Interview With Jayant Kripalani: “Always Reinventing”

Jayant Kripalani is a household name in India. He rose to fame in the television serials of the 1980s- Khandaan and Ma Ya Mrs and later in Ji Mantriji (2003) the Indian adaptation of the BBC satirical sitcom Yes Minister. He’s worked as a film, television and stage actor as well as a writer and director, writing the screenplay for Shyam Benrgal’s Well Done Abba and producing a mini TV series PC aur Mausi, among others. Recently he was in town for the release of his latest book Cantilevered Tales at Starmark, The Quest Mall in association with Readomania. At the launch, he was as charismatic and entertaining as ever, sharing interesting anecdotes, witty one-liners and never giving the expected replies when in conversation with Rita Bhimani, Founder and CEO of Ritam Communications.

In an exclusive interview with The Statesman by Archita Mittra, Jayant reveals more about what writing the book was like, his experiences as an actor and his passion for trying out new things like performance poetry and constantly reinventing himself.

1. As a film, theatre and TV actor, you’ve worked across different mediums in multiple and varied productions. How different and similar were these experiences? Do you have a different approach to acting depending on the medium?

As different as chalk and cheese. In theatre you’re talking to a thousand people as if they are one; in cinema you’re talking to your co actor but you’re also talking to millions of people beyond the lens. On television you’re talking to the lens, intimately, on a one-on-one basis. The only aspect that is common to all is the fact that you have to be true to the character you’re playing. The character has to be real, the audience/viewer must be convinced the character is for real.   You might play the same character in all three mediums but the technique for each medium would be different.

2.  You were a student of English Lit at Jadavpur University and you’ve also worked in advertising. How did college and early life prepare you for a successful career? Did you initially have different plans as a child?

Nothing prepared me for this career, neither JU nor Don Bosco School nor my life in advertising. Thinking back I might have utilised my time more effectively in NSD or FTII.

3. When did the idea for ‘Cantilevered Tales’ first strike you? How was the process like?

I was on way my back from somewhere by train and at Howrah Station a group of taxi drivers tried to extort a higher fare from me. This was before the time of pre paid taxi booths. Rather than shell out five times the fare I thought I’d take a bus. It was peak hour in the morning and though I did get a seat since the bus started from there, I hadn’t calculated the length of time I’d be sitting in the bus on the bridge. Forty five minutes of inching along later I heard a voice behind me say, “Ai taki Haora Bridge na Laora Bridge?” I knew exactly what he meant. I knew then that I had the beginning of a story.

“Where are you getting off?” I turned around and asked.
“High Court,” he replied.
By now we had reached the East end of the bridge. It still looked like we’d be on the bus for another 45 minutes. “Walk?” I asked him.
“Let’s,” he said.
And that as they say was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. His name was Khokon. He lived in Santragachhi. And because of that immortal first line, I called the protagonist of my story Khokon. In the book though, the line belongs to his colleague Ashutosh.

Sometime later, I overheard a group of people talking about saving a water body from some unscrupulous builder. Arun Lal the cricket player might have been a part of the group but I’m not sure.  I started keeping tabs on them. Not because I was interested in saving the environment or even that small little lake. I am not a crusader. I hate getting involved with issues. But if you live in Calcutta, even for a short while, trust me, you’ll get involved.

What did interest me were the disparate lot of people, and some desperate ones among them, who were determined they were going to save a stagnant water body from becoming an office complex. Frankly in my opinion that lake had outlived its usefulness to be anything at all. I didn’t give a damn what happened to the lake. But over a period of time I did start worrying about the people. And of course fell hopelessly in love with them. Their wellbeing and their good health became a matter of great concern to me especially since I saw the array of ‘villains’ lined up against them. So rather than concentrate on the ‘Builder v Helpless Citizen’ trope (enough stories had been written about them), I decided to concentrate on their stories and their histories.

This is their story or should I say these are their stories.  Some of the people are real; some of the people who come to their assistance are thinly disguised caricatures of people I admire; some are just people I met on buses and trams in my journeys across the bridge who wormed their way into the book. And that is how this book got written.

4. What was the most challenging part of writing your book?

The physical act of writing it- filling up the pen every morning, cleaning it, putting first word to paper, getting the coffee grounds right for the morning brew, then chaining myself to the desk. Oh yes unplugging the internet connection. The temptation to screw the cap of the pen back on and surf the net is huge. It’s only when I know I can’t write anymore on that morning do I turn my computer on, transfer on to the machine what I’ve written, editing as I go along and very hesitantly lean across to connect to the world. This one act of connecting, if I can postpone for the first two hours every morning, guarantees that my writing for the day is over.

5. When did you decide to delve into performance poetry? How was the journey been so far?

Until a year ago I didn’t know what the hell it was. Of course one has performed plays in iambic pentameter etc etc. All this was also performance poetry. At a lit fest in the recent past, I was asked to talk about performance poetry and maybe perform some. I watched a few people reading out the most banal stuff with feeling, acting out the stuff they had written angrily, happily, sadly and so on. While watching them I had an epiphany. So I pretended to improvise and came up with the following lines:

It has been so very hard

I have lost my heart

Will someone look for it for me.

Where oh where can I report its loss

Please, please, someone please tell me.

I don’t I don’t I don’t know what to do

Should I laugh or cry I don’t have a clue.

Again this was banality at its worst. But I read it out with feeling. And then I said, this is not performance poetry. But if you translate it into Hindi and sing it, then it is.

Badi mushkil hai khoya mera dil hai

Koi usse dhoond ke laye na

Jake ke kahan main report likhaoon

Koi batlaye na….

And so I switched to writing stories in verse- simple two liners, sometimes ten liners, sometimes 5000 words. And performed them, actually performed them, not in the dull, dry way that poets read their stuff out, but with all the energy and character those lines are meant to represent.

6. You’ve become a household name for your roles in Khandaan and Ji Mantriji. Did you anticipate that? Looking back, what are some of your memories from those days?

In this business you don’t anticipate anything. Good and bad, you take it in your stride. Life’s too short for any regrets and the joys and highs need to be grabbed when they come your way. Memories? I don’t have any specific ones but they were happier times, simpler times.

7.  As a writer, director and actor, you wear many hats. What is advice to the young creatives of the city who too want to work in multi-disciplinary fields and constantly reinvent themselves?

Listen to the music. It it’s playing your tune, do it.  Dance with it. Mistakes might happen but you’ll have fun making them. After all they are YOUR mistakes and no one else’s.

This was previously published in Evolve, The Statesman


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