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The agni in Arjun

All these years, Bangaloreans knew Arjun Sajnani as a passionate theatreperson. He has extracted the best from his actors and his productions have been impressive. And now, he is smitten by a new medium, cinema. Agni Varsha, his film, had its premiere last week. MALINI WHITE assesses the man and his work.


Sajnani: "In the film medium, one is more in control of things." — Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

IT IS a strange coincidence that while Agni Varsha is being released, the world is beset with unusual drought and a surge of floods, echoing the film's theme. If not meteorologically, global ripples from The Fire and the Rain will at least be felt in the film world: the film succeeds with tremendous performances and stunning visuals, only flawed by its concessions to commercial and box-office considerations.

The film's genesis has not been all dream run: along with lucky breaks, it is the story of Arjun Sajnani's tenacity in overcoming obstacles, and his growth from theatre personality to film director.

I worked with Arjun two decades ago in his production of Amadeus. Visiting Bangalore while based in New York, he had done other plays here, but Amadeus was ranked his first huge success.

It broke new ground at a time when Bangalore amateur dramatics, riven into splinter groups, dissipating the considerable talent available, produced small or medium sized productions. The New York Amadeus fresh in his mind, Arjun launched on this ambitious project which, frankly, rather scared us modest thespians with limited aspirations. He culled his cast from the various groups, controlling egos with tyrannical authority (mitigated after rehearsals with characteristic generosity), a huge budget (unprecedented amounts spent on the Chowdiah, sets and costumes), sponsorship... . besides its dramatic success, these innovations established benchmarks for theatre.

Arjun went on to do other large-scale productions that were already established as hits in the West, showing that his audacity with Amadeus was not a one-off lucky strike, enlarging the scope of local theatre, inspiring others to expand their horizons. After Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Fire and the Rain was an unexpected choice: Arjun, doing an Indian period piece, wordy and larded with philosophy, and with little of the glamour audiences had come to expect of his productions?

A mere reading of the script — with choppy language and many gaps in its continuity — needs great theatrical imagination to see it work on stage, but Arjun was fired immediately. "It was great luck that Girish sent me the script. I found it amazing. It was wordy and long, but it moved me so much. To get it on stage — how to do it, sponsorship, and so on — took me three years. Well, it took Girish 28 years to put the script out!

"But it was fortunate that I waited because I don't think I was ready for it. Technically, I had to figure out a lot: how to work the sets, to get the different acting venues onto the proscenium stage. But having done Spider Woman, so technically advanced for me, put everything in place, and one year later I was ready.

"I was comfortable with an Indian script, though I had some questions: would these characters speaking English on stage be an oddity? But after the first rehearsal I realised the language is universal, so accessible to our audience. And the philosophical undertones were only that; on the surface it is a great lusty story.

"After the success of the play's world premiere here, I wanted to show it more widely, but I would have grown old before I could arrange that! It was such a bulky property, difficult even to cart around India. When the New York engagement fell through because the theatre was unsuitable, that's when I said, `Why the hell don't I convert it into a film?' Actually, that was my original idea: when I read the script I'd told Girish that I would have a tough time putting it on stage, whereas I could see it in cinematic terms — it is so easy to do flashbacks and things on screen. The idea of a film came back to me when I realised that it wouldn't be practically possible to travel with the stage production."However, translating ideas into reality, particularly breaking into the highly competitive field of Indian cinema, an industry already suffering setbacks, required the very qualities Arjun had nurtured in his 25 years of theatre involvement. His reputation for staging excellent "big" productions had brought him contacts and sponsorship. His passionate commitment to a pet project, willingness to work at all aspects of it with tireless energy, his fortitude, all those would be carried over into the film — if he could first find financial backing.

His faith in the venture also needed to be confirmed by someone in the film industry. "I showed the script to Shabana Azmi, who said, great, she hoped I'd make a good film out of it, it would be wonderful. She's been a great supporter of this movie. Because she is not really in mainstream cinema herself and is such an intelligent woman, her support was a fillip to my confidence level.

"Then it was two years before I got it cast and financed. Yes, I was a complete unknown in the film scene but I managed to get not only finance for the project but also such a high-profile cast. I was lucky in that another Bangalore connection arranged financial backing, holding on with some tenacity. I hung on with much more: I called her every single day till I got the project passed!

"It really is a crossover film. Screen songs are essential to appeal to a commercial audience, but fortunately the script already had some songs and a bit of dance, all well within the context of the story, but very much from the popular idiom.

"I approached the stars with a sort of Arvasu innocence: I never thought they'd say no. When they did, it came as a shock! I thought the story so strong and powerful, and here was I giving stars an opportunity to act in roles different from their usual fare. Maybe for some it was too out of their ken, which is perhaps why they could not take up the challenge.

"But I had absolute confidence in the property and was determined to pull it off, without realising what a huge enterprise directing a film is. It was a great learning experience for me and now I feel totally confident to go into another project."

Is Arjun, then, lost to theatre? "I now find working with stage actors very difficult because they will only give you two hours, they show up late, not show up — it requires a lot of patience and effort on my part. I am older, more experienced, and demand that much more from people. For me to put in all that effort, sweat, into a production that shows for only four days, it's not worth it. Whereas in the film medium, one is much more in control of things. I work with professionals down the line, though it also has its downside, egos, etc. But I feel I've had a terrific run in theatre, worked with everybody worth working with, from whom I've had some stellar performances."

The story of Arjun's metamorphosis is one of daring, self-confidence and indubitable belief in himself and the venture undertaken, all melded with talent and a passion for theatre. It lit the fire in the film and may it lead to a deluge of success the world over.

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