Padmavati Rao is on a roll right now. Even as her acclaimed Kitchen Poems show is readying for repeat renditions, she garnered a fair amount of both interest and attention as the luminously tragic Nancy Biswas, wife to John Biswas in the Hindi movie TE3N. Call it a newbie`s luck or whatever, what kicked the whole debate up by quite a few notches was the fact that the role of John Biswas was essayed by none other than Amitabh Bachchan.
Kitchen Poems floated into her life one afternoon in Bombay, says Padmavati on a reminiscent note. A friend read out a poem to her and she was instantly hooked; that led to her meeting the celebrated nonagenarian novelist, poet and playwright Dhiruben Patel and embarking on a new project, to translate the evocative poems into Hindi. This was something Rao was comfortable with, because she had earlier translated Girish Karnad’s plays and Kiran Nagarkar’s `Cuckold` from Kannada and English into Hindi.
She worked on the poems for a year, a year in which it grew on her, then decided this cluster of poems that celebrated, commiserated and sympathised with women had to be performed on stage. Rao emphasises that the book had been around for ten years after publication but nobody had picked it up. She did. So this was how it was meant to be.
Doing a solo show presents its own unique challenges. The director Naushil Mehta, lives in Mumbai and Rao resides in Bengaluru; they met for rehearsal sessions once in Mumbai and twice in Bengaluru before the show opened. Rao goes onstage and performs the poems, in their original English, knowing fully well that there is no one to bail her out if she happens to flounder.
But far from floundering, the show is gaining critical acclaim as well as pulling the audiences in. Juxtaposing a woman`s growth trajectory in her patch of turf - the kitchen - the poems touch a chord in everyone who watches the performance.
Rao, in the recent past, has been very involved in theatre, theatre workshops, films for children, storytelling and puppetry, as also making films for NGOs. Her last theatre acting assignments include the role of Zlata in Necessary Targets written by Eve Ensler, and Tasneem in Chidiyon Ka Pinjra written and directed by Ramneek Singh. She directed a film called Under One Sky for the non-profit organisation Akshaya Patra. Rao`s most recent project was directing a one- minute film on finding one’s own joie de vivre despite the most daunting constraints.
For Te3n, the filmmakers were looking for a theatre actor to play Nancy and word of Rao`s performance in Kitchen Poems had already spread. Says Rao, “Those who kept me alive in their memory for 30 years after Shankar Nag’s Geeta (Kannada) in which I played the lead, were most happy with my role in TE3N.”
Which of course begs the question, how was it to act as Amitabh`s onscreen wife? Rao flashes a radiant smile and says it was a privilege to have been chosen to share the same frame as `Bachchan Sahab.` She has always respected his work ethic, so playing the wife he is so caring about and looks after so well in the movie, made it even more worthwhile.
In fact, the whole experience was unbelievable at first, says Rao. The day she first set foot on the sets, it was Vidya Balan who made her feel welcome and put her at ease. I owe her much for that, says Rao, averring that it made all the difference. But even `Bachchan Sahab` was ever so courteous. Rao recounts how she was taken aback each time Big B rose to offer her a seat when she walked on to the set every morning; this gesture at a time when such courtesy has all but vanished from society. Between shots, he wheeled her around (the character Nancy is in a wheelchair all through the film) and when Rao said she`d walk, he told her, “It’s alright , such things don’t happen often.” To which Rao muttered ‘true’ under her breath… who gets to be wheeled around by the Big B!
What`s up next? The Kitchen Poems people are looking for sponsors so they can take the show around the country and then, the world. There`s a book of love poems and songs called Of Love and Longing /Kuch Pyar Kuch Tadap written by her, and slated for publication soon. A performance of these poems and songs was performed late this summer, and followed in quick succession by more shows of Kitchen Poems in Bengaluru and elsewhere.
Rao has been offered a role in the next Sanjay Leela Bhansali production and says she is in a very happy place now. “So, onto the next dream already. Thank heavens dreams do come true!”