ATUL TIWARI: MAN OF MANY PARTS!by Aparajita Krishna May 21 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 20 mins, 40 secs
Aparajita Krishna time-travels with writer, actor, museum designer and teacher of dramatic arts Atul Tiwari, and returns with volumes of his artistic endeavours that he shares with her.
Atul Tiwari, actor-writer-director, has in his sixty-four years, spanned a vast history and time in his work across the mediums of theatre-stage, television, film, biopics, web-series. His work-associations have been defining, vast-spread and deep: historically, socially, culturally, politically. This article informs me and will so the reader. So deeply rooted and ennobling are his works and so consumed he is by the nature of his assignments that I felt guilty taking away this article-time from his most serious engagements. To that I smile. In some related way writing this article was in parts akin to visiting the political-citizenry life and times of my parents too. And not to forget, for some years Atul and me were also padosis (neighbours) in Mumbai, of the balcony-se- jhank-ke-baat-karne types. To that I smile more.
Before going into a flashback let us begin in the immediate present. What assignments are you currently engaged in?
Just finished the work on one of the most ambitious and prestigious films, which I wrote with Shama Zaidi for Mr. Shyam Benegal. MUJIB: The Making Of A Nation. It’s an Indo-Bangladesh co-production, and a biopic on the father of the nation of Bangladesh. On the acting front, I finished a film with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, and am waiting for season 3 of Maharani to begin shooting. Alongside the films, more Museum projects and shows are coming up.
One should professionally define you as a veteran theatre practitioner, scriptwriter for films-television-web series, director and actor. Right?
Well, if I die today, you can safely write on my epitaph: “Here is a man: who was a theatre-maker and a playwright by passion. A screenplay-writer by profession. A reluctant-accidental actor. And a consummate museum-maker, who wasted his life in many more things….”
In March 2022 I had written an article in The Daily Eye, The Making Of A Film: MUJIB: The Making Of A Nation. It was a curtain-raiser of sorts with inputs from Shyam Benegal, you, Pia Benegal. What is the status on its release? It is to be released in three languages: Bengali, English, Hindi.
The film is ready for release. ‘Bangla language pride’ is the theme of the film, the language of the film. But yes, other languages like English and Hindi will also be the medium of release.
With Shyam Benegal you have collaborated on many projects. Do give your assessment of him as a director.
I would like to quote one of Mr. Benegal’s favourite actors, Om Puri. Some 20 years ago, Om Puri in his inimitable style said, “In the jungle of Indian cinema there are thousands of trees of various kinds. But the tallest of them is Satyajit Ray. And, the widest of them, like the banyan in Calcutta’s botanical garden, is Shyam Benegal - with a thousand roots and shoots.”
A wide banyan tree, a vata-vriksha, is also called Akshay-vat because when one root dies, another shoot takes ground, and the ‘moving tree’ is always alive, kicking and giving shelter to lives of myriad kinds.
To quote Derek Malcolm, “Benegal is incapable of giving up, and that is one of his prime virtues.”
Today, as he approaches 90, he has just finished his latest, biggest, costliest international-collaboration film, Mujib: The Making Of A Nation, that too in a new language - Bengali. I can only say, long live Shyam Babu. I was blessed to have worked with him that closely for years now.
On the 10th of March this year I was in the audience at Cinema Collectives’ event Women in Media & Entertainment: Roles & Perceptions. You rendered a fabulous play-reading as a mono-act. It was a play by Franca Rame and Dario Fo adapted by you in Hindi as Ek Subah/Waking up. It has a poignant, satirical and heart-breaking premise. A study of a working woman who forgets that it is a day-off on one Sunday. Yours was a riveting act. Tell us of the experience.
Ohhh! I adapted this play about 34 years back. This was my first directorial work in Mumbai. We opened it at Prithvi theatre with Sushmita Mukherjee, my NSD classmate, playing the lead. We folded it up after several shows. Since then I have never done it again, as no one can match Sushmita. I am grateful that Cinema Collective and Veenaa Bakshi asked me to read some play for the occasion and I pulled it out, and did a performed-reading.
Tell us something about your museum work.
I have been interested in the museums since my childhood. My parents also helped in making a museum, about the freedom fighters in Lucknow, with their comrades. It has a lot of oral history and India’s largest collection of the portraits of the freedom fighters. So, when the character of museums changed from just a place for ‘Collectables’ to storytelling and narrative spaces, I was lucky to move-in quickly.
