A Manifestation of a Thespian’s Dream – Prithvi Theatre

“Prithviraj’s mantle has fallen on his youngest son (Shashi Kapoor),” writes author Madhu Jain in her book, The Kapoors, a collective study of Bollywood’s first family.

These words hold true to me, as I walk into Prithvi Theater, an ambience that’s very pleasant to the mind, body and soul greets me. A renowned flutist plays a classical tune on the instrument. Balancing the weight of my baggage, I make my way to a table at the far end of the exquisite Prithvi Café. But just like you’d rewind a tape, my mind pauses and pushes its rewind button. The reel goes in a slow motion. I walk into the Prithvi Theater. A pleasant ambience hits me on the face. Just a few feet away there is a small book shop, and then there is a grandeur hangout place for the young and the old, art connoisseurs. Many well-known artists have taken a seat and spend relaxing time chatting and chewing on the munchies. A renowned flutist plays a classical tune on the instrument. I remember the man’s face but as I try to make my mind clear of that image, I see another personality who is the heart of the place I have set my foot on.

I see Shashi Kapoor spending his peaceful evening in an abode he gave shape to but which was his father’s dream.

The place that exudes the artsy aura was a dream of yesteryears’ thespian Prithviraj Kapoor, the torch-bearer of the Kapoor clan. His first son might have been named the Showman, the second an exuberant Junglee, but it was his third lil’un who turned a jhompra (hut) to a shelter where art & theater breeds.

With a few hundred rupees in his front pocket, a Hindu Pathan from North-West Frontier Province landed in the city of dreams, Mumbai, leaving behind his education and his family, to pursue his dream to become an actor. Little did he know how his coming to the city was a premonition of the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Indian Theater and Cinema. Being an ardent theater person, and after having cruised the Indian states with theater companies, Prithviraj Kapoor started his own theater company. His sons were employed with the company and would get a monthly remuneration. For his first two, it was just a matter of learning and then jumping into the world of motion pictures, but for his young one, it was more than love and more than life.

For Shashi Kapoor, theater was what a heart is to the body. Shashi had been a part of Prithvi but he also had joined Shakespearean, a theater company run by his father-in-law, Geoffrey Kendal. It is here that he found love in his mentor, Jennifer Kendal. Soon, the two tied the knot and thence began a memorable love affair with theaters. East met West and the journey began. Owing to Prithvi Company shutting shop, Shashi Kapoor reluctantly turned towards cinema. He had to sustain his living and support his family. Much like his brothers, Shashi too earned a repute for himself in the industry, India and abroad. He was crowned to be Bollywood’s perfect gentleman and was the first actor who did international films. Jennifer who was a vital part of Shakespearean had given up on her professional life so as to take care of her family. But for them theater always remained an essential part of their life. The two became spinal cords on which the present Prithvi Theater stands (albeit the torch has been passed on from Shashi Kapoor’s daughter, Sanjana Kapoor to his son, Kunal Kapoor more recently).

When Rahul Bajaj could not increase the lease of the place (where the present Prithvi Theater stands) owing to The Urban Land Ceiling Act, he willingly sold it to Shashi Kapoor’s Prithviraj Kapoor Memorial Trust and Research Foundation. To buy the place, Kapoor had to stage a charity show where celebrated artists like Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bachchan, Rekha, Sanjeev Kumar, Shabana Azmi, Mohammad Rafi etc. participated. The efforts of the couple had paid off. Exactly 18 years after Prithvi Theater shut shop, it was revived with a new zeal, a fresh face and young enthusiasm on Prithviraj Kapoor’s birth anniversary i.e. November 3rd, 1978. The theater staged two shows on its inaugural day which starred the then struggling actors (and now eminent personalities) Ratna Pathak Shah, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri. The trio performed two plays – “Udvashtha Dharmashala” and “The Lesson”. Soon after, Jennifer became “The Householder” of Prithvi theaters. She administered it till her last breath. It was her touch that brought a homely feeling to the place. A café with specialities like Prithvi’s famous Irish Coffee and the brownies or sandwiches was a design which came from Jennifer Kendal’s wishlist. Her love for art decorates the walls of the theater, her love for books is evident with the books that deck, the mahogany book-shelves of the book shop and her love for theater is apparent with the decorum of the place.

Just like Ustad Zakir Hussain’s performance every year marks his salutations to the tigress of Prithvi Theater (Jennifer) on her birth anniversary; Prithvi Festival is an ode to a headliner who manifested Prithvi Theaters into reality.

If theater is your answer to an evening out in town, you must catch the Prithvi Theatre Festival that started today and will go on till November 18.

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