Who is my lover across the river, Kumar? An actor prepares by Mita Vashisht
Updated: Dec 6, 2021
The year is 1987, at the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune.
The month of August in Pune is a misty drizzle. The air dizzyingly fragrant ---my senses seemed to expand and dissolve into the hidden worlds held aloft by the giant trees of the FTII campus…
I travel by train from Delhi to Pune, in a regular lady’s compartment, where the wind streams in through the lateral grills of the windows of the second-class compartment, my long hair is protected from sun and wind and dust by a long scarf that is wrapped in a manner that not a strand of hair is visible.
(This had become, my trademark attire. My cascade of hair was no less precious than spun gold)
The two- day train journey that took me from Delhi to Pune, was a wonderous reverie.
To ensure I do not stumble over the text I would be given, I silently mouthed the Hindi vowels and consonants to the landscape rushing past.
Rolled the r, struck the rh, dh, smacked the p, b, lifted the ch, hummed the a,
Occasionally I had to break the reverie and the riyaaz to answer queries of the women in the compartment, my co passengers….
‘why do you wear the scarf?
What are you silently saying?
Why are you going to Pune?
Are you not scared of travelling alone?’…
The film was my first, immediately after my final year viva at the National School of Drama.
I walked out with a three -year diploma in acting and walked straight into a short fiction film, an FTII diploma that Kumar Shahani was directing, for the editing student Nandini Bedi.
That Kumar Shahani was revered, to the extent of divinity, by the FTII students, became apparent to me almost immediately upon my first interaction with the film team.
That actors in general, and especially drama school graduates from NSD, were not only NOT revered, but were a cause of some sort of secret amusement at the FTII, also became almost immediately apparent to me in the first script reading session.
The script of the film (Var Var Vari) was nothing close to the scripts (of infinite variety) that we had dealt with/struggled with/enacted at the NSD.
That all the realistic acting associated with Stanislavsky’s Method Acting, was anathema to the FTII film students and to Kumar himself, I discovered when I asked the question;
So (..umm) who is my lover across the river, Kumar?
Kumar smiled, his characteristic smile (a dimple appears on his cheek) and the foot of the leg that was crossed over the other leg, kept gently tapping the air (another characteristic
of his (please remember, as an actress it is my second nature to observe and remember everything that a person does).
He smiled and tapped the air with his foot for some time and said nothing.
The pause, in anticipation of the answer, was filled by the titter of mirth that ran across the room full of the students (the crew of the film). I had no access to what the amusement was.
All I sensed was that I had inspired it—the amusement, the derision and the eye rolling.
I tried not to feel stupid.
A black swan, Kumar dimpled at me finally, gently. Your lover is a black swan.
And he laughed (not unkindly though) and the others doubled up in mirth…
A black swan?
I smiled, hugely, nonchalantly.
I was not going to let them see my heart plummeting into my solar plexus.
Later that night as I lay in my bed, in the FTII girls hostel room I was sharing with Nandini, I was unable to sleep, I had no idea how to handle this role.
The rain was a soft drizzle outside the window, the air moist and cool on my skin, and then, a memory stirred.
M.A. English, the metaphysical poets. The class I so loved to attend because it was taught so inspiringly and passionately by the wonderful Ira Pandey. She made us fall in love with the metaphysical poets: John Donne and Yeats in particular, and now five years later, in prep for my first film, I suddenly recall the poem by W B Yeats. ‘Leda and the Swan’.
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
Yeats’ magnificent words came to me in snatches;
‘Strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
That broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead…
The black swan, its sinewy, sleek, long muscular neck wrapped around Leda ; passionate, caressing, the power of an embrace, sensual, sexual, the woman fearful yet fascinated, fear and fantasy, the desire to flee and the desire to surrender…..Leda Leda! Me in this film! Me! Me!
I didn’t have to become Leda, how could I (she’s a divine nymph to start with ) but I was suddenly free to became the earth soaking up the rain outside the window, the soft sibilance of the drizzle in the night became my heartbeat, the rain drops making gentle streams into the roots of trees, and insects and worms and tiny birds hidden in the leaves ---I breathed with them.
