On the final day, there was no one who was not improvising.
Recently, I had the fortune of enacting a small role in an online rehearsed reading of King Lear by India Poetry Circle’s IPC Players, flawlessly directed by Jairam Seshadri.
It was an exhilarating and enriching experience that transported me back in time.
Many years back, to the utter disappointment of my family members, I quit a lucrative job in Mumbai to be with my wife, Santosh, who was a lecturer in a postgraduate college in Bharatpur. For a couple of months, I was doing nothing but twiddling my thumbs and enjoying every moment of this luxuriance.
But once there was enough of twiddling of thumbs, one of her colleagues from the college invited me to give a couple of guest lectures. Needless to say that it put an end to the thumb twiddling indulgence.
One day he visited our house and suggested: “Lalit, you are a very good orator. Why don’t you start an institute of communication skills and public speaking? Students in Bharatpur need it.”
Squirming and fidgeting for a few minutes, because the very thought of quitting my laidback life style was pretty painful, I said: “I will definitely give it a try.” And give it a try I did!
Soon, I had my own institute and also my own theatre group, Navankur, both of which became popular in a short span of time.
After staging many plays successfully, Santosh translated Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap into Hindi, shifting the backdrop from England to Kashmir. The script that won many accolades is still gathering dust somewhere in our house.
We conducted a week’s theatre workshop, which instilled enough confidence in the bright-eyed youngsters to jump into the maelstrom of histrionics. Twinkling eyes, restless, excited spirits, they were rearing to go.
In one of the highly interactive sessions about improvisation, something interesting transpired.
“Going off the script can create magic, at times.” I said, highly excited.
“Don’t turn us into magicians, sir. We are merely trying to become actors,” quipped a 20-year-old.
“I am just trying to ignite your creativity,” I shot back
“Please don’t try, sir,” he said
“You know Robin Williams was well known for his skills at improvisation. He was a comic genius.” I reiterated.
My remarks were followed by a shrill crescendo of noes from the novices.
“I loved Dead Poets’ Society, but I don’t want to die during rehearsals, sir,” said one.
“I don’t want to be a genius, sir. Let me remain a simple soul,” shouted the other.
“You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it. This is what he had said, and I love Robin Williams. Improvisation brings out the unexpected – the genuine. Spontaneity scintillates,” I kept pressing on.
I was becoming more insistent with every word, making impassioned gestures.
“Let us stick to the scripts, sir. We lack the presence of mind to improvise.” The young crew stuck to their emphatic no to improvisation, so much so that they started blaming my endless improvisation on my lazy ways. They started whining and complaining to my wife: “Madam, please, sir ko samjha do. He is so lazy that he does not memorize his lines and keeps improvising all the time. It is very difficult for us to keep up with him. He is always changing his lines, and tampering with your script. Your script, madam!” The last words were undoubtedly meant to provoke her.
“Please ask him to memorize his lines. So what if he is the director! He needs to memorize his script,” insisted another indignant youngster.
Some near misadventures during the play still bring a smile to my lips. Besides being the director, I had a very important role in the play, and I never memorized my lines till the last moment, despite my wife’s reprimands and warnings.
You see, enacting the role of a police investigator had its advantages.
I had a small diary with me in which I slyly wrote down the cues and merrily improvised, even on the final day.
There was this eighteen-year-old who, we had just realized, was a tremendous actor and had a very significant role in the play.
As a police inspector, I was in the midst of serious investigations, and he suddenly entered the stage, without his cue. For a moment I was tongue- tied, but then blurted out, “Don’t you know, that I have given strict instructions to everyone not to come into this room as I am interrogating a suspect. If you have to discuss something important, come later.”
The youngster, Sanjeev Sharma, immediately realized that he had made a wrong entry and hastily retracing his steps said, “Okay, I will come again, but, don’t you get smug.” Before he exited, he glared at me, shaking a threatening finger in my direction. After ten minutes, he made his entry at the right place and delivered his dialogues like a pro.
In another very important scene, while four or five characters sat on the sofa, another youngster, Shakti Singh, was supposed to reveal something very important and deliver the very meaningful dialogue: “Inspector Sahab, parda to fash kar deejye – unveil the mystery, inspector.” But, to my utter horror, he had totally forgotten his dialogues and was merrily strutting on the stage, twirling a key chain. When still no dialogue was forthcoming, even after moving around the stage twice, Sanjeev Sharma, who was sitting on the sofa, mumbled, through half closed lips:
“Arrey, parda to fash kar – unveil the mystery.”
And Shakti Singh quickly recalled what he was expected to do and was back on the rails.
Then there was this girl who refused to show expressions of fear, even when a gun was pointed at her. I was the one with the gun and she was supposed to express total fear, shock and horror but was unable to bring out the right expressions.
“I have never been frightened in life. How can I look frightened?” That was her stock answer during rehearsals. I shouted at her, scolded her but to no effect.
On the D-Day, she gave a flawless performance, quivering in every limb, when I pointed the gun in her direction, of course taking everyone by surprise.
A pleasant one, of course!
The fear was real this time – the fear of reprimands from everyone. There was no improvisation here.
Our greatest achievement was that not only was the play a tremendous success, receiving a standing ovation (the thunderous applause still rings in my ears), but it was a personal victory for me and my belief in improvisation.
On the final day, there was no one who was not improvising – within the limits of the script, of course.
During all this, my wife was present behind the scenes.
But alas, reduced to a teeth-gnashing, feet-thumping, hand-wringing presence. After the applause died down, we were almost crushed by a human avalanche in the green room.
We have watched many a play, people said, but this is the first play, where we never saw anyone being prompted, or anyone fumbling.
The audience gushed: “What flawless performances by everyone!”
Overwhelmed by joy and emotion, all I could do was grin from ear to ear.
Lalit Magazine is a cricket and theatre enthusiast. His theatre group Navankur has staged several plays. He loves music and is in the middle of writing two English novels.