DTU Times interviewed filmmaker, actor, theatre director and communications consultant Avijit Dutt, who was at Yuvaan Literature and Film Festival for a panel discussion.
How is theatre different from film industry?
Completely different. Theatre is here and now. You are sharing time and space and even the breath of the actor, which does not happen in cinema. Cinema is frozen. At the end of the shoot you might say, “Yaar maza nahi aaya, main kuch aur karna chahta tha!” (I wish I could’ve done that differently!), but you don’t have a chance to do that now; it’s frozen. But in theatre, you can say, “Yaar baat nahi bani aaj! Kal kuch aur karte hai.” (Today wasn’t the best. We'll try it differently tomorrow!) and you talk to your co-actors and you build your narrative and the next day you do it and it catches fire with the audience and go like “Wah! Mil gaya raasta! Ab is hi raaste pe jaana hai aage!” (We finally nailed it! This is how we’re going to go at it from now!). However, film has a great advantage. A friend from Canada, a friend from Japan, they can see it from anywhere. The power of Bollywood is just so incredibly fearsome. It is definitely our largest soft power creation and export in the world. There was this one time when our car got stuck in Bhutan and there was this another car and there were these young guys and I was thinking of calling them to help out. So, I waved at them and they waved back. I asked them, “So will you help us?”. And they replied, “Certainly sir! Certainly. We saw you in Ladies V/S Ricky Bahl!”
The film industry is highly commercialised, whereas in the theatre industry, the people have told us that the audience they get is somewhat limited.
You know, in '92 when the TV became a huge doorway to entertainment with the opening of satellite channels. Theatre started having a bad time because suddenly people could see it all at home. We're selfish humans and we think what the point is of going outside when we can relax in here. So willy nilly, you get in sucked into a rhythm which is against taking you out, but theatre has been dying for 2000 years. People have been saying that theatre is a dead art for a long time but theatre will not die because the audience keeps coming. But it is so fantastic, I do a show called Unspeakable toh wo solo karta hu English mein karta hu because it’s about criticising the government and I do not want other people to get arrested. So I decided to do a solo first time ever. I went to a festival in Hyderabad and a lot of people came because of the familiar face. It was a full house. But I was worried about what would happen at the second day. The next day there were other people waiting outside asking me to do a second show that night. Then the organiser asked me to stay another day and I was concerned about how it’ll be set up in such a short time space, how the tickets will be sold and everything. He told me to not worry and hence I stayed there for another day and we had another full house. Now to me it’s curious that same play when I bring to Delhi and I don’t say much about it - I didn’t talk to any newspaper or give any interviews. Just decided to put it in the Habitat program notes and see what happens. I had a 120 people but a play before this one that I did at the Habitat, overflowing full house. So you can’t. You really can’t tell.
What is your opinion on the role of film as a tool to instil patriotism?
There was this boy with me just after the ‘97 war who joined me by the name of Anurag. He said, ”Sir, I want to join the Army.” His father was in the police and he had a non-commissioned job but he wanted to be in the army, he wanted to be an officer, he wanted to make him proud so he joined the INA and he came out as a Captain and he went to Kashmir where he was posted. So, he came back to meet me in 2011, and I asked him, “What happens if there’s a cross border shoot and they take out 2 of your men?”. He said, “Well, we go and tell the major that we’ll have to take out 4 of their men tomorrow”. This whole business of surgical strikes has been happening immemorially. But we cannot say, “Arre tu toh bada patla sa banda hai” (“You have no strength!”). Thimmaiah said in 1949, “None of my soldiers will ever cross the border to get back revenge.” That was 1949. Subsequently every single day this carries on. Now they’ve made it into a film. Now that it’s 2019, the mark of 20 years of Kargil, Siddharth Roy Kapoor is making a movie called Kargil A Celebration. Everyone wants to jump on this bandwagon of shaking a flag and saying “I’m Indian!” Was there ever a question? The question is when you divide society up like that, then it is not being Indian to my mind. Because we are such a wonderfully diverse country. There’s this synagogue in Calcutta which is being revived, which was the first synagogue in india. It’s being revived by a Muslim. So, I went to meet him. I asked him, “So, how are you here being a Muslim?” and he said, “Sir I didn’t think you’d be the kind of person to say something like this. Shouldn’t you be ashamed of yourself?” I said “Of course”. He said “So this is what we are now. Just because I believe in Allah doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate jews.” Such a lovely thing. In UP, there’s this mosque that was rebuilt by a Hindu community. They were rounded up and were asked, “How could you do this?!”. They said, “Well sir with cement and bricks” Can you imagine? Let’s hope that this too shall pass and the country will evolve from such debasing politics.
There are a lot of theatre festivals organised, like Jairangam. Does the government affect them also in terms of polarising people?
It does. Earlier when Mr. Vajpayee was in power, Maharangan had invited my production called Bombay Bosnia which was banned in Bombay. So I had done 7 shows of it in Delhi and 3 in Calcutta. Ramgopal Bajaj was the director and he wanted me to play a certain role so I told him that I hadn’t done the video. He told me to just agree and he’d take care of the rest. After my initial contentions, I agreed and the play was selected. Then I said, “If we're going to do this, better book 2 shows simultaneously. Because if there’s going to be a gap of five days in between, authorities might get to know of it and they might try to shut it down.” He said, “Fine, let’s do them both on the same day”. The first show ended and for the second show they were only admitting people with tickets. Outside there was a slogan hearing. ABVP was much much weaker then. So they couldn’t get in but the production carried on. It’s much much difficult now.
Sir we also know that you have 2 patents, one is of a toilet and one is of a blood testing and collecting in healthcare. What inspired you to come up with these?
It’s a strange fact but a fact that rural health is not recorded. We know how many births take place and we know how many pregnancies take place, what is safe motherhood and how many children have survived after 6 months. But nothing else is recorded. So when they say that India suffers from 22% of diabetes it’s utter nonsense. Urban figures are taken and extrapolated. WHO recommends 1 doctor per 1000 people. And what we have is 1 doctor for 11046 people. Out of 100 doctors, 80 would want to work in the city and of the remaining 20, 7-8 leave to practice in the West. So, only 12-13 doctors are left to practice in the rural areas. And village populations are huge. WHO says that to walk to a primary healthcare centre, a villager needs to walk an average of nearly 8 km. Due to the huge number of people in the healthcare centre, it gets hard for the doctor to give them proper attention. They’re hard pressed. So when we collect samples and give them to PHC doctors, those who are really genuine, they are so grateful because they now finally know why that one particular person kept coming back again and again because of weakness. They now know that the person is suffering with high sugar. So I’m doing it out of a necessity. Because it’s not there. So we invented the process. And my name comes as the inventor. We have covered 53,400 people in 76 villages.
So there are a lot of theatre enthusiasts in this university, who are actively participating in competitions and aspire to be actors one day. What advice do you have for them
Keep searching. Keep looking inward, keep working on yourself. And see and consume media. That can give you new ways.