“A woman in a man’s world may be considered progressive but a man in a woman’s world is just pathetic,” announces an exasperated Amritlal Parekh. A character so contemptuous and conflicted but yet so relatable, brought alive on stage by Vijay Crishna for Dance Like A Man . An English play directed on stage by actress and theatre personality, Lilette Dubey that had 550 shows over the past 15 years. And an even more exalted performance was the one, where Crishna delivered playing a Chicago gangster bearing an uncanny resemblance to Adolf Hitler in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Written by a German playwright and adapted for the Indian audiences by theatre veteran, the late Pearl Padamsee. “Those days you didn’t have a lot of shows of a certain play, unless you were performing at someone’s house. We did only five shows of that play but of all the productions I’ve acted in, people still remember me for my performance in those five shows,” beams Crishna, executive director, Godrej & Boyce.
The septuagenarian, who began his career as an assistant manager at a shipping company in 1964, has been an active participant of theatre productions since. A journey that began in Kolkata saw him perform alongside the man we today know as one of Hindi cinema’s finest actors, Amitabh Bachchcan. And when Crishna moved to Mumbai as he joined an advertising agency, he already had work lined up for him on the theatre front as well. It was around this period in the 1970s that he was introduced to the likes of ad guru Alyque Padamsee and went on to add some memorable roles to his repertoire. Some of these included playing the manipulative Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello or a prince who has epileptic fits in The Idiot. The stage actor who has had no formal training in the art form describes his experiences, “I had fun playing Iago, it was a very involving part. There were some roles that were more demanding like the one where I had to act like I was having a fit on stage. And theatre is special because here one can instantly tell if you’ve hit the right note with the audience or not. You can sense it”.
While Crishna has worked with most of the renowned theatre personalities in the country, he’s had the chance to learn from internationally acclaimed artists like Geoffrey Kendall, the British actor-manager known for his Shakespearan plays. Crishna had the chance to be directed by him in a psychological thriller, Gaslight, in 1993. And then later had the chance to do a reading with acclaimed British playwright, Tom Stoppard. “One of the most important things in theatre is your relation with your director. With Geoffrey Kendall, I ended up trying different things as an actor. I’ve done at least one play with Alyque in each of the past four decades. He likes to see new things, he’s always pushing you so it’s rewarding,” he adds.
The 1980’s also saw Crishna begin his innings on the silver screen. First with Richard Attenborough’s biopic Gandhi and then with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas in 2002. Crishna has made a few more appearances in Bollywood movies post that but maintains that theatre remains his first love. “I was curious too see what a film shooting experience would be like and it was hell. Apart from the couple of British production firms I worked with where you get paid as soon as leave the set for the day, in Indian production houses, you’re lucky if you get paid at all even after 11 months,” he reveals. While movies might not be on the radar any time soon, Crishna does at least four to five productions a year, and even partakes in play readings, which he informs takes an equal amount of preparation. So how does he find the time? “Time has and will always be a challenge. But theatre has taught me so much. Only when you’re in the middle of a production, do you realise the complex set of interactions. You’ve got to be on the correct wavelength with your co-actors, you have to take careful note of what is expected of you from the lighting department, the production team, every one has their specialties. It’s like in business where people approach an issue from different perspectives and you have to learn to co-operate to get them to do things you need to do,” says Crishna.
When he’s not preparing for a role or busy at work, Crishna is busy editing his script for a talk on climate change. The Godrej executive, who began taking trekking on familiar routes in Uttarakhand, Ladakh and Nepal went ahead and signed up for an expedition to Antartica in 2012. It’s since then that the environmental cause has been a prime area of focus for him. Crishna’s travel plans for the year include a visit to Siberia to visit the world’s largest freshwater lake there. As for his theatre calendar, the actor is currently preparing for another play reading in the next few months, but he assures us that there might be something more lined up soon as he concludes, “Theatre has been one of the most rewarding things in my life.”