From debuting with Govind Nihalani’s Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa in 1998, Joy Sengupta has come a long way, having worked in many films and plays with theatre directors like Habib Tanvir, Safdar Hashmi, Barry John, Feroz Abbas Khan, Ramu Ramanathan and Lillete Dubey. His childhood was spanned across Kolkata, Delhi and Nepal. Literature is not only his interest, but also an extension of his being.
Joy spoke to #TellMeYourStory about the storytelling dynamics for an actor – the way it differs between the sets and the stage, and his alter-ego as a book-lover!

Interview Excerpts

For cinema and theatre, different mind sets, different spirits, different ideologies merge to create one story. Diverse skills work together for one goal. Often in other forms of art or storytelling, it’s one person sharing his or her existence, interpretation, experience, sensitivity. In theatre and cinema, just my personal journey will not matter if I can’t take everyone along with me. That process is not just with the audience, but it lies in the making itself.

In a given film, 300 people are associated directly or indirectly. All the work I do can be completely ruined by a bad editor. All the work I do will not be received if the writer doesn’t write a good scene or a good dialogue. All the work the writer does can be ruined if the director is not competent enough to interpret it properly. All that will be destroyed if the light guys do a bad job.

In theatre it’s more dynamic. Theatre is about one room and limited hours when a few artists, technicians and audience will assemble to exchange a something important. How they communicate it is the director’s domain.  Actors are complicated beings. One actor can’t have the entire story on his body. He has to learn and unlearn in the process. Huge conflict of interest applies for all who are working together because each has a particular vision towards expressing the story. The director ties them all in the same thread and pulls them all in the same direction.


Theatre is one medium where you can’t say anything without the actor. In cinema you can. A swaying tree, an emerging cloud, animals running wild, a dark night, is capable of conveying a message. In theatre, the actor is the carrier of the story. They embody the image that the director and writer has tried to create.

For theatre, the 500 people watching a show becomes a part of the story. Theatrical storytelling is amazing because the audience is an active member of storytelling. That doesn’t happen in cinema. What you are watching on screen is set and static. In theatre, the story can change according to those watching it. Responses and sensibilities attribute to that change though script remains the same.

For example, go to a village to perform Tiner Talowar, a play by Utpal Dutt, in a jatra form. That village, maybe with 3000 people who are landless, who have suffered under the local zamindar, has come to watch the play. Their energy, the vocal support, the seething anger, the aggression, the resentment will galvanise the performance. Same play you perform at Kolkata, where upper and middle class audience has come to watch it. They will be appreciating the aesthetics, the finesse, they may not get drawn by the issues being raised because they aren’t victims of it. Same Tiner Talowar, when it goes abroad, maybe at Edinburg Film Festival, the society there has never been affected by those issues culturally, politically or socially.  They will find the human connect of the farmer, human dilemma of the king and react to it.

Theatrical storytelling metamorphs with the space and the people who have come together to share an evening and that in turn, trains an actor.

The actor’s body has to be representative of an empty frame of a photographer or a painter’s palate or clay which a sculptor moulds. This happens in more ways than one. The actual shape of the body may not change; you might bulk up or go slim, no more than that. But with your gestures and some external props, you have to create an illusion that the body has changed.

That body must have ability to absorb, assimilate and communicate the history of mankind, of expressions and emotions. In sculpture there’s a given shape which creates that impression. Colours do the same in painting. In acting, more in theatre than in cinema, the body is dynamic, malleable. Little slouch in a given moment can represent the burden of extremes in a Dalit history. Little raising of chin can become the raising of chin of Achilles from Greek tragedy. Scampering of feet could remind of the historical peasant struggle of Nabanna (a play on the Bengal famine of 1943). Or a still body staring skywards can embody the entire burden of emotional attachment and derailment for Oedipus.

As a youngster I’d travel in Delhi buses. This is about ‘80s and early ‘90s. Delhi buses would be full of men. Delhi men have a certain feudal roughness to themselves. Those who have grown up in Delhi would understand what I mean, because Delhi has always been a feudal city. It’s a political city. It has been the city of emperors. This attitude permeates down till the lowest levels. Those values dominate minds and bodies. Delhi has also been a city that has borne the brunt of all attacks from all cultures. They have taken it bravely and put them behind, but there’s some kind of leftover which manifests as the brazen roughness and an attacking mentality. No other city would understand this, because they haven’t passed through what Delhi has. Unfortunately, all these reflect in their attitude towards women.

