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November 22, 2018

A Chat With Actors Jim Sarbh And Mansi Multani Ahead Of The Indian Adaptation Of The Award-Winning Play Constellations

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena

At the NCPA Theatre Season, Nick Payne’s critically acclaimed Constellations takes you through different multiverses

What if several universes co-existed simultaneously, creating multiple realities and possible outcomes to any situation? Exploring this thought is British playwright and screenwriter Nick Payne’s Constellations, which first premiered at the Royal Court Theatre London in 2012 and is poised to open at the NCPA Theatre Season this week. British director Bruce Guthrie, who visited Mumbai earlier this year to cast its two leads, is helming the revival of this award-winning production.

I walk into an NCPA rehearsal room one morning a few days before the show opens, and my eyes are immediately drawn to sheets of paper plastered against one wall – they carry the entire script of the play under production. On the floor, is what appears to be a geometric design, colourful circles that have been numbered – I assume that it is part of the plan to execute the lighting of the constellations.

Mansi Multani (of Piya Behrupiyaand Pari fame), who will play Marianne, and Jim Sarbh (of Neerja, Padmaavat and Death In The Gunj) who will step into the shoes of Roland, walk in and are soon followed by the director. Over a cup of the theatre’s elaichi-flavoured coffee, I chat with the trio about their upcoming offering, naturally curious about Guthrie’s feelings about staging Constellations here and why he zoomed in on this pair for the play. The director emphasises, “I’m excited but also a little nervous because it’s a big responsibility to be directing quite a major show. I also know the playwright – so that’s quite a task as well, to take his work and put it out. I have already watched quite a few different shows here but it’s difficult to gauge what the audience reaction to Constellations will be, especially for someone who has never directed a show here.”

Guthrie points out that how the production is received here would depend largely on the audience as well. “A play is a conversation with an audience. It’s one of the most interactive art forms that there is. This onedoes ask some tough questions but it’s also funny, heart-warming and life-affirming. It is a kind of an emotionally athletic event for Mansi and Jim. Because at one moment they are sobbing on the floor and then the next moment they’ve got to be as if it never happened, because in another universe the situation has not happened or it does not happen. So, you get to see them – as Marianne and Roland – jump through various hoops in different ways.”

Excerpts from a conversation with the two lead actors of the play, Mansi Multani and Jim Sarbh:

What is it about the script that excited you?

Mansi Multani: I would like to believe that the play and the circumstances chose me since I was literally the very last person to audition before Bruce flew back to the UK. I only read the script fully after I auditioned. Everything about it excited me – its structure, its pacing and its rhythm. We’re exploring multiple possibilities in a relationship – so there are so many different ways one particular incident can go. To illustrate, you watch a film and if you’re in the wrong mood to watch it, you may not like it. But if you’re in the right mood, it might change things for you. That’s how life is as well. If extraneous factors click, then things happen. Sometimes they don’t click, and maybe the person who is really right for us just walks by and we don’t realise it. The content is very relatable, very universal. It deals with love – and nothing can be more universal.

Jim Sarbh: When I looked up the play, I saw that Jake Gyllenhaal had played the part of Roland when they did it in New York. And I thought that he’s had a shot at this so I want a shot at it too! Then I read the script more functionally before the audition, focussing on how to prepare rather than looking at everything that the script offered. It is only while working on a script that you fully realise what it contains, not immediately, but it is something that grows on you. In Constellations,it’s a dream for an actor to be constantly jumping in and out of little universes, trying to have an entire perspective in just that little section.

As the universes change, is there a change in your personalities or are you just exploring different dimensions in new situations?

MM: It’s both – circumstances and personality traits. The situation could be different as well where things may or may not work out. Or in that particular universe I could be somebody who I haven’t been in the previous one.

JS: I think even the thing that we call personalities are complicated mixtures of genetics and environmental factors. Depending on the particular environmental factor, a person will be different even if he/she has the same genetic code.

MM: Yeah. I could be different from what I am two hours later – it really depends on how my mood has shifted, what am I thinking about, have I received a piece of information that has annoyed me or made me happy. We are very complex beings.