The first museum that I helped in making is ‘Dandi Kutir’ in Gandhi Nagar, the largest museum in the world dedicated to any individual. It is about the Father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi. It’s an experiential-immersive museum, where you have to look at the collectables, as the Mahatma himself did not collect much in his life but for the bare minimum necessities. It gives you the experience of ‘walking with the Mahatma’ from his birth in Porbandar to his death in Delhi.
Then I have gone on to make museums dedicated to people like Sardar Patel (in Delhi), ‘Museum of Socialism’ dedicated to Jayaprakash Narayan in Lucknow, India’s independence movement in Kartarpur, Punjab, to a city museum in Varanasi called ‘Ras-Ras Banaras’ etc. All of them are new-age experiential narrative museums and not the curiosity-cabinet sangrahalayas.
Now to go back into the past: familial, education, work. You were born and brought up in Lucknow. Today at 62-63 how would you sum-up your familial background and the leanings towards the arts, theatre in particular. Do talk of your family too.
I was born, brought up, educated, trained and ‘dramatized’ in Lucknow. My father was a died-in-the-wool Marxist, who headed the CPI(M) since its inception till his death. My mother was a ‘people’s’’ doctor, who took only 2 rupees as fee from her patients for most of her 50 years of medical practice. We were raised in great poverty, but with greatest riches like two libraries at home, and access to arts, drama, theatre. I started doing radio singing and dramas from the age of 9.
From radio to stage, to drama schooling in Lucknow (BNA), and then in Delhi (NSD) and Germany (The Deutsches Nationaltheatre Weimar and Berliner Ensemble) were a natural route. Translation and writing was something that I imbibed from my father and that helped to write plays. I directed plays all over the country, especially in the rural areas, mofussil towns and villages, before Sudhir Mishra called me to write the dialogues for his first feature film ‘Yeh Woh Manzil To Nahin.’
Can you recall your first play in life as an actor and the initial ones?
One that hooked me was a radio play called ‘Lal Haveli’ written by Mrs. Chandrakiran Sonrexa. It was a serial play in four parts. And because radio was the only mass-medium, I became a ‘hero’ at the age of 12. Thousands of postcards, farmaishee khats, praise, recognition came my way and girls trying to meet me at that lovely age! I had no other path left. On stage I had done, ‘Bishop’s Candlesticks’, a portion of ‘Le Miserable’, culled by my mausi ji, Dr Asha Yashwant, who was and is a great storyteller. I directed it in high-school and played the hero in it.
A little later with the magic of my first proper theatre-teacher, Prof. Raj Bisaria, I played Pansy in Mahesh Elkunchwar’s ‘Garbo’, at age 17. These were basic acting lessons.
Plays and theatre became your training ground. At Lucknow’s Bharatendu Natya Akademy you got your formal training. How do you assess the experience?
I was very fortunate to get the right teachers at the right age. At the earliest, in my radio days (age 9-15), I had people like Jaidev Sharma Kamal, Jeet Jardhari guiding me. Then there was the wonderful playwright-director Urmil Kumar Thapliyal, who was reviving nautanki those days. And then, from age 15, I got Mr. Raj Bisaria as a mentor-philosopher-guide, and now perhaps I can call him a friend. Later I learnt at Bharatendu Natya Akademy (1979) under his guidance.
You graduated from the National School of Drama with specialisation in direction. Acting must also have been a part of the training. Do summarise the 3 years there.
Yes, like music-directors have to know some singing, a theatre director has to know some acting. We don’t even have harmoniums like music-directors have, to demonstrate what we want. At the National School of Drama, Delhi (1980-83) I was lucky to have met and worked with teachers and directors like BV Karanthji, Devendra Raj Ankur, Kirti Jain, Anuradha Kapoor, Ranjit Kapoor, Barry John, K.N. Panikkar.
I cannot forget getting life mentors like K.V. Subbanna from village Heggodu, Karnataka and Prof. Fritz Bennewitz from Weimar, GDR. They did not just teach me theatre, but life, values, ideology and work ethics.
In 1987 you went to the German National Theatre (Weimar) and to the Berliner Ensemble for advance training in theatre direction. Obviously, it would have enhanced your understanding of theatre both academically and in practice.
Yes, it opened the world to a man from a small town, called Lucknow, of those days. Apart from working with people from different nationalities, seeing Europe at that age, was an eye-opener. Because I had no money, I literally had to go around the world (Europe) at 8 dollars a day. I had to skip meals for days, but never skipped a museum, or, a theatre show, or, an interesting ‘experience’.
