Stage Craft

Sanjna Kapoor talks about the passion for theatre that she inherited from both sides of her family

Published: Jun 21, 2010
Stage Craft
Image: Vikas Khot
Sanjna Kapoor, director of Prithvi Theatre

Name: Sanjna Kapoor, director of Prithvi Theatre
Passion: Creating a platform for Indian theatre
she says: Money is an eternal problem but it has never bogged me down. What gets me down is the lack of human resources — the lack of people actually seeing the vision and people who are able to do the grungy work

What profession would make you most noticed if you were to live in say Bangalore or Mumbai? Every place has a dominant industry that promise you a launching pad, and the pathways and restraints within which you must operate. So if you are a geek, you effortlessly blend into Bangalore; if you are an investment banker, you live in Mumbai. But there are some who are not path dependant, they make their own.

I am in Mumbai to meet Sanjna Kapoor, who has been at the helm of Prithvi Theatre for two decades now. Born to Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal, she could have been acting in Hindi cinema, producing blockbusters, and keeping the course between the red carpet and the arc lights. Instead, here she is, giving her entire life to keeping Indian theatre aloft; providing a platform to hundreds of artists, playwrights and stagehands who do not want to be overwhelmed by a more economically dominant industry that could choke their art like hyacinth on an inland waterway. But first, I want to know how much she is Kapoor and in what part Kendal?

“I think there is more Kendal in me than Kapoor,” she says. “The madness and ‘following your passion’ are on both sides. Prithviraj Kapoor was crazy enough at the peak of his film career to start a theatre company and hire a hundred and fifty people. He paid them salaries and toured them across the country for 16 years! Geoffrey Kendal of course, came to India with his theatre troupe. He first came with a 14-member team with just one show booked, simply because he believed that this is where he wanted to perform and the Indian audience was brilliant and he wanted the heat and the adventure in India.

“Definitely the madness part of it was from both sides — the instinct of wanting to know what is professional theatre. I have had no professional training whatsoever. Whatever I know comes from conversations at the dining table, stories from the Kendals. My grandfather, Geoffrey, was my hero; we grew up with him. I was not as close to Prithviraj Kapoor; I was five when he passed away! In fact, I got to know a lot about his theatre when we celebrated his birth centenary and did an exhibition of his theatre a few years ago! That said, I guess the British sense of humour and getting on with the job, which is very important, is very Kendal.”

“So, let’s talk about the job,” I say. “You are the face of Prithvi Theatre today and you are credited with keeping theatre alive and also with providing an institutional role model. Tell me about the size of the effort called Prithvi Theatre. How much money does it take to keep it alive every year? And what makes you perform?”

“We do 550 shows in a year,” she replies. “We do events, publications and newsletters, and other ancillary projects — we annually perform in a garden in South Bombay as we believe that theatre needs to go to public places and that is a free activity. I have had huge moments of anxiety and desperation. Money is an eternal problem but it has never bogged me down. What gets me down is the lack of human resources — the lack of people actually seeing the vision and people who are able to do the grungy work — the back-end work, all the non-glamorous stuff and the proposal writing to get the money. What makes me perform? I think luck plays a huge role in this. The point is also to have the right mentality — to bring in the right people, to train them for the right job, to have the right vision and dream. We do what we do with all of 15 people working fulltime and it takes about a crore a year to keep this place running!

“Our intent is that the experience of the practitioner who gets to perform in this theatre has to be supreme. The audience has to have a supreme experience. Our job is to make this space alive with creativity and a professional attitude. That is a challenge even today. If our aim was to promote ourselves and not to create artists, we might be making a lot more money! But that’s not our aim — what is exciting about our work is that we are bringing a whole new set of things into it. Ten years ago, if you asked whether I would bring a scientist to lecture at Prithvi, I would say ‘no’. But today we do! A hundred people come almost every Sunday to engage with scientists.”

I cannot conceal my admiration for her; very few CEOs I come across can state their mission and vision with such clarity!

I ask, “You interact with the corporate types to raise money. Does it feel strange?”

“Not usually. Except that sometimes they ask me questions like, ‘who is your target audience’? Once I had this unusual encounter with a banker to whom I had gone for a loan and he gave me a piece of advice. He said ‘You should be better dressed’.”

She looks quite nonchalant, but I want to know if she was offended. “No, not in the least,” she says. “I actually took his advice seriously. Now when I go, I put on some lipstick”. That tells me why she is more Kendal than Kapoor!

As I bid her goodbye, I also think I now know the secret of her drive. It is not enough to be competent. You must love what you do. That is how she holds her own even as the hyacinth spreads.

Subroto Bagchi is co-founder & gardener, MindTree and a best-selling author. His brief:  Every fortnight, exchange tales of the road with successful entrepreneurs


(This story appears in the 02 July, 2010 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from To visit our Archives, click here.)

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    Sanjna ne jo bhi kaha wo bilkul thik hai, aur mujhe khushee is baat ki hai ki wo jo theatre k liye kar rahi hai wo kabiletareef hai. Warna aaj ke aapadhaapee ke ya Itne strong media ke yug mai ye 1 bahut mushkil kaam hai ki theatre ko zinda rakhna. Mai 1 kalakar hu isliye ye janta hu. Mera sapna tha ki mai prithvi theatre mai show karu, aur ye theatre ka har kalakar sochta hai, ye sanjana ki safalta hai, kalakaron ka wishwas hai.

    on Jun 29, 2010
  • Raj

    Nice one Mr. Bagchi. I find it difficult to understand why creative and passionate people like her have to find money an eternal problem, while you can do stupid things and make money. Traditionally art has followed material prosperity and probably you need collaboration on both fronts to pursue, enjoy and succeed in your passion

    on Jun 23, 2010
  • Bharat Agarwal

    I admired her beauty first. She should start directing some films. If she can manage theatre which is two decade old then she has lots of experience on what is the choice of the viewers, what message should be imparted.

    on Jun 21, 2010
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