Famous for his roles as Bittoo uncle, a Hindu extremist in Kai Po Che and parallel lead alongside Rajkummar Rao in City Lights, playwright, director and actor Manav Kaul has been signed on for Sujoy Ghosh’s Durga Rani Singh and will be playing a lead role alongside Nandita Das in Soumitra Ranade’s Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hain. His last two roles have already earned him a repute of being an actor to watch out for…

Early years

Born in Baramullah, Khojabad in Kashmir Manav spent his childhood (till standard five) there before moving to Hoshangabad, a small village close to Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. His father was an engineer in Kashmir who took early retirement after their office was bombed by terrorists. “For four years after moving, my dad wrote letters to Rajiv Gandhi, Farooq Abdullah after which he started getting pension and that’s how our family of four survived,” he says.

Though it’s been a long time, Manav remembers his childhood in Hoshangabad, Madhya Pradesh vividly. “I was dealing with a lot of changes, of moving cities, being admitted from an English school in Kashmir to a government school. I have this ability to remember a space, its ambience. The lanes and bi lanes of my colony are still fresh in my memory. Childhood spent there was like a picnic. One of the happy memories is that of swimming in the Narmada river. I had no idea about swimming styles then but I entered some competition and stood second so I was sent to compete at a larger event in Bhopal,” he says. Despite a fun childhood he says by the time he was in 10th standard he knew he wanted to get out of his village.

His wish couldn’t have come at a better time as Sports Authority of India was starting their hostel in Indore. That became Manav’s way out of the village and for two years he perfected his swimming with a coach there, won third place in all India 100 meter butterfly race. And as luck would have it, while pursuing sports he experienced theatre for the first time at Bharat Bhavan’s cultural centre in Bhopal. He says, “I was in first year college then. I stopped swimming the same day. I figured this is what I wanted to do. I took up a day job of selling floppies to support myself while I learnt acting. In the evenings I would rehearse with Alok Chatterjee (from National School of Drama). I started reading works of some great playwrights. Within two-three years my thirst to do more increased as there were only a handful plays being done in Bhopal. I toyed with the idea of going to NSD but landed up in Mumbai instead in 1999.”

Manav sold his only property – a bike to come to Mumbai. From living in a small hotel in Charni Road, sharing a home with four other people in Borivali, sharing a room in a chawl in Malad East with two other people, having to carry a bucket of water to a community toilet he lived the migrating-to-a-metro struggle to the T. He tells these tales without a sense of romanticising ‘the struggle’ or sadness. “Once after Gulshan Kumar was killed, my flatmates and I were picked up by Dahisar police and questioned for an hour before they let us go after they were convinced we were harmless theatre artists. In another incident one of my friend’s uncle had given us a room to live in Malad East. He knew we didn’t have money so he promised us one meal a day. We would eat at 3 pm so that we didn’t feel hungry through the day. We would go do theatre, come back, drink a lot of water and sleep. That went on for five months. It didn’t bother me because I was performing in Prithvi, one of the best theatres in the country. When I was on stage the audience didn’t know where I had to go back to after performing. I would walk from Prithvi to station, take a train to Goregaon, walk from there to the chawl. I would walk all over Bombay. I always had a train pass so I was sorted. I was young then and any of this never made me sad.”

Manav spent those years training himself, reading a lot of literature, so worries of the basic necessities never arose. He says he understood the works of Russian writers Maxim Gorky and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Indian writers like Vinod Kumar Shukla in that period because he was living such things. “When you are hungry you understand what hunger is. Not the kind of hunger that arises out of fasting but the hunger when there is no food and staying hungry is not out of choice. You understand Dorky at that time. It was a beautiful time of my life. I have always had tremendous faith in my art. When I have work, I do it well. Whatever I do I have do it best. I want to win. I am not here to lose. It’s a positive sportsman spirit in me. ”

Journey from acting to writing and directing

“My first memory of coming to Prithvi was watching Pt. Satyadev Dubey taking workshops. I started attending his workshops,” says Manav. He got selected for Inshallah in 1999 which led to being cast in another play by Sunil Shanbag and working with Ramu Ramanathan. He adds, “I was always excited about getting opportunities, getting plays. Around then I was doing 7-8 plays as an actor, continuously performing at NCPA, Prithvi and travelling with my plays to other cities. It was a good life but there was no money. Somehow I survived.”

In 2003, Manav went through a period of “disillusionment” with what he was doing and stopped acting completely and started writing plays. Along with Kumud Mishra and Tushar Rao he formed a theatre group called Aranya in 2004. That’s where his journey as a playwright and director began. First was Shakkar Ke Paanch Dane which was well received and became such a success that people translated and started performing it in other cities. The same year he wrote Peele Scooter Wala Aadmi which won best original script (play) in 2006, followed by a traditional play called Bali Aur Shambhu, Ilham, Aisa Kehte Hain, Paak, Mamtaz Bhai Patang Waale, Haath Ka Aaya..Shunya, Red Sparrow, Laal Pencil and a play on the life of poet Gorakh Pandey. “This play is based on Uday Prakash’s story and Gorakh Pandey’s poetry and incidents and was evolved as a new technique for theatre for FTII students.” His latest play Colour Blind is an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s play co written with Kalki Koechlin. All of Manav’s plays are available online for free for colleges and others to use and perform. Ask him why he doesn’t charge others who use his script/play he says, “I am a ‘copyleft’ person. Everything we do has its own journey. I don’t want to dictate it. I just want to do things and let them reach where they have to.”