As a college student when I traveled by Delhi buses full of young and old men, and a nice girl got up, the way a man’s body or mind will function would reflect obvious lack of respect for the female form or female mind. It would veer towards a feudalistic entitlement which is more about possessing than romantic intentions. A girl’s hair would be pulled, corner of her dupatta would be played with, some will brush shoulders with her with the jerk of the bus. The older generation would sit there and never react. Those driving the bus would remain indifferent. It could be a male bonding or patriarchal affinity or just a Delhi attitude of why should I get intro someone else’s mess? The poor girl would be forced to display an all-encompassing resilience. She’d have to make the journey, she’d have to be safe. She’d have to make sure there’s no confrontation which would make her isolated in a crowd.
I came to Mumbai, then Bombay, on a college trip. I was travelling from Churchgate to Andheri. At 12.30 in the night, a girl got up in the local train in a short skirt. I was horrified. My eyes and mind first reacted like a Delhiite. How could she? At 1am she got down at Andheri, alone, without batting an eyelid. No one even looked at her. There may have been few passing glances, but no encroachment into her space. I stood there with my mouth open.

Same country, two cities. I realised much later, that Mumbai has western capitalism in its history, where everyone has a place as long as they can contribute to the profit and success of the capitalist set up. Capitalism ends up breaking the feudal barriers of caste and gender. In capitalist society, diversity is respected. Even clothes will reflect that freedom, mind will reflect the confidence. It is a feudal society that retains its borders and lines and lakshmanrekha’s.

My paternal grandmother. I pity this generation which has missed out on the grandparent’s affection. No one can elevate your imagination at the age of 2, 3, 4, 5, as does a grandparent. Their ability to tell stories, carrying the entire experience of their lives and translating them into most beautiful simple mythological pieces, transcends all professional training. My grandmother introduced me to all epics and interpreted mythologies of Shiva and Parvati and Krishna, verbally, over and over again. Not moralistically or as religious doctrines, but dramatically. Shiva or Krishna was never the ultimate God for whom I would kill and get killed. Shiva-Parvati’s tales were full of humour and intrigue.

Also, I am blessed to be a Bengali because we have a tremendous lineage of children’s literature. Generations after generations have been brought up on it and it has been passed on faithfully. The fairy-tale stories written for Bengali kids, called Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandther’s Collection) and Thakurdar Jhuli (Grandfather’s Collection), were astoundingly imaginative, evocative and would take moral stands in a very flexible way. These stories seemed countless because you could read them again and again and still not get bored. The demons, prince and princesses, the impossibility of killing the demons without getting into their basic life-source called the jiyonkathi (magic stick of life), the good queens and bad queens, equations between younger and elder queens, the righteous and wrong rules, adventures, kept me endlessly occupied. These in a way composed my childhood days.

My mother read out comics that came out in newspapers and magazines in those days. Phantom (Aranyadeb in Bengali), Mandrek, etc. She was largely into Bengali literature, so Ashapurna debi, Bibhutibushan Bandopadhyay along with (Satyajit) Ray’s Felu da and Professor Shonku entered my system through her. Bengal also produced lots of children’s magazines. Children’s literature in Bengal happened to be a separate industry by itself. The three magazines which must have influenced every Bengali childhood were Sandesh, Suktara and Anandamela. And then they had their annual editions coming out during Durga Puja and we read them for the whole year. They carried Bengali translations of foreign literature, which introduced me to O. Henry, Mopassa, etc.

So one fine day my mother said, I can’t read more for you, help yourself! That’s how my reading habits started.

My father introduced me to children’s literature at the age of 5. He was an avid reader of western literature. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Around The World in 80 Days, David Copperfield, Treasure Island, Man-eaters of Kumayun were my first few books. I became David at the age of 5, and perhaps never grew up. Man-eaters of Kumayun introduced me to the rigours of jungle-life, Round the World in 80 Days introduced the concept of geography and science, Uncle Tom’s Cabin introduced slavery and de-humanisation, Treasure Island introduced wonderment and life adventure. Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens followed soon after, all between 5 and 10. A filtration process had started taking shape, where I could judge a good book and bad book.

Three stages I have crossed as a child-reader. My grandmother, my mother and my father. And then came a stage when some books happen to me. Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys happened, over a period of time I graduated to Harold Robbins. I guess everyone got processed like that in those days.

Reading helps in every profession. Now, at this moment, you live. You didn’t live 2000 or 4000 years ago, or even during the beginning of last century. Through literature you can. A reader lives many lives. A reader is the biggest interpreter of history.

