences to watch my play. Maybe I need to make work that is more relevant for the audience or maybe I need to package and sell my plays in a different way…so it is my responsibility. There are theatre makers who are finding ways to make their productions bigger, like getting television actors to act in their plays, making video previews, putting up websites, giving out tickets on twitter. So theatre makers are opening up to ways that will help bring the audience in to watch their plays. Having said that, every person is entitled to his or her own opinion and we are not here to change anyone’s opinion. For example, if a person comes up to us and starts speaking in Hindi and even though Hindi is our national language and we understand it…we will still wonder why this guy is not speaking English?? So as theatre makers we can only try and remove the bias that people may hold towards plays. You have to understand that plays cater to a very limited and niche audience and I feel that theatre does not get the right kind of exposure in India. So yes, it is definitely misunderstood and there are many reasons for that. I think this is a two-way responsibility because as a theatre maker, I need to make plays that will be fascinating for the viewers but at the same time people need to be open to watch, understand and accept what we make…you know, be willing to give art a try. Art is changing every single day and as a young theatre maker, I should be open to new ideas and means. We do need to be more receptive to change. The internet, mobile phones and all this technology have created a void…you know, people look for ways to escape person to person interaction. I really think that we can use theatre to help fill those empty spaces.



TG: Performing on stage in front of a live audience…what is that like?

MG: (Laughs) it is….it is a great feeling…ummmm…I actually don’t know how to describe it! My breathing changes…I am a different person. When I perform on stage for a live audience I feel like I have total control and it is literally like the world is mine! You know, acting is a very ‘God like business’ because actors have this sense when they are making their characters. They set their own creatures and then go about giving it shape, sense and form. When you are up on stage there is a give and take going on because you can see what the audience likes or what they can’t relate to. So you can take control and change your performance accordingly. It is a very dynamic process and everything is happening right there in that moment! Sometimes the audience goes into this laughter mode and as an actor, I have to take control of how I will handle my content at that moment without losing the scene I am in. I cannot disturb the dynamics of the scene but I have to find a way to deliver my next line and make sure that the audience hears me. There are times when you have to improvise. For example, we were performing ‘Cock’ and my co-actor completely blanked out and forgot his lines. Now I knew his lines but I could not prompt him so I just went into this spur of the moment dance. The audience burst into laughter and that gave my co-actor enough time to come back into his lines. Having said that, as a theatre maker, it is my responsibility to communicate what the playwright really wants because each and every word chosen by the playwright is there for a reason. So as an actor and a theatre maker we have to be very sure of what we want to change. Unless it is an absolute necessity, I do not encourage improvisation and I would want people to stick to the script.



TG: I always feel that actors who come from a background in theatre are more polished and have more finesse in terms of acting abilities. Without being biased…what are your thoughts on that?

MG: Hmmmm…that is true but that may work in our favour or against us. When I was in school, I started working for a Doordarshan television serial and the director would keep telling me – ‘Why are you acting like this? This is not theatre!’ Theatre actors are definitely more polished but that has a lot to do with the discipline. Actors who work in theatre are in complete control of what they are doing. Film and television acting is camera acting and you get a lot of support from various factors. There is an editor who will correct your performance, a director who will tell you what to do, a sound person who will record your voice, a cinematographer who will photograph you in a way to make you look good! So your performance is supported but in theatre there is none of that, it is a single take exercise from start to finish! Also, each theatre company has certain customs and traditions so these companies nourish their own artists and those artists go out into the industry with these disciplines and values. I think those core values give theatre actors finesse



TG: So, can you make out when someone has a background in theatre?

MG: Most of the time, you can make out when a person comes from a theatre background. For example in Na Bole Tum, Madhuri ji (Jiji bua) actually comes from a very rich theatre background and I was able to make that out. I have this strange habit that when I go for a shoot, I do not carry my mobile phone on the set. It is a work ethic that I have developed for myself. So when I went for Na Bole Tum, I noticed that as soon as there was a ‘Cut’ every single actor would pull out their mobile phones. It was almost like a ritual…a ritual of the mobile phone being pulled out of the pocket and then sliding back into the pocket when we went back to work. So, I noticed that Jiji bua was the only person who did not do that. I went up to her and asked whether she was from theatre and she said she was from a Repertoire! A theatre actor tends to be very disciplined and that sets him or her apart.



TG: You recently acted in a play called ‘Cock’ and you directed it too. Was that your first directorial venture? Tell us about that experience

MG: I have been directing plays for over 9 years but ‘Cock’ is my first directorial venture in Mumbai. I was in the Film institute at Pune and I was assisting a friend who wanted to make a film. So she asked me to look for scripts that were bold, edgy and know something that calls out for attention. So I went to the library and picked up some books and there was a book titled ‘Cock’ and I thought – hmmmm…ok…now this will definitely grab everyone’s attention! So, I just picked up the book and handed it to her. I did not even bother to read what the book was all about and told her that she should make a film out of that screenplay. A week later she came into my room and said that she had read the book and there was no way it could be made into a film. We had a bit of an argument and I decided that I would read the book and prove her wrong! So I read the script and discovered that it can actually NOT be made into a film because it was meant to be a theatre piece!!! Basically, I proved her right and made a play out of ‘Cock’ on a 300 Rupees budget. At that time I was not even living in Mumbai but I had made some friends through my theatre workshops so I got together with Shweta Tripathi and we decided to make this play! So that is how ‘Cock’ was born. We did not even have a regular place for rehearsals...people would allow us to rehearse in their parking lots, someone would bring chai, and someone would bring Bread Pakoras so it was a pure theatre production. When we staged the play…the response was just overwhelming! We had put so much soul into this play and we received so much appreciation. ‘Cock’ made it through a film festival and we toured the country with it. It established me as a young director in the Mumbai theatre circuit and suddenly all these doors started opening for me. Suddenly I had a rush of people who wanted to work with me, congratulatory emails, and senior theatre practitioners telling me that they appreciated what I was doing. It encouraged me to do more work and I established my theatre company in Mumbai. ‘Cock’ actually gave birth to so many new things in my life. Before this I was not even sure if I wanted to come to Mumbai because at that time I wanted to study further but then after the play I started getting a lot of offers from television and advertising.



