Shah Rukh, Irrfan, Shabana Azmi… How theatre honed their brilliance

It’s World Theatre Day and the perfect occasion to give thanks for the many theatre artists who crossed over to the film screen and gave Hindi cinema some of its best actors and actresses.

From Prithviraj Kapoor and sons Raj Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor to Om Puri, Manoj Bajpayee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Radhika Apte, Rajat Kapoor, Deepak Dobriyal, Seema Biswas, Girish Karnad, Saurabh Shukla, Raghubir Yadav, Anupam Kher, Alok Nath, Raj Babbar, Paresh Rawal, Rajpal Yadav, Vinay Pathak, Rahul Bose, Nimrat Kaur, Piyush Mishra, Tom Alter, Nandita Das and Amole Palekar, these are some of the theatre talents who blazed a trail of success across the big screen.
The stars can keep their swag; when it comes to actual depth of performance, there is no beating these players who cut their teeth on the floorboards and showed the silver screen what real acting is all about.

Let’s hear it for these gifted theatre talents who have delivered some of the best cinematic performances ever…

Naseeruddin Shah

Considered a walking Bible of exceptional acting, Naseeruddin Shah is one of Hindi cinema’s brightest gems. His performances in films like Mirch Masala, A Wednesday, and Sarfarosh are simply too many to list. A true-blue theatre buff, he sharpened his acting skills on stage. He had formed Motley Productions in 1977 and continues to enthral theatre audiences with his passionate performances.

Quote Case: “The idea is to be able to create a whole world in the audience’s imagination with one actor alone. To me, that is the magic of theatre vis-a-vis 3D projections and hundreds of dancing girls.”

Kalki Koechlin

The easy fluid grace of Kalki’s performance comes from her early background in theatre. Some of her notable work on stage includes Trivial Disasters, The Real Inspector Hound, Hair, Hamlet the Clown Prince and Skeleton Woman, which she co-wrote with Prashant Prakash. In 2015, she opened her own theatre company, Little Productions.

Quote case: “Theatre is really an actor’s playground. There’s nothing like performing for a live audience. Ego-wise also, because you get this goose-bumps-and-applause thing. Also, your subtleties as an actor are in play because you don’t have retakes. It doesn’t matter what day you’re having, good or bad, once you come to the rehearsal hall, you leave everything behind. When you’re on stage, you’re in the show. That’s the thing I love to come back to. I always get sharpened as an actor.”

Shabana Azmi

The five-time National Award winner Shabana Azmi is one of India’s greatest actors. She continues to be hailed for her stage performances, having acted in iconic plays such as Safed Kundali, Tumhari Amrita and A Doll's House.

Quote Case: “Theatre is much more an actor’s medium than the director’s…Theatre prevents you from getting complacent. Believing in one’s own greatness is the biggest stumbling block towards an actor’s growth.”

Pankaj Kapoor

He grabbed the nation’s interest in the Eighties playing quirky detective Karamchand on the small screen. Pankaj Kapur, one of the finest actors of the big screen, had started his career in theatre after graduating from NSD. In fact, he had already had four years of experience on stage when he bagged the role of Pyarelal in Richard Attenborough's Gandhi.

Quote Case: “I was 19 years old when I joined NSD. The city (Delhi), Ebrahim Alkazi — the director of the institute, and the staff at that time had a lot of contribution in shaping me as an actor. Those three years of my life, I was at my most impressionable because I was exposed to the right stuff, and it helped me create a base.”

Irrfan Khan

Irrfan’s enormous success as a film actor was built on the bedrock of theatre. In 1984, he had earned a scholarship to study at NSD and after graduating, he moved to Mumbai, where he worked on stage and in television till movies came his way. Today, as his talent is revered he cannot forget the part theatre has played in his life and his evolution as an actor.

Quote Case: “Theatre put me onto a path of self-discovery.”

Ratna Pathak Shah

Daughter of veteran actress Dina Pathak, Ratna Pathak took her first steps in acting on the stage. In fact, her second play itself saw her share the stage with Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri. Inspired by their work, she joined NSD and carved her name as one of India’s acting heavyweights.

Quote Case: “Theatre is marriage, and cinema is an affair, to put it simply. You can have a fling with cinema, but with theatre, you have to have a solid relationship. Running a theatre company is like running a family. We have been doing theatre for over 35 years.”

Kangana Ranaut

A rebellious Kangana, determined to strike out against all odds, was just 16 when she moved to Delhi. Besides modelling assignments, she discovered theatre under the tutelage of Arvind Gaur. She went on to act in several of Gaur’s plays, including the Girish Karnad-scripted Taledanda. It’s something of theatre legend that once, during a performance, when one of the male actors went missing, Kangana played his part and her original role of a woman as well!

Quote Case: “I went to theatre in Delhi called Asmita group in India Habitat Center. Arvind Gaur took me under his wings. My career as an actor is largely only credited to him. We were doing a workshop and he said ‘Oh, you’re very good’. I was like, ‘Really? Because I’ve not heard that word for ages!’”

Shah Rukh Khan

The megastar, who has scaled unparalleled heights, started out on the floorboards. As a theatre actor during his time in Delhi University, Shah Rukh was part of the Theatre Action Group where he studied under Barry John. It laid the groundwork for the brilliance that was to follow.

Quote Case: “Physically, theatre taught me voice and body control and patience, but besides that, it taught me the fact that rehearsals have to be so rehearsed that they look natural. People feel that I perform effortlessly and deliver my lines with so much ease, but learning your lines are basic things that theatre teaches you. Besides, doing theatre you can sense that you have done it right as a live audience teaches you that. And the most beautiful part of being an actor is that you can be seen by thousands of people, but you can't see the thousands from the stage. You are quiet on stage. And yet everybody is looking at you. To be able to be looked at and called upon to perform and to be able to do so. Theatre teaches you that.”

Boman Irani

He left film audiences awed with his variety on screen. From a crotchety professor to a slightly smarmy Sardar, Boman Irani continues to wow with the range and depth of his histrionics. Not surprisingly, way before he arrived with his role in Munnabhai MBBS in 2003, he had been actively involved with theatre. Having trained under Hansraj Siddhia from 1981 to 1983, his I Am Not Bajirao remains unforgettable.

Quote Case: “Theatre is not a stepping stone to becoming Hindi film actor. It is certainly an ideal place to learn (acting), getting theatre discipline and to develop characters… Theatre is the truthful schooling for an actor but it is not necessarily a ticket to Bollywood.”

Rajkummar Rao

It is no surprise that the actor, who is currently the toast of both the classes and the masses, started off acquiring a background in theatre. Wowing audiences with his easy intensity in films like Queen, Newton and Bareilly Ki Barfi clearly comes easy after a proper grounding on the floorboards. During his Delhi University days, Rajkummar had been actively involved in theatre with Kshitij Repertory and Shri Ram Centre.

Quote Case: “Very few know that I am a trained dancer. Audience applause is part of my earliest memories.”