Literature helps you frame your own emotions. It helps in picking up scattered energy and putting them to perspective. Not all emotions you are experienced with or trained for. You may not be able to regulate them. Literature does it for you as you become the soul of some other character and try to look at life through his circumstances. David Copperfield suffers his step-father, David’s dilemma is your dilemma. He works in a factory day in and day out, you want to escape. David finds his route; you relax as a silent observer of his journey. David can’t confess his love for Naura, you try. You get trained at many levels. Emotionally you become a more interesting person.

I was a taker of fiction. But during college, I seemed to outgrow them. Those were the times when my human understanding was getting amplified through social understanding and political understanding. Slowly the fictional bestsellers started looking manipulative. As if they were trying to sell something to me. My system demanded more than an imaginary world. I switched away from fiction which comforted me for many years, and became a gregarious reader of non-fiction. Every kind of non-fiction, from philosophy to spirituality to politics to arts to sports, I read voraciously across genres. I still do. I wanted to know about Kashmir and I read three different books – an Army point-of-view, a pre-partition research written by a historian and one talking about a rally – all at one go. That was an obvious growth in response to the surroundings that had changed between childhood and youth. Discovery of India made sense to me because I was discovering India too. Here things were being taken up, broken apart, analysed without the sugar-coat of fictional characters mouthing their concerns. The concerns addressed through non-fiction books are a direct hit, from the author’s mind to a reader’s. It’s up to me to accept or reject the arguments, but what’s important is that a ground has been created for that argument to occur. Between 21 and 25, I must have read every book written on politics about or by a political leader, be it Bhagat Singh or Karl Marx, Benjamin Franklin or Hegel. When I started reading on spiritualism, I read from Buddha to Vivekananda.

Being a Bengali, I consider myself a son of Raja Rammohan Roy and Vidyasagar, of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Vivekananda, of Uday Shankar and Ray and Ghatak. I am carrying their legacy. What they say about themselves or their world is non-fiction. Those are an awareness of the actuality of life over the imaginations of life.

When I travelled a lot in trains, crime fiction was my genre. I would finish a book during one night’s journey. Those were unputdownable potboilers. They created a fascinating world of web and deceit. Later, during my non-fiction days biographies became an important genre. Biographies in fact became an addiction. A book on the greatest scientists of world, from Galilio to Jagdish Chandra Bose, was an eye-opener to a different world. I am a sports addict, and I love sports books without being fanatical or jingoistic about it. In sports, competition is a skill, not a nationality or identity. When I was in Kathmandu, class 6 or 7, I would walk 3 or 4 km to reach the British library because they had these lovely books on Wimbledon with great photographs of men in white. I got introduced to tennis through those books, without watching tennis. I started watching tennis after I read about it.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens kicked into my subconscious at an early age. I didn’t read Dickens as a revered figure of literature. I read him as a child. I matured with David at that age. Another book which gripped me as a young adult was D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. I was very intrigued, discovering the psychological dimensions of our reactions and responses. I was also very moved by Thomas Hardy. And of course The Mahabharata, which is a mover and shaker of my life with its inherent vastness, its endlessness, its newness. Another book is the autobiography of (Mohandas Karamchand) Gandhi. I was influenced by Gandhi while writing essays in school, but when I read My Experiments with Truth, I was exposed to the positivity with which he analysed the adverse conditions of his life.

Hobby – my father said, happiest is he whose hobby is his profession, and that changed my life.

Content – people tend to look for various things in life. They believe money can buy them all they want. I realised long back, content has to come from within. Nothing in the world can buy it.

Joy – which is my name, but also because joy is different from happiness. Happiness is more timeless, everlasting. Joy can happen in spurts. Little moments, a light breeze, drizzling rain, a splash of colours can give you immense joy. Joy is easier to derive.

Dignity – people say middle class is obsessed with dignity. Dignity is attached to one’s ego. It is the value which defines existence. Be it a rabbit or an urchin or me, everyone must be allowed to exist with respect.

Excellence – I don’t believe in competition. Whatever you do, you must do it with your best. Not because you have to prove anything, but because you are blessed with certain talent and aptitude. It’s only logical to do justice to that.


Photo Credit : Cover images from plays Zaheen Shah directed by Kalyani Hiwale and Maneesh Verma and Mahesh Dattani’s Dance Like a Man directed by Lillete Dubey


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