Gurcharan Singh Chani-Of big stage and small screen

Of big stage and small screen
Nonika Singh

ONCE upon a time, he aspired to be religious preacher. Today, Gurcharan Singh Chani, eminent theatre person and TV filmmaker, knows fully well that there is a world of difference between sermonising and being associated with creative mediums. Nevertheless, the man who finds some similarity between the vocation, he once thought of pursuing and his muse for “both are about connecting with people,” revels in being a communicator. A communicator who has taken to the common man — his target audiences — the best of literature as well as hard-hitting issues that affect their everyday life.

Theatre for Chani, ever since he stepped into the hallowed portals of the National School of Drama (NSD), has never been an elitist medium. As a student of the NSD as he saw the same people among audiences he often wondered, “Why and for whom are we doing theatre.”

G. S. Chani is a communicator all the way
G. S. Chani is a communicator all the way 

Out of his alma mater, he decided to dedicate his theatre to the community. Right from his first play Dafa 144 to the well-received Zindagi Retire Nahi Hoti to the latest Rocket ho ya Bomb, Pehno Condom, his has been theatre of the people, for the people and by the people. And these people, in his parlance, are not the well-heeled, but men and women on the margins. Today, as various awards like the National Sangeet Natak Akademi sit lightly on his shoulders, he considers inspiring ordinary mortals like Munna Dhiman, who is today writing songs for films, his biggest reward in life.

Of course, the pitfalls of doing what he calls anti-theatre, theatre of protest and provocation in an idiom contrary to the visually rich proscenium theatre have been many, too. Hackles have often been raised and opposition has come his way in the form of acerbic criticism of his contemporaries, particularly the pompous NSDians.

Scoffs Chani, “Can you imagine even today I am never invited for seminars as a theatreperson but as a filmmaker.” Of course, Chani has proved his felicity behind the camera more than once. With several telefilms, including the acclaimed Tuttu and over two dozen documentaries (right now his series on forts of India is on-air) to his credit, his foray into the television world cannot be taken lightly.

Though Chani neither underestimates the reach of television nor its power, he considers himself first and foremost a theatreperson. In fact, way back, he quit his well-paying cushy job as professor at the FTII-Pune only to do theatre again. Returning to Punjab when it was a hotbed of terrorism was a challenge. It were in those days that he did memorable plays like Akh De Dahleej and takes pride in the fact that through these performances he brought people close to the poetry of greats like Paash.

And come to think of it, theatre would never have happened to Chani but for chance. He reminisces, “I was studying at Sikh Missionary College, Patiala, when folklorist and novelist Devendra Satyarthi, who saw my mimicry, prodded me – ‘what are you doing here, do theatre instead’.” Indeed, when Chani appeared before Balwant Gargi, who had just set up the Theatre Department in Chandigarh’s Panjab University, the young man dressed in a tacky nylon yellow shirt had no clue as to what theatre was all about. Yet, he was not only selected but went on to learn many significant lessons from Gargi whom he remembers as a complete giver.

His other mentor, theatre thespian Ebrahim Alkazi, too, he thinks is a great teacher and in those days was hailed as the real ustad at the NSD. Interestingly Chani’s take on the NSD is not as adulatory. He questions, “How many good theatrepersons has the NSD produced`85 one can count them on finger tips. In my batch, which included actors like Pankaj Kapur, there is not even a single person who is doing theatre.” Of course, Chani has the privilege of earning money from television and putting it where his heart is. And the most heartening aspect of doing theatre he shares is, “When in places like daana mandi, unmindful of the rain, people watch my play, when an old woman parts with her earning of the day — a 50 paise coin — when we pass the hat.”

Passing the hat is a crucial aspect of their theatre, which grows out of workshops, bouncing off of ideas and not readymade scripts. Smiles he,

” We simply pick up poetry, dialogues and songs from films and weave it into a narrative. In the creative world, there are no copyrights.” Nor does he feel are there any set rules. To his students at the FTII, he often said, “Liberate yourself.”

And he himself stands free of all ‘isms’, guided by one mantra alone, “Do things differently and you will be noticed.” Living in times when people have hundreds of options to distract them, exploring alternate ways of expressing ideas isn’t easy. But Chani not only finds just the right eloquence for his expression but also manages to reach out. And thus rises to being a communicator all the way.


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