Then you shifted to Bombay/Mumbai in 1989? Obviously earning livelihood via acting, direction, writing would have been the force behind the move.
Yes, 1988-89. Earning, yes. But it was more to find a ‘place’ to grow new roots, after my marriage. Otherwise, I was a wandering minstrel till that point, going from city to city, village to village, directing plays - for food, shelter, and a little money. But that was my University! It was in the small villages that I learnt to communicate to the audiences. The new medium of cinema was also very alluring, where you could talk to lakhs at the same time.
Was writing the dialogues for Sudhir Mishra’s film Yeh Woh Manzil To Nahin your first professional film assignment?
Bharat Ek Khoj (1988-89), the television series on Doordarshan, based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s defining book, Discovery of India, directed by Shyam Benegal, had you, too, in the writing team along with Shama Zaidi, Sunil Shanbag, Ashok Mishra and others. It is in the archives as a very important documentation. Tell us what you would want to about the series.
Bharat Ek Khoj happened with Shyam Benegal. Interestingly I am still writing for him, when I am 64 and he is almost 90. Shama Zaidi, Sunil Shanbag and Dr. Sandip Pendse were the screenplay writers and others like Ashok Mishraji used to write the dialogues. But when I met Mr. Benegal midway through the making of the great series, he asked me if I would like to write the episodes that dealt with the timeline till 1947, after Pandit Nehru’s book ended in 1939. Of course, I agreed. Then he innocently asked me what could be the stories after 1939? And I like a fool started educating him, on the stories like 1942, Rise of Communalism, Cabinet Mission, The Constitutional Assembly and finally the Partition. It is then that he told me as much about 1942 movement as possible and gave me the responsibility to write the screenplays and dialogues for episodes on 1942, Mahatma Gandhi and the Quit India Movement (for Bharat Ek Khoj).
Kab Tak Pukaroon, the TV serial on DD, comes into recall. Tell us about it. Also about the other serials you mark for yourself as a writer, director.
Sudhir Mishra called me to write the screenplays and dialogues for Kab Tak Pukaroon, which was directed by his brother, and FTII graduate, Sudhanshu Mishra. It was a wonderful experience with a crazy, energetic team. It had actors like Pankaj Kapoor, Sushmita Mukherjee, Pallavi Joshi, Rajendra Gupta and Habib Tanvir sahib. And you. I enjoyed writing the comedy called ‘Phun-TV’ for Sudhir-Sudhanshu Mishra duo, but with the unfortunate death of Sudhanshu ‘fun’ went out of the series.
Kadam was a series of stories on women, which I and my friend and partner in TnT, Suhail Tatari, created and directed together. Then I exited and Suhail made a great series for two years, for Sahara TV.
I also enjoyed writing a very political series, Kashmeer, for Star Plus. It was directed by Suhail Tatari. But because of its incisive political nature, it was shut down, under pressure, by Star TV. But I won several awards for that.
Then Samvidhaan (Dir: Shyam Benegal, for Rajya Sabha TV). It is the story of the making of the Indian Constitution. It was inaugurated by PM Dr Manmohan Singh in February 2014, in the presence of Shri Arun Jaitley, and was gifted by the current PM to the Prime Minister of Nepal in August 2014.
You have gone on to write screenplays and dialogues for many noted films. Do list your chosen list.
Hopefully the following list will cover most of my GOOD work. The rest is forgettable.
I have written more than two dozen films as screenplay/dialogue writer. Some of the award-winning feature films have been for many prominent directors like Girish Kasarvali, Govind Nihalani, Sudhir Mishra, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Ravi Kumar (Tamil), Kamal Haasan and Shyam Benegal. Notably: Ek Ghar (Dir: Girish Kasarawali), Yeh Wo Manzil To Nahin and Dharavi (Dir: Sudhir Mishra), Drohkaal (Dir: Govind Nihalani), Agni Varsha (Dir: Arjun Sajanani), Fire (with Javed Akhtar, Dir: Deepa Mehta), Shaheed Uddham Singh (Dir: Chitraarth), Mission Kashmir (Dir: Vidhu Vinod Chopra), Dashavtar (Dir: Ravi Kumar), Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (co-written with veteran screenwriter Shama Zaidi for director Shyam Benegal), Vishwaroop and Vishwaroop II (Dir: Kamal Haasan).
Then there is Lal Bahadur Shastri (Short feature for U.P. Govt.), Bhaskaracharya (for Chinmaya Mission), Goswami Tulsidas (for Chinmaya Mission), Adi Guru Shankaracharya (for Chinmaya Mission). Currently as mentioned earlier I have written an international biopic film on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh.
