“The Possibilities of Resurrection”: In Conversation with Mansi Multani
Simran N Chandnani
From playing Olivia in Atul Kumar’s Piya Behrupiya, an award-winning musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to recording duets with her Nani Ma amidst the lockdown, singer-actor Mansi Multani is a multifaceted artiste.
Her notable works include Sunil Shanbag’s musical Stories in a Song, Rajat Kapoor’s comedy adaptations, What’s Done is Done and Hamlet—The Clown Prince, and Monsoon Wedding by Mira Nair and Nikhil Mehta. In films, she has worked on Bernd Lutzeler’s short, Camera Threat, Prosit Roy’s Pari, Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court and Rajat Kapoor’s Kadakh, to name a few.
In a special zoom interview for the magazine, Multani talks to Simran N Chandnani about her journey spanning 10 years and over 600 shows.
Shot by Chaitanya Vikas, Source - Mansi's Instagram
How did you develop an interest in visual and performing arts?
When I was young, I was in a rather competitive school in Delhi, where there was great emphasis on academics and extracurricular activities. So, I threw myself into the deep end and did it all.
In class Six, I was the youngest girl chosen to play a part in the high school play. We were doing The Crucible by Arthur Miller, so that was my first big play. Later that year, my dad shifted to Bangalore, so I moved to Krishnamurthy School, where the focus was on self-enrichment, instead of just academics. It was about understanding who you are, spending time on relationships, love and curiosity. I soon figured that academics is not what I want to do. So, I stopped studying Sciences and joined St Xavier's College. That's how I moved to Bombay and jumped headfirst into theatre.
I took part in many festivals and I also worked at a radio station in Dubai called City 1016. When I was just about to bag a weekend show, we had to come back to India. So, I decided to make the most of it and jumped back into theatre. There was no plan of action but I just knew that I loved being on stage and I got lucky with the people I met.
As a person I am deeply interested in human stories... A performance is so interrelated with that connection because you're trying to impact, empower and be a catalyst for change.
How did you start getting work? Did you keep auditioning throughout these years or did your network help you?
So, Ali Fazal and I studied in college together and he was doing a play with a company called Akvarious. He once took me to a reading session and I soon started as an understudy there. I would do lines for actors who were not there. I would bring the coffee and clean up the space before practice. I also did production and backstage work before I got some small roles to play. Once they came to know me, I started getting bigger parts and became a part of the family.
This one time, I was singing at their theatre party and the next thing I know is I was auditioning for Stories in a Song, which was my first big play! Our lighting designer, who was also an actor then, recommended me to Sunil Shanbag.
Then Atul Kumar saw me in stories and asked me to come for the workshop for Piya Behrupiya.
I did a play called Constellations, which was a totally different audition that I had with Bruce Guthrie, the director. So, it was a mix of both, but on the whole, one thing led to the other. And each one has had its version of an audition.
Mansi in Rajat Kapoor's adaption "What's Done is Done"- Shot by Simran N Chandnani
Since Rajat Kapoor and Atul Kumar work with adaptations (Shakespeare), there is scope for improvisation in performances. How involved are actors in this process?
A lot of it comes from the actors but it's also very important to stick to the text especially when it is as phenomenal as Shakespeare’s. When we first performed at the Globe-to-Globe Festival, there were 37 plays by Shakespeare in 37 different languages! You don’t always have to perform in a puritanical way like people did at the start of the century where only men performed even female parts and every comma, syntax and sentence had to be as it was.
There has been a lot of scope of improvisation with both Rajat and Atul. Piya Behrupiya was written by Amitosh, so he already added a flavour to it. When I found out that my character is a Punjabi aunty from Karol Bagh, I went through a little Meena ‘Kumari-esque’ situation where everything is a little high drama. Once you find that world, there are spaces and boundaries within which you place your play and find ways to revise.
People keep coming to watch us because each show is a little different from the others. We could have discovered something new and if Atul loves it, he'll push it through. It's not about sticking to what you made in 2012, it's about changing, seeing what happens and keeping yourself open. If it doesn't work, we call it ‘Atul Ki Kainchi’ as it gets cut then and there. So, we have the freedom to move away from the text.
Still from rehearsals of "What's Done is Done"- Shot by Simran N Chandnani
Since most of your plays continue to run even today, does repetition cause the energy to wear off or does it evolve and become stronger?
It's both. With Stories, we don't usually improvise much. My piece has stayed the same, but there is a tenderness and gentleness to it and I love working with my co-actors. But sometimes the energy is low and each time that happens, we come back to what it was in the next show. With Piya Behrupiya too, there have been some shows where we know it has been off but the audience may not be able to tell easily.
However, the joy of it is in the repetition, the audience can react to something and then we play off of that. Sometimes new things happen. But it's always new ground for learning, as compared to camera work, where you get a few takes, and then it's locked for life.
I might be 60 and want to redo something on camera, but that’s not happening. The joy of theatre is that it is live, you get a chance to do it again every night. There's also a rigour in it because there's repetition, which is again strengthening.
Rehearsal Video from
'Stories in a Song'
Source - Mansi's Instagram
How has your interest and skill in music helped you as a theatre artist?
I wouldn't have gotten Stories in a Song or Piya Behrupiya and I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you, if not for music. Singing helps me explore myself better and that helps me explore everything better. Because acting is so personal, the more you know yourself, the more it evolves.
Singing has helped me deal with difficult phases in my own life because once you sit down for the Riyaz, there is an instant lift in your energy and vibrations. I never thought it would be a big part of what I do and the fact that it has turned out to be, is a real blessing, a real gift from the universe.
Despite working across mediums, theatre has remained a constant in your decade-long journey.
