It isn’t often you walk into a coffee shop that is packed and quiet at the same time. The silence is broken only by the crackling sound of the keyboard. The orders are whispered and the staff tiptoes around the tables to not disturb its customers that are intently typing away. The scene on a scorching April afternoon at Aram Nagar’s Blue Tokai eloquently summarizes this unique hub in India’s financial capital of Mumbai.
Contrary to what its name signifies, Aram Nagar has evolved into a place that symbolizes hustle and bustle. But more importantly, it has come to symbolize hope and dignity for aspiring actors, theatre practitioners and performers dreaming of making it in Mumbai. Several small-scale theatres and studios have emerged in Aram Nagar, making it a hub of alternate performance arts.
“It has now become a community centre for aspiring actors – an artists’ village of sorts,” says Akarsh Khurana, who has been running Akvarious Productions, a theatre company, for 23 years. “The actors that would earlier just loiter around are now saying I have a show this evening. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
But that wasn’t always the story of these 16 acres of land in north Mumbai’s Versova region. Serving as military barracks in World War II and then as transit camps during India’s partition in 1947, Aram Nagar became a casting hub at the start of the 21st century. Filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane have their offices here. So do several ad film makers and casting directors. Scores of youngsters migrating to Mumbai from all over India end up around the old row houses and open cottages of Aram Nagar with the hope of landing a gig.
However, in the past five-seven years or so, with more and more spaces dedicated to performance arts coming up, the “strugglers” have gone from seeking out an audition to seeking out a theatre, according to Khurana. “That is a wonderful step in the right direction,” he says.
The churn in Aram Nagar began when Karan Talwar started Harkat studios about five years ago. Around the same time, Sunil Shanbag, one of India’s leading theatre directors, and Sapan Saran, founded the Tamasha theatre right next to it. The two began drawing attention to Aram Nagar.
Talwar’s decision to start a studio at Aram Nagar was driven by its unique infrastructure. “You will never find a space with a room as large as this with no pillars anywhere else in Mumbai,” he says, sitting in his spacious office right over Harkat studios. “We could go to industrial places but they aren’t intimate, welcoming, homely and warm like the places in Aram Nagar.”
When they first moved to Aram Nagar, Talwar says, theatre wasn’t a priority. “We wanted to build a community centre,” he adds. “But our friends in the theatre saw it and said we could do a show here. That’s how it all began.”
During the first year, Harkat hosted limited shows with two table lamps hung from the ceiling and a man physically operating them. “We didn’t have a lot in the first year because all the plays were designed for established theatres,” says Talwar. “The sets were bigger and not meant for places like ours.”
But that has changed over the years. People have started making plays keeping smaller studios in mind and Talwar believes it is the contribution of Aram Nagar to alternate performance arts. “We have gone from seeking out productions to being overbooked,” he says. “And the best part is, people turn up.”
Saran’s experience with the Tamasha theatre is similar.
“Harkat and Tamasha were two solid spaces next to each other,” she says. “The response was fabulous. Yes, there are larger, mainstream things happening in Mumbai. But the hunger for the other is equally there. People are seeking something stimulating, something unusual.”
One of Tamaasha’s important initiatives was a day-residency program, where a theatre practitioner was invited to work in the space for 8 hours a day for 10 days at no cost. “Because everything is so expensive in Mumbai, you are always working against the clock and this can affect the quality of your work. We were keen to create a space that would allow people to work without the pressure of time and money.”
Unfortunately, though, Tamasha theatre couldn’t sustain. The rents were too high, and it moved out of Aram Nagar after two years. But its void was filled by two more establishments that have significantly contributed to the evolution of Aram Nagar.
Asmita theatre, a well-known group founded by Arvind Gour, started a branch here. “It is very famous in Delhi, and it is known for large-scale productions with a lot of actors,” said Khurana. “The arrival of Asmita theatre gave an opportunity to a lot of aspiring actors who come to Mumbai from north India.”
The second is Creative Adda, interestingly started by a man with no background in theatre. “He started it because his friends said it would be a good idea,” said Khurana, whose office is right next to it. “He has combined it with a cafe and it has become a place to hangout. Everyday something is happening, and everyday people turn up.”
The buzz has brought a boom to the local economy as well.
Khurana knows a bhel puri vendor named Ashok who delivers snacks at his office at five in the evening. But when he started getting late, Khurana got curious and inquired about it. Ashok’s response filled him with satisfaction. Two spaces had engaged Ashok to serve snacks before shows. “It only means these small spaces are flourishing,” he said.
Saran believes it has helped break the elitism in arts. “It has created an openness, where people from different backgrounds coexist,” she adds.
For the longest time, Prithvi and NCPA were the only options for an aspiring performer or creator to do experimental theatre in English or Hindi. However, Aram Nagar has added a third dimension to it. It has given a platform to those who couldn’t get into the established theatres. And as a result, the number of productions have increased.
“More people now have the courage to create something because they can now test it out in these smaller spaces,” says Talwar. “It’s a much quicker and cheaper way to put your idea in practice, do a rehearsal, test it out in the alternative spaces, make a tiny bit of money, and then possibly take it to bigger spaces.”
Amitosh Nagpal, an actor and writer currently working on short films and OTT shows while pursuing acting gigs, has started a space called “Slums of Bollywood” in Aram Nagar. He says he had a selfish reason behind the venture. “I wanted to surround myself with artists and performers, who meet each other without an agenda,” he says. “We have found a space where a lot of people can work and rehearse. We are able to screen shows and host performances as well.”
Khurana has attended one where Atul Kumar and Sukant Goel performed and Rajat Kapoor sat on the floor in the audience. “The fact that these guys are coming to these spaces is a statement in itself,” says Khurana. “Aram Nagar has cultivated an audience of its own.”
Saran says the individuals who have taken this initiative have made Aram Nagar into what it is. “It is driven by a spirit of cultural entrepreneurship,” she says. “It is risky, but people still do it.”
Nagpal displays that precise spirit. “If you are not too money driven, you can have a lot of fun in spaces like these, which are important for performers early in their careers,” he says. “Not everyone can fill seats at Prithvi or NCPA. But it is easier to sell smaller studios and perform in front of a full house. It is a tremendous boost to our confidence.”
However, Khurana believes that Aram Nagar is still at a nascent stage. “I would like to see bigger plays coming in and taking interest in it,” he says. “Aram Nagar is at a very interesting cusp right now. But it has already given aspiring actors and performers the opportunity, dignity and purpose that they didn’t have earlier.
Parth MN is an award-winning independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He predominantly writes about rural India for LA Times, Al Jazeera, Washington Post and People’s Archive of Rural India, among others.
This piece was conceived and commissioned by Bhasha Centre.