Manav believes that this journey prepared him to act in films and that had he got CityLights earlier he wouldn’t have done this kind of job. “While acting for Satyadev Dubey, I learnt to write because his language was so poetic. When I started writing and explaining the actor what he had to do, the nuances, I honed my skills as an actor. As an actor in theatre, I believe I wasn’t too good. My acting improved as I was writing and directing plays,” he says.

Film Direction

Manav reveals he loves going to the mountains in Uttaranchal often. While going for one such trip, with Rs 12000 in his account, he thought of making a film called Hansa. People came together to support him with money, free equipment, free crew and then along with his theatre group he conducted a month long workshop with the local kids. “We made it within Rs 5 lakhs and I didn’t have much expectation from it but when we showed the edited version to people they reacted positively. I gave it to Dipti D’Cunha who was with NFDC then. She liked it and asked me submit it to Osians Cinefan Film Festival.” The film won the Best Critic and the Best Audience Choice award there. Later it was released under PVR Rare in Dec 2012. He adds, “Then I read the script of Tathagat and directed that also in the mountains. It got me into a lot of debts and I am yet to pay it off completely. I started editing it but we had to put it on hold as the funds weren’t there.”

Coming a full circle – acting in films

Manav’s film acting career was sporadic until Kai Po Che happened. He did Jajantaram Mamantaram (2003) and then the film 1971 (2007). Sometime after his debut directorial feature Hansa released 2012, casting director Mukesh Chhabra called him for an audition. “Mukesh knew me from theatre. On the day of my audition he wasn’t well so his assistant took my audition and was told to meet director Abhishek Kapoor the next day.” Kapoor felt Manav’s smile could be a problem while playing a dark character like Bittoo mama. However on Chhabra’s insistence Manav did another audition which was mailed to the director amidst shooting. It worked. Manav was on Kai Po Che sets the next day and his first scene was with all three leads in the film – Sushant Singh Rajput, Amit Sadh and Rajkummar Rao. The latter being someone he would act again with in future. “While performing, I realised everyone there was performance oriented, appreciating what others were doing. It was an interesting atmosphere which was actor friendly. When Kai Po Che released I was told I had good screen presence. I had tasted blood and I keep wanting more now.”

In Manav’s words Kai Po Che was his “first experiment with getting into the character in a methodical manner which I explored further with CityLights. For CityLights Manav wasn’t even auditioned. He remembers getting a call from casting director Vinod Rawat and listening to a narration from him and Hansal at a suburban coffee house in Andheri. “Hansal finished the conversation telling me the release date of the film and asked me to say yes for the role. The trust started from there. I had to make sure not to disappoint them,” he says. “Then I met Rajkummar. We had done one scene together in KPC and when I looked him in the eyes, I knew they were a true actor’s eyes. I told him then only that I have to work with you again. We both like each other’s work. He is a method actor. He said we shouldn’t meet or rehearse. We should meet directly at the shoot as the characters also meet that way in the film. It helped that Hansal shot the film in an almost linear fashion. I was so excited that I would wait to be called for the shoot. I was joyful to be able to perform one good scene after another,” he adds.

Manav says Hansal gave them both a lot of freedom to perform and build our character. “We started experimenting and improvising. Rajkummar and I both improvised a lot from what was written in the script. If the director trusts you so much what else do you want?,” he asks.

Lack of money never stopped me.

Despite a successful release, the money situation isn’t any better in Manav’s life. He reveals he has Rs 6000 in his account and that’s the way his life has been. He says, “I think that could be one of the reasons why all my girl friends left me eventually as I wasn’t earning much money. I have never been money minded, or looking for a better house or car. Work excites me. Doing something new, something I haven’t experimented before excites me. When you want work and that’s the only excitement that you have in life, not having money isn’t an issue. It never happened that I couldn’t write or direct a play because I didn’t have money. Somehow things always worked out.” He adds, “I don’t know how I survive. I just do. When you concentrate on work, people see your dedication and work comes. Sometimes people produce plays, if a play works, you get some money and you survive. I have lived on the edge in that sense and I am ok with it. I don’t have any expensive tastes. I don’t party or go out too much. Since I was getting established as a playwright people have respect, I got some scholarships.” One such Vinod Doshi Fellowship sorted his year long expenses. Then he got invited to do a directors lab for young theatre directors from all over the world at the Lincoln Centre New York for two years continuously before films happened. “A lot of people had recommended me. I applied and got selected. I told them I didn’t have money to travel or expenses for daily use there and I couldn’t come without that. I scanned and sent my bank pass book. So they got a sponsor to pay tickets and gave me a per diem to manage expenses there. They used to give $70 a day. I would spend at max $15. I saved so much from that money that I could pay the next 8 months of rent. That’s how I kept surviving. I would go and sit with friends in pubs and not drink. I would tell them I don’t drink even if I felt like having a beer. I smoked beedis not because it was cool but because I was always consciously cost cutting. I enjoyed that life too. It was an experience. You don’t need money for that. Money never stopped me from living then why should I depend or chase it.” Despite these money constraints, Manav has written 11 plays and directed 16 plays in eight years, wrote and directed two films, acted in over 30 plays (he doesn’t remember the accurate count) and launched himself as an actor to look out for with stellar performances in his two recent films. He sums up saying, “I am living a dream and writing it as a short story as I live it.”

– By Priyanka Jain