I’m heartbroken! Theatre legend Arvind Joshi has passed away.
He was one of the greatest living actors, and I am fortunate enough to have met him and worked with him for a few months. The year was 2000, and I was an infant in the entertainment industry, barely a year old in Mumbai, having moved from Ahmedabad in 1999. It was a dream come true for me even to meet Arvindbhai, let alone have long conversations with him. But I was lucky. He had heard about the success of my Gujarati play ‘Amastaa Amastaa’ and had called me to meet him. He wanted to make a TV show and asked me if I had something for him. I pitched a story, he liked it, and we started jamming every alternate evening at his Juhu apartment.
Overlooking the garden, aided with endless cups of homemade Gujarati masala chai, we talked and talked and talked. Oh! Those wonderful conversations! We talked about anything and everything under the sun: Love, Life, Art, Theatre, Men, Women. Mostly about women because the show was about many faces of women. ‘Manuni’ it was called. The first thing he asked me was:
“What the fuck does it mean?”
I told him, Manuni means’ woman’ in Sanskrit. As expected, he followed up with:
“Why should we title the show in Sanskrit when they are all going to speak in Hindi?”
“Because ‘Manuni’ is a much better name for women than ‘Stree’, ‘Aurat’ or ‘Naari’. It is not derivative from any nomenclature of their male counterparts. ‘Maan’ is respect and the one who has self-respect is ‘Manuni’”.
“Fucking brilliant! Sharoo thai jaa!” (start writing), he said in his deeply textured voice.
Somedays, while we were ‘scripting’ (that’s what we called a session of jokes, laughter and mostly hollering excitedly) in his living room, his very sophisticated and courteous son, Sharman would walk in. Their communication would appear to be on a very need-to-know basis. They would coordinate family plans, or Sharman would just be informing Dad that he was stepping out for his rehearsals etc. But even in this very short exchange, you could feel how much he loved his son and what a good friend he was, to his family. Now, Sharman Joshi himself was a rising star on the Gujarati stage with his superhit play ‘All The Best’. I had seen him on stage in Ahmedabad, and quite frankly, I was in awe of Sharman’s talent. Of course, Sharman was brilliant! He was a legend’s son! As far as Arvindbhai’s antics on stage go – I had only heard of them. Few years before I started sitting in his apartment as his writer, I was just a drama student, and I had heard stories of Arvindbhai ‘owning the stage’.
One legend was about him doing a spell-bounding performance in the play #Baanshaiyya. He played a person with paraplegia in bed – a character inspired by the legend of Bheeshma from Mahabharat. Our drama teacher had seen him on stage and told us that Arvindbhai held the audience captive for over 2 hours with just his voice – the single most outstanding example of ‘Vachika abhinaya’ at its best.
Most of us had seen Arvind Joshi only on the big screen. He played a small role in the #blockbuster movie #Sholay (1975) as Thakur’s eldest son, who gets killed by Gabbar.
In a mandatory but very short ‘must-love-them-before-they-get-killed-scene, we see Arvind Joshi with his wife who worries endlessly about their son. Their son keeps running to the railway station to watch trains – a guilty pleasure for rural kids that this Social Media obsessed city kids will never understand. When his wife says that she’s petrified because the trains run so fast, he turns to her and calmly says:
“Haan haan, saari duniya ki railgaadiyon ki dushamani hai tumhare bete se. Usey dekhte hi patri chhod ke uske peechhe pad jayengi.”
Sarcasm at its best on screen, 20 years before #Chandler did it in #Friends. In his minuscule part of only three lines, Arvind Joshi ‘owned’ the screen just like he used to own the stage with his pitch-perfect delivery.
Arvindbhai never had that self-generated pulviscular cloud of superstardom around him at home or outside, unlike many actors worth half his talent. He wasn’t a pseudo-intellectual that most theatre literate people become so fast. He wasn’t an elitist, and he was beyond the barriers of stature, class, age, experience or seniority. He was child-like in his excitement, and children make friends easily. Since I don’t take myself seriously, we became friends quickly. Despite him being a legend and me being an ordinary upcoming writer, he allowed this friendship to grow generously. As the days progressed, I finished writing the pilot episode and the longer story arc. He loved it, and we would both act out the scenes, excitedly in his hall. I’m a very ordinary actor, but since I was the writer, he would make me speak the lines as I intended them to be spoken. I come from a Drama school where my teachers taught me that an actor’s performance should be evolving organically and not remain constrained by the writer’s or director’s imagination. And here he was, the biggest name in theatre, asking me how a character should say a particular line. When I argued that good actors would figure out how to speak a line on their own, he made a poker face and shot:
“Good actors? In Television?” And then burst out laughing.
I’m trying to say that despite being a star of theatre, he was aware of the limitations in the TV production ecosystem. He was pragmatic and was ready to adjust his expectations of this new medium. He had no airs about the ‘purity’ of art. He once said:
“What ‘Sattvika abhinaya’ do you expect from an actor on TV when one set of a monologue gets cut from 4 different angles, and 16 reaction shots get inserted during it? In this setup, even if the poor actor manages to find some consistency in his ‘Angika’ and ‘Vachika’ abhinaya, it is enough. Forget about ‘Sattvika’!”
One day, when he was pleased with my dialogue writing, I felt particularly courageous and asked him about #Baanshaiyya. I told him that it was my single biggest regret that I couldn’t see him on stage. (He wasn’t acting anymore). I also told him that my drama teacher called his performance a ‘masterclass in vaachik abhinaya’. His eyes beamed up. He smiled and shook his head, initially trying to dismiss it. Then after a pause, he said:
“Yeah, I nailed it bhenchod. It was fun!”
We both laughed for a while, then he said:
“You know Mayur; there is an audio cassette of Baanshaiyya. We had recorded it, and the audio of my entire performance is on tape.”
I was shivering with excitement.
“Can I…” I wouldn’t even dare to complete my ask, and he hollered:
“Yeah yeah, next time, I’ll give the tape to you. Saambhaalje, majja aavshe tane.”
(Hear it. You will enjoy it.)
Unfortunately, that never happened. The TV channel didn’t pick up our show. I got my big break as a screenwriter with YashRaj Films, and my career as a screenwriter took off. I became super busy, and the complete asshole that I am, I did not keep in touch with him. I’m absolutely useless. I never call anyone on my own. I don’t deserve the friends I have. I couldn’t keep it going for long, but I’ll always cherish the friendship I shared with Arvindbhai. I wish I could get my hands on that tape of #Baanshaiyya – just once.
Just once… to hear that wonderfully textured voice of Arvind Joshi!
29th January 2021