What is Ram Se Hai Ram Tak about? On Mahatma Gandhi and beyond? You have created this as a multimedia experience that travels. Is it a stage production?
This was a huge experience. I created it at the Mahatma’s birthplace Porbandar, in 2005. We had three large film screens as the cyclorama, a multilevel stage measuring 80x50 feet, 150 actors, dancers, musicians, pyrotechnics, and whatnot, to present the story of Gandhi from his childhood (Ram as a talisman given to him by his maid) to his death (Hey Ram). It was a great success with 25 thousand people enjoying it every evening in the stadium.
You have anchored TV shows. In particular Chakravyuha for Zee. Do recall.
It was fun. A new format those days, when no one shouted ‘Nation wants to know!’. Yet we knew what India wanted to know. It was started by Ronnie Screwvala, with late Vinod Dua as anchor, and then handed down to me.
You had in 2011 presented in Lahore a paper on Faiz Ahmed Faiz on the occasion of his centenary birth year. To quote you “He belonged as much to Asia as to Africa, as much to Beirut as to Bangladesh, as much to Pakistan as to India, and belonged as much to Lahore as to Lucknow.” Indeed, indeed. For that matter literature, art, science ought not to have boundaries as markers. But now in 2023 the world is even more divided. How do you see the cultural exchanges panning out?
Pakistan has been so hospitable towards the writers of India, be it Gulzar Sahab, Javed Akhtar Sahab and so many others. They have invited me several times since my paper titled ‘Faiz Ahmad Faiz ka Lucknow.’ The cultural exchanges are the best people to people dialogue possible. Even when we disagree with them, they listen to us.
See what happened with Javed Sahab this February. Even when he critiqued Pakistan’s fundamentalists and dispensation he was cheered and clapped by their people. See how warmly our current Prime Minister was received in Lahore, when he went to meet Nawaz Sharif and his family, on an unscheduled stop. The people of Pakistan love Hon. Atal ji so much that most of them call me, Atul, as Atalji.
As they say in Hindi, “ladh lena, jhagad lena, pit jana, peet dena, magar bolchaal matt bund karna. Bolchaal bund hote hi sulah ke saare darwaaze bhi bund ho jaate hain. Gussa bura nahi hai, par gusse ke baad jo bair hum paal lete hain, wo bura hai.”
Apart from doing classical and modern Indian, Hindustani plays, you have a repertoire of more than 30 productions in different languages consisting of Western playwrights. You translated them into Hindustani. It has energised Indian theatre and added new texts to our theatre.
In my repertoire are more than 30 productions in different languages consisting of Western playwrights like Shakespeare, Schiller, Shaw, Goethe, Brecht, Pinter and Dario Fo. Some of the classic plays directed by me from English language and Indian are: Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, The Exception and the Rule, Macbeth (in India, and Los Angeles, USA), Caucasian Chalk Circle, Julius Caesar, The Woman Alone, Waking Up, Turandot, Pygmalion, Romeo & Juliet, Andha Yug, Mrichchakatikam, Toos Chaman Ki Myna, Aazar Ka Khwaab, Shri Shri 420 (Sydney, Australia).
Some of my translated plays into Hindustani from different source languages are: Three Penny Opera (Brecht), Exception & The Rule (Brecht), Caucasian Chalk Circle (Brecht), Candida (Brecht), Dumb Waiter (Pinter), Ubu Rex (Alfred Jery), Faust (Goethe), Turandot (Schiller), The Woman Alone (Dario Fo-Franca Rame), Tempest (Shakespeare), Macbeth (Shakespeare), King Lear (Shakespeare), Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare).
My last big production on stage was Aazar Ka Khwaab (an Urdu adaptation of Shaw’s Pygmalion), which opened at Mumbai University and National School of Drama in December 2014). My production of Macbeth, with American actors in 1991, at Los Angeles Theatre Centre (L.A.T.C.), was staged to raise money for Shakespeare’s Globe Centre in London.
In India, my theatre work with the villages in the south has been training grounds that helped me connect with the people at all levels. My translations, in Hindustani, of more than a dozen plays have brought drama from other languages closer to Hindi speaking audiences.
You as an actor get overshadowed quite unfairly by the writer in you.