I'm keen on doing more camera work because I've been doing Theatre for 10-11 years now. But I can never leave Theatre because it has given me immense joy and a family. The relationships I found in my life through Theatre are inexplicable and irreplaceable.
It’s a celebration when you're performing every night. It's been my start, it’s where I've learnt the most. And it's been on the job training for me. I never went to acting school, I just jumped from director to director and learnt it all.
I've been fortunate that my shows have run for so long. But I don't take up new plays because I am very satiated with the kind of Theatre work I've done so far and I want to explore the challenges of acting for the camera because that is a different set of learning.
Can you tell me about any play or performance that has stayed with you or inspired you over these years?
Whenever I travel for work, I spend all my money on theatre instead of shopping. I enjoy the work of Patchworks Ensemble, Alicia P and Jyoti Dogra are wonderful too.
I remember I'd lost my grandfather a few years back and I came back to a show by Jyoti Dogra called Black Hole, where she explored the idea of quantum physics with spirituality. The character is losing her mother to cancer. So, they discuss atoms and molecules and the idea of black holes in the hospital. She talks about how the hydrogen and iron inside us is the same hydrogen and iron that was created at the time of the Big Bang. So, it’s about the idea of singularity, and that ultimately, we are all headed back to that same source that founded us. The hydrogen atoms that leave our body when we die aren't able to enter space, so they are just floating around. I remember I was weeping throughout because I felt like my nana was around me and there was something very comforting about that. I even had a conversation with Jyoti about it and I never thought we would become friends, but we did.
This is the kind of connection I am talking about. Sometimes you make a piece of theatre hoping that it will touch even one life or heal a wound, or communicate an idea in a personal way. Because the entire idea is to get f**king personal. So, I feel like if I'm open and really listening to what other’s perspectives might be, it has every bit of power to change me. I also think it's important to do this kind of work where you're questioning things and not just indulging purely in entertainment.
How differently is theatre pursued nationally and internationally?
I think internationally, people are much more adept at watching plays in different languages, because they're very used to seeing scene summaries or subtitles. I wish I was able to watch more Marathi, Kannada, Tamil or Telugu theatre. Just like we watch foreign films in subtitles, why aren't we not seeing theatre like that as well?
At the Globe, Piya Behrupiya had scene summaries on the side and the UK audience who didn't understand Hindi were having a blast the whole time. There was an openness because they are used to watching theatre performances like that.
Piya Behrupiya has been doing pretty great across the board, except for China. In China, it was rather quiet. We've performed in gorgeous places in South America as well, where the entire village has come up to see the show. We had 6000 people in a bullfighting arena for a show, it was unbelievable! But there's also a massive ‘high’ in performing in India because the audiences are very exuberant with their love and enthusiasm. We've had tickets sold in black because we've been sold out before we even arrived there.
Indian audiences have not been exposed to that structure in our watching of theatre, which is a pity considering how many languages we have.
What's the story behind the video that made your Nani Ma an internet sensation?
I had made that video two years ago and had no intention of putting it up. I had only taken it for the Piya Behrupiya team because it’s the last song in the play. When I uploaded it last year, it blew up immediately. Everyone was loving it, celebrities were sharing it, people were messaging me from all over the world saying, “I feel like I miss my grandma so much,” or “I've been missing home and the video feels like a warm hug.” I was just so grateful because the video was able to make people feel the love.
Marginalia: How did you come to co-write Camera Threat, your short film? Do you wish to pursue writing further?
I write for myself; I journal and I am a songwriter but this was purely incidental.
I hadn't come on board as a writer or anything. It happened because Bernd Lutzeler, the director, is German. The film explores the idea of having another eye watching over something and the camera being a way to look at what’s going on—it could be threatening, it could be disconcerting or it could be enlightening. I thought it was a wonderful premise and we just kept rolling the camera. The director liked what he saw and said, “I need this to happen in Hindi.” So, we sat down and became screenwriters!
Source - Mansi's Instagram
Marginalia: How has this decade been for you as a woman in this industry?
This may sound incredibly privileged. but it is the same as being a woman in any career spanning 10 years. Of course, sometimes you meet people who might make you uncomfortable but I have been extremely fortunate like that, I got to work with wonderful directors and teams where our energies have synced. Since it is a collaborative process, I didn't feel any different being a woman.
What I did face however, are the difficulties of being an actor because it is a very difficult industry. You have to audition endlessly and befriend unemployment, rejection, and insecurity. It makes you stronger because you have to have thick skin when required but you also have to be as puddly and naked with your vulnerability as possible, for the people to feel it too. It's such an incredible cocktail!
Mansi Multani in Atul Kumar's adaption "Piya Behrupiya" Source - Google
Marginalia: What are the projects you're working on?
I'm working on a web series at the moment. I have Piya Behrupiya next month at Prithvi Theatre and then hopefully in Bangalore later. This year, I did an Ad here or there, I did a theatre workshop during the lockdown on Zoom, which was fun. But on the whole, it's been an internally reflective and emotional year I'm looking forward to more work and embracing the idea of just being on a set again with new people, energies and collaborations
Marginalia: What do you keep coming back to when you feel lost as an artist?
It’s something as simple as consistency, showing up, you don’t always have to intellectualise it. It’s just about going back on the floor, giving it another try and another.
I was recently reading about my sun sign and it had something about how there are possibilities, in resurrection, I think that’s what I meant when I said consistency. Even as an actor, there is always a chance to try it again, because when you're on stage; you can always think about it on your way back, make a note and learn to be unafraid of failing. Embracing failure has also allowed me to not take myself too seriously and be less conscious about how I look or what I would be perceived as. Because how will you know until you've tried it?
So just try it again, do it, again.