TG: Rehearsals are a huge part of a play. What aspects of rehearsals do you enjoy the most?

MG: As a director, I enjoy the days when I am completely lost. Sometimes I really don’t know what the next day will be like...I enjoy that challenge. There are times when I don’t know how to guide my actors but that pushes me to think outside the box. As an actor I really look forward to every aspect of rehearsals. When I enjoy my work, I go into a higher creative state and then I can think and come up with brilliant ideas. A lot of actors have personal breakthroughs during the rehearsal phase and to be a part of that…to watch that…it is just amazing! The rehearsal is a journey because you start from one point and you never know where you will end up. We still rehearse for ‘Cock’ even though the play has had 40-50 shows…we still rehearse because each time we discover something new in the play!



TG: Is there a process to developing a play? From a seed of an idea to the big night on stage?

MG: (Laughs) I think you will find this strange. When I make a play, I look at it like a relationship I am getting into. It an investment of time, some love…a certain understanding that there will be tough times and we are going to make it. There have been times when I have started a play, spent 2-3 months on it but quit because the time was not right. So for me…making a play is like having a relationship. There are expectations, the actors expect something, the director expects something, the playwright has expectations and at the end of the day you have to be really really REALLY kicked about what you are making. For a theatre director, it’s not like, okay…we have a script…come let’s make a play. Theatre was never meant to be commercial so it has to come straight from the heart. It has to be a story you are dying to tell the audience. So it has to be a relationship that you want to get into and if you feel that the time is not right then you keep the story…and just stay friends for the present time. It’s when you start falling in love with the story…that is when you start making the play, get on the floor, find the actors and then the universe goes about adjusting itself to make the play happen! Even when the play is over…it’s not really over. It always stays with you.




TG: So one of your friends comes up to you and says stuff like – “Oh my God who wants to watch a play…how boring” etc. (*I feel that a lot of people share that sentiment*).What would be your response to your friend?

MG: Oh that happens a lot of times! I directed this play called ‘Limbo’ and so many people have stopped me and asked – ‘Okay what exactly was that play supposed to mean?’ As a theatre maker, I see it as making art and people will have to apply their intelligence to understand it! Theatre is a very experimental form of expression. For example in ‘Cock’ there is a sex scene but the actors don’t even touch each other. All they do is stand up on stage and deliver their lines. Now, it is up to the audience to decipher the lines and conjure up whatever mental images they want to. So if my friends come up to me and say that the play is boring or that they don’t understand then I can’t apologize for that. Maybe they need to go and see the work that they do understand.



TG: The Indian Film and television industry is a very competitive space. A lot of people consider theatre as a stepping stone, sort of a door to get into the industry. As a theatre enthusiast, what do you feel about that?

MG: I will answer this question in the context of theatre production rather than theatre at large. Some productions require support and if I am getting that kind of support from people who are willing to come into my play and volunteer then that is a good thing. Unfortunately many actors are very blasé about acting a play and that does annoy me. There is definitely a lack of loyalty and commitment. Theatre is a medium that can do wonders and it is sad when people use it as a stepping stone to further their career in the industry. Having said that, I have to admit that people need money to sustain and survive. A lot of people are in theatre for the long run and it is their daily bread and butter but it is not the easiest area to survive in. So once again, it becomes our responsibility to set up theatre in such a way that people can actually look up to it as a profession, get the right exposure and be proud to admit that they work in theatre. I would love for people who enter theatre to say that they feel fulfilled and they don’t need to work in films or television. There are people in Mumbai who abide by that and they are able to make money by doing work in and around theatre but as young theatre makers we need to make theatre a means through which people can sustain themselves.





TG: An adaptation or an original play, what do you find more satisfying creatively?

MG: Hmmmm…the content of the play has to resonate with me. I have to be excited about the story. At this point of my career, I am not too keen on creating an original piece. The reason I choose to make a play is of prime importance to me. I will also have to look at the cost because an original may cost more money to make…especially if it does not do well. On the other hand an adaptation may be expensive in terms of getting permissions and licenses etc. I would love to be a part of a Shakespearean play because that genre has not been experimented with too much in India. I would love to be in Hamlet. 


You know, acting is a very ‘God like business’ – Manish Gandhi



Photo credits: Manish Gandhi & Ayush Das


©Tinsel Gupshup

khawar haider
Oct 22, 2013
Thrilled to find his interview with Gupshup and he seems to be a man of vision ......I think one day this young man who amused us with his being the sick boy from the Asylum is going to go places.

Oct 20, 2013
Wow such a detailed and informative interview Manish you rocked as Jigri in Na Bole Tum season 2 :)

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