A terrific mixed bag of talent, Amitosh Nagpal is widely acclaimed for the play Piya Behrupia, a Hindi adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which opened at the Globe Theatre in London. In addition to playing the role of Sebastian, he has also translated the entire play that has earned tremendous international success. Amitosh has previously worked in movies like ‘Oye Lucky, Lucky Oye’ (2008), ‘Dabangg’ (2010), ‘Rangrezz’ (2013) and has written dialogues for ‘Gulaab Gang’ (2013).
BnP caught up with the actor while he was in town to receive the Special Recognition award at the BITS Annual Translation Industry award. Here he speaks to us about performing at the Globe, translating literature and how language is constantly evolving in the entertainment industry.
First, let’s talk about Piya Behrupia! The play opened at the Globe Theatre in London, Shakespeare’s own stage! How did it feel performing on such an esteemed platform?
It was phenomenal. When you walk into the Globe, you can’t help but be mesmerized. At the same time, it also made me feel at home. To maintain the playing conditions of the 1599 Globe, the stage did not have microphones or amplification. We were explained the powerful and weak positions on the stage to get the right emotion. The audience was very warm and we got a terrific response. In the yard section, there were about 300 people standing with umbrellas under the freezing rain, but they were patient and loudly cheered us. All in all, it felt wonderful that our work was reaching a global audience.
Along with playing the role of Sebastien, you have also translated the play. How did you go about doing that?
I first wrote a song ‘Phatti Jeans Ki Pant’ for Malvolio, which is a very colloquial song. Since it was not quite fitting with the rest of the script, the director asked me to rewrite some scenes before and after. Soon, I was asked to edit the Fifth Act. Twenty days before the opening of the play at the Globe, I was asked to rewrite the entire script. I completed it in four days.
Wow! That must have been quite some feat. So how did you adapt Shakespeare’s characters to a desi version?
While writing Piya Behrupia, I kept my actors in mind – how they spoke, which city they hailed from, what their mother tongue was. I tried to write dialogues in a rhythm which they could adapt to easily, which would sound good in their accent. Hence, you see a Punjabi Olivia and a Bengali Antony. More than the humour, this localisation of characters is, I feel, the strength of the play.
Shakespearean plays often use heavy diction. Piya Behrupia, on the contrary, is written in a colloquial manner which was both refreshing and exciting. Do you think more and more classical plays should employ colloquial language, or does it take away from the charm of the original script?
I would prefer using language which is easily understandable, through which the audience can instantly connect with the play instead of realising the meaning of a particular dialogue on the drive back home (laughs). At the same time, the language should not become too casual. That said, it depends from writer to writer. Shakespeare might have been quite colloquial in his time, but in today’s world, his dialect seems like heavy diction. As an actor, you need to have conviction in the script in order to connect with your audience.
Piya Behrupia took you around the world. Did language create barriers for you at any point?
Maybe I would have been able to explore better had I known those languages, but you can only know so many. Sometimes, there is great pleasure to be found by simply being lost in translation. I love talking to strangers and had have had conversations with them even though we didn’t understand each other’s language and used English only sparingly.
At National School of Drama (NSD), when I met people from different states of India speaking different tongues, I realised that this here was my country. Similarly, while I was traveling, I realised that this here was my world. The important thing is to travel. I think language enables you to tell lies sometimes, while experiences always speak the truth.
You were trained at National School of Drama (NSD), a very prestigious institution. How did your years there help you in your career?
NSD has helped me in all aspects of life. I got a lot of exposure there and learnt a great deal. It gave me a platform to connect with actors from across the country. It is especially significant when you come from a place where you cannot talk theatre with many people. My training there has had a profound influence on how I look at things today.
Piya Behrupia was supported by subtitles when you travelled to different countries. How important is subtitling in the entertainment industry today?
I think it is a great idea. When the play travels, artists tend to rely on English so that a majority of their audience can understand it. But subtitles give freedom to actors to enjoy the text and the audience to understand the play at the same time.
In addition to the Twelfth Night, you have also translated Aatish Taseer’s book “Stranger to History” into Hindi. Drawing from those experiences, what would you say are the essential skills for translating literature?
Firstly, you need to have a decent level in both the languages. Secondly, you need to have a treasure trove of vocabulary in the language that you want to translate in. Because every word has a different nuance based on the context, it is challenging to match the exact phrase of the original language, especially so in literature.
Which languages do you speak? And are there any others that you would like to learn?
I speak Haryanvi, Punjabi, Hindi and English. I can understand Urdu but I am now actively pursuing it. Since I moved to Mumbai, I can also follow Marathi & would love to act in Marathi cinema too.
Lastly, are there any other plays that would you like to translate in future?
The French play Cyrano de Bergerac is a personal favourite which I would love to translate. Besides that, I have Chekov’s plays and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet on the list. But I would also like to do some original work (laughs).