I call myself a reluctant, accidental actor. But have acted in several popular and respected feature films like Three Idiots (Dir: Rajkumar Hirani), Aakrosh (Dir: Priyadarshan), Samvidhaan (Dir: Shyam Benegal), Vishwaroopam (Dir: Kamal Haasan), The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Dir: John Madden), P.K. (Dir: Rajkumar Hirani), Mulk (Dir: Anubhav Sinha), Setters (Dir: Ashwini Choudhary), Kauppaan (Tamil; Dir: KV Anand), Haseen Dilruba (Dir: Vinil Mathew), Maharani (OTT series on Sony Liv, 2021).
In India your theatre work in the villages of South India, notably Heggodu in Karnataka, has been a pathbreaking initiative. Inform more.
The path was broken by Shri K. V. Subbanna, who, after his masters in Kannada language from Mysore University in the early 1950’s, decided to go back to his village Heggodu and do theatre with the villagers. Slowly a film society, a printing press, a publication, a theatre school, a repertory, several theatre buildings were added to this ‘dream theatre-culture’ village. Today this village has everything for theatre that even the big metropolises in India lack. A dedicated and growing audience of Rasiks is the most important part of this.
Subbanna was given the Magsaysay Award for his services to the community of villagers. I got to walk the path created by him, and he led the way. And I am not alone. His son Akshara, Chidambar Rao Jambe, Prasanna, Shaili Sathyu, Jehan Manekshaw and dozens of others have been deeply affected by the Heggodu village experiment, and NIASAM experience.
I was fortunate to get a chance to live with him for years in his own home, as he had adopted me as his second son. Working with the villagers, who may not be as ‘informed’ and ‘smart’ as the city-folks, but are many times ‘wiser’, and ‘experientially smarter’, was a great training ground for me. They have hands on solutions, and not just smart talk. My handicap of not knowing Kannada language fully, sharpened my theatrical communication skills after working with the villagers in Karnataka.
Do you feel that in Hindi theatre especially, now for decades, we have had far less Hindi original play texts than as compared to the global texts and even compared to our other regional languages. Of course, theatre also got ideated as a simple text reading on stage. An ensemble big cast play got challenged by television and films.
Yes, original writing for theatre in India, and especially in Hindi has shrunk. But so have the avenues and support for theatre. Both are related. The governments of the day, be it whatever party, have been squeezing the support for arts and culture as we are not a big constituency for them. And, theatre, in whatever era, has never flourished without society’s active support and backing. It’s a ‘handicraft’ where the ‘workman-artist’ and the consumer-rasik have to be present in the same space, unlike a film, TV or other handcrafted ‘consumables.’ This poses a special challenge. And, one of the things that happened was that the number of characters, and thus actors, started shrinking on stage. But I have never taken that path. I did do a One-Woman Show 30 years back, but my last play had 25 actors on stage.
I have also tried to write some original plays in Hindustani, apart from the translations. The best known amongst them are: Jaoos Chaman Ki Myna, Ek Gudda Tha Ik Gudia Thee, Shri Shri 420, Jambudweepe Bharatkhande - Karl Marx Ke Hathkande.
Your creative life has been very enriching.
If my parents Dr. Pushpa Vati Tewari and Com. Shankar Dayal Tiwari (note different spellings), gave me a foundation, then in my theatre life, the four pillars on which an artistic me stands today have been Prof. Raj Bisaria, Guru B.V. Karanth, mentor Prof. Fritz Bennewitz, and ‘father’ KV Subbanna.
In films I would not have come without Sudhir Mishra, and could not have learnt the skills without Dada Nabendu Ghoshji - I may have faded away without a friend, philosopher and guide like Mr. Shyam Benegal.
As a pro-active Indian citizen, how do you see India politically, socially, culturally panning out in the coming years? Will the status-quo change or in the least get well-challenged? Or is it a long haul?
The history of the world tells us that these things are cyclical. Look at Germany, how tyrannical and abusive towards the minorities it was. Then things changed. Look at the peace-loving Japan. How once the samurai blades were used to behead people in its captured colonies! Look at India. How a tyrannical, blood-thirsty Samrat Ashoka metamorphized into a Buddhist Priyadarshi Ashoka. Look at the Mughal India. How Akbar was a large-hearted, inclusive emperor who despised Islamists by wearing a tika and Dhoti to his courts, doing a thousand Surya-namaskars every day, and then floating a new order called Din-e-Ilahi. And then, look at his great-grandson Aurangzeb who was intolerant and a fanatic in his own right.
So, whatever we have today will change. But remember Rahim: “Rahiman chup kar baithiye, dekh dinnan ke pher! Jab neeke din aahiye, banat na lagihe der!” (Rahim, look at the upturned times, and sit silent and tight! Quickly will time change again, and things will be up-right!!).