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An actor and an activist


INNOCENT ENCOUNTERS: Bhardwaj conducted a workshop on education with the slum children of Mumbai

The best compliment that Manjul Bhardwaj ever received as an actor was the time a drunk walked up to him on the streets of Mumbai, offered him a ten-rupee note, and begged him to stop beating a child. Bhardwaj was acting the part of an employer on a street play on child labour. That, says Bhardwaj, is the magic of theatre.

After a dash of success on the elite Mumbai's scene, Bhardwaj turned his back on high society and pioneered what he calls the "theatre of relevance". His aim - to bring theatre to the masses.
His is the typical migrant story. Over two decades ago, Bhardwaj, a small-town boy from Dakhora, a village in Haryana, landed in Mumbai with dreams of becoming an actor. He started out with a performance of Bertolt Brecht's play Exception and the Rule, and was quick to make a name for himself.

His epiphany came during a real-life tragedy that occurred during his production of Hamlet at Prithvi Theatre. "The play received rave reviews, with the likes of Shashi Kapoor attending the opening night, " he recalls. "I was sure that with Hamlet I had truly arrived. But after the fourth performance, the lead actor injured himself during a sword-fight, when the sword brushed his eye on stage. "The play was immediately shelved and the elaborate sets were dumped at an open ground in front of my tiny house at Antop Hill. "

The sudden turn of events was a terrible shock. "I would cry every day as I saw the sets decaying in the midst of the Mumbai monsoons, " says Bhardwaj. To add insult to injury, the neighbourhood chaiwalla (tea vendor) would regularly taunt him, saying "Aapke natak-watak ka kya ho raha hai. " (What has become of your plays?) After a depressing month at home, the chaiwala's taunts suddenly got Bhardwaj thinking of just how irrelevant his theatre was to this man on the street. That, for Bhardwaj, was the beginning of the theatre of relevance.

His plays have had the sort of impact one would rarely associate with theatre. From getting child labourers across the country to act out their woes and eventually quit work, to performing a play on communal violence on the curfew-bound streets of Mumbai during the 1992-93 riots, Bhardwaj has taken theatre to places it has never been before.

The actors for his play Mera Bachpan were anything but professional. He chose child labourers, street-children and school-dropouts for his performances. "The play, which has been performed throughout India for over a decade, has resulted in thousands of children working their way out of poverty and quitting the workshops where they once slaved, " says Bhardwaj, who has worked closely with non-profitable organisations as well as those who employ children. "The children were amazed to find the same employer who beats them at work applauding them for their acting skills, " says Bhardwaj.

He believes that working together with an employer to free a child from labour and send him to school is an approach that works better than conducting raids on workshops.
During the Mumbai riots, the young and aspiring actors who were part of his Experimental Theatre Foundation told him in no uncertain terms that they would not act a play on communal violence on the streets of a city that was in the midst of a riot. "They said they did not want to end up like Safdar Hashmi, who was killed for his activist theatre. After talks with my troupe broke down, I walked out of the room and told the actors I would see them at Bandra station the next day. Everybody turned up, " said Bhardwaj.

The play was performed not far from Behrampada, an area that went up in flames during the riots. "We began the play by landing on the streets, dressed as thugs, screaming 'Maaro! Kaato ! Bachao!' (Beat them! Kill them! Save them!) A bunch of men ran towards us with swords and knives. We then froze like statues on the street. And I began singing 'Aaj ka insaan kahaan kho gaya?' (Where has the man of today gone?), " says Bhardwaj. The hour-long play managed to capture the attention of over a thousand people.

Recently, Bhardwaj got a group of young college-goers to act a play on sexual harassment called Chhed Chhaad Kyun which explored what a woman goes through after being harassed on the streets. His workshops have helped girls from colleges across Punjab express themselves and grow confident about their own abilities.

Bhardwaj's first tryst with theatre was as an undergraduate student in Haryana, while volunteering at a school for underprivileged children. "I was assigned the kids at the bottom of the class, with poor academic scores, " he says. "I had to train them for a school play. I was amazed to see the spark in the otherwise dull kids, who came alive on stage. That's when I fell in love with theatre. "


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