In a love story, how important is the chemistry between the two of you – and does that come easily?

JS: It is extremely important and you have to work on it. We’re friends, so that makes it a bit easier, but everything requires work. However, this play isn’t about natural, raw chemistry. It’s about two people making it work, two people struggling to fit, two people drawn to each other but still clouded by their own insecurities, fears, worries, joys, humour and feelings of togetherness.

MM: There was a study somewhere which found out that one can only really be in love, fully invested, perhaps for seven years. So, there is going to come a point where things are going to get mundane, routine, and yet knowing all this I might still want to spend my entire life just with one person because it can also take you an entire lifetime to really know each other and understand each other’s patterns, annoyances, things where you have to work harder. It’s not easy to make a relationship work. It can’t just be about chemistry and spark – that’s the initial stage, the hand-holding, first kiss stage. But after that – when the shit starts to get real – then there’s a lot of other factors that make it work.

What is it like working with Bruce?

MM: It’s been incredible. I really like that we’re allowed to try different things in the room. He says few things but what he says is very succinct, clear and articulate. He never beats around the bush. It’s nice because it’s very productive and moves towards from a larger place to the point you need to triangulate. I enjoy that a lot and yet we can goof around in the room and make stupid jokes and try different things without being afraid. Actors are essentially insecure beings. So, if I’m going to feel intimidated by anything in the room, I might not really feel comfortable enough to take that risk or be ready to make a mistake…and I didn’t feel like that with Bruce.

JS: Yeah, without it feeling oppressive in any way, it’s good to have a boss. It’s good to have somebody who you feel you can relax into because they’re sorted, they’re taking care of you; they’re taking care of the play. They know what they want and they know how to get it out of you. They know how to talk to you particularly. Not the actor you, but the Jim you! I appreciate that a lot because then I’m not wondering if the feedback, I’m getting is right. Do I have to understand the basic point through all of the things coming to me? Do I have to start self-directing? None of that was the case at all. It was so simple, like Mansi was saying, goofy and fun. I’ve had a blast rehearsing for this play.

You have both done work in theatre and films. How would you compare the two domains?

MM: My work has mainly been in theatre for almost nine years now. It’s only over the last year that I have begun to face the camera more. I did a television show, a couple of films. It’s very different and at the end of last year I remember feeling, “Oh my god, I want to really learn more about this!” It is hard in its own way – you may have got the shot right but for 1,000 other reasons – lighting and more – you have to do it again. It’s a test of tenacity, patience, a bunch of things, which maybe theatre doesn’t have, but it has completely different challenges. I don’t think one necessarily prepares you for the other. You just have to love your job to be able to explore it in different mediums.

JS: I like both theatre and cinema. Someone who doesn’t even know that I probably consider him a sort of mentor is Naseeruddin Shah. He straddles all the worlds. I really look up to him as a person, as an actor. Sometimes when I’m debating what I should do, if I should take a role or not, I have a little mental conversation with him. I don’t believe there need to be any boundaries between the forms. I don’t think one art form or one practice is better than the other. Each one offers amazing things to learn and has its own period of gratification. Each one has its own form and style and structure. And within each – theatre and cinema – you get different directors who all want a different kind of acting. So, you get to explore all of the realms. So, why should you limit yourself to one and not the other? Especially if you can do all!

Can you pick one of your performances that you would label challenging or stand-out?

JS: Roland, the beekeeper, in Constellations. This is my career-defining role and I highly encourage people to come and watch me in it.

MM: Challenging-wise, I would say the play Piya Behrupiyaseven years ago, because it was my first time in a residency. And playing a clown in Shakespeare in Hindi with all her antics was difficult. The film Pariwas very difficult because of the prosthetics. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I wouldn’t want a particular performance to define me as a performer because I don’t really know if I want to be defined. That’s why I said I want to do both theatre and films because I really love my work. I would even do a music video that has less acting, but it has something exciting which allows me to express myself in a way that I haven’t before!

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