‘Leda and the Swan’, a poem, became a reference so sensuous and alive it never dulled for a moment; it was a beautiful poem and constantly fed my imagination… I no longer needed a real face, of a man, a real or a fantasy man to yearn for the lover across the river….
Kumar never knew I carried this poem within me during the shoot of the entire film.
But I knew, that when he said ‘a black swan’ he really did mean it. It was his way of hoping I would enter the wonderous realm of cinema, as an actress who can create magic.
(There is really no reason for actors to exist unless they make magic).
Leda and the Swan, studied in M.A. English class tossed ‘emotional memory recall’ (Stanislavsky) out of the window.
The experience of acting for Kumar Shahani laid in some ways the foundation of my next film, ‘Siddheshwari’, with Mani Kaul.
Mani was an entirely different person and director from Kumar Shahani.
After shooting for ‘Siddheshwari’ I wrote a paper on acting titled
‘The constructed gesture’.
My ‘job’ I discovered, as an actress was about discovering and arriving at a constant newness---not just deciphering the script and my performance but also to dive deep into the psyche of the director of the film. His aesthetics, his world view and to bring that into my body of the actor.
With Mani Kaul and later with Govind Nihalani and all the other directors I have worked with I would seek a foot hold from a new place each time.
I went on to do two more films with Kumar: ‘Khayal Gatha’ and ‘Kasba’.
The big mistake I made during ‘Khayal Gatha’ was to think that the heady magic and seamless communication that I had had with Kumar during the filming of ‘Var Var Vari’ would automatically be present again. It wasn’t.
I had to start from a new place inside myself all over again, with him, with the character that I was playing.
‘Kasba’ was my third film with Kumar. It was based on Anton Chekhov’s short story ‘In the Gully’
This time I was more careful. I took nothing for granted. It was a new me and a new Kumar Shahani (for me).
At the NSD, in my second year, a workshop on Chekov that Anuradha Kapur had directed for us had been a marvelous journey into discovering the unsaid, the unstated and the unwritten in Chekhov’s writings. The format of the workshop was to take a story and enact everything in it that has not been written by Chekhov in that story…. Anuradha Kapur’s wonderful teaching of Chekhov thus, had stayed with me while prepping for ‘Kasba’.
So, with Kumar this time, I asked no ‘method’ questions. In fact, I asked no questions whatsoever.
Kumar wanted me to discover the walk for Tejo (the character I play in the film)
I would land up at his house at 10 am every morning and ….walk!
Up and down for sometimes an hour and a half in his drawing room. While he watched and instructed.
Different gaits, speeds, permutations and combinations---hip held high, this time with the foot in, now with the right foot out, ‘walk like a lazy tigress, languid but ever alert…
I walked in different ways, letting my body do the walking, keeping the mind still;
Quieten the unquiet
Within my art,
In the world…
And one day the tigress suddenly appeared, languid, alert, sensuous, easy going yet dangerous. I got the walk.
There was no discussion on the character, beyond that. The walk gave me the foundation for Tejo; from walking to sitting, from walking to pausing, to turn, to listen, to speak, to ponder---how does Tejo pause, turn, sit, speak, ponder…discovering the walk was to discover Tejo and how she would do what she does from moment to moment in the film with her body, her voice, her gaze….
The actor’s craft is a construct and yet not. It is not a final construct ever. It’s never ‘like the last time I did this’.
Is it Leda and the Swan, or the Tejo walk, or that line in Govind Nihalani’s film ‘Drishti’ (mai intezaar karti rahee karti rahee karti rahee) that is going to propel me into the experience of presenting ‘this character’ ?
A Lal Ded’s vaach says:
‘The mind is new
The moon is new
The vast expanse of water is new
I, Lalla am a new phenomenon’
Each time, with each new film and every new director it is so;
The mind is new, the moon is new, the vast expanse of water is new,
I, the actress, am a new phenomenon.
Mita Vashisht is a well known film, theatre & television actress. Mita was at the center of the Indian Avant Garde helmed by Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, as an actor. Her contribution to the works of the two auteurs is unparalleled.