SUNIL SHANKAR - Staring hard in the face of challenges

Sunil Shankar needs no introduction in the world of theatre; he is a talented actor, an even better director, as some might say, and has an enigmatic personality to go with eveything. On a cool evening, the multitalented artiste tells MAG what’s on his mind. Excerpts:

"Lets start from when I was born,” Sunil opens our conversation, hinting that he has an interesting anecdote waiting for me. “I had a deformity in my feet, their shape wasn’t right. After three days, the doctors plastered my feet for around three months. That managed to control the physical deformity but because the problem itself, I developed other conditions.” He describes himself as a “very thin and a below average kid overall” who was “extremely insecure from the start about the way I looked.” These initial obstacles made it more difficult for him to pursue interests like cricket or dreams like entisting in the army. Rejection, insecurity and disappointment had become a huge inevitable part of Sunil’s life. But like every cloud, his life’s silver lining wasn’t too far away.

After completing a bachelor’s degree in commerce and then an MBA in management, this Arien got a job at a bank. “I was earning good, even bought a car, and life seemed settled. The survival issues that I used to be worried about weren’t there anymore. Through the MBA programme, giving presentations and talking to different people, I had even developed a better personality and confidence.” But there always seemed to be something missing from his life. “I started asking myself different questions – do I really want to do this for the rest of my life? Am I enjoying this? Am I born to do this? – I would hear myself saying a loud and clear ‘no’ everytime,” he shares that a job that simply offered financial stability was not enough for him. It was then, one night while visiting a friend, that he seemed to reach an epiphany,

“I was visiting a friend where he was studying. That night the building was lit up beautifully. I asked him what this place is and he told me that it was NAPA where Zia Mohyeddin sahab, Talat Hussain sahab and Rahat Kazmi sahab teach acting,” Sunil reveals his first experience of being at the National Academy of Performing Arts, Karachi, and continues, “At first I was intrigued, thinking ‘who would want to learn acting’. But I have always wanted to be the best at what I do, so I thought may be in the company of such legends I could excel.” Though disappointment, albeit initial, seemed to follow him here, as well. His first audition to Zia sahab, Dr Anwar Sajjad and Saba Saeed brought him rejection. “I pleaded them to let me in but they asked me to come back next year. That was a very disappointing and sad time in my life; I thought I am good for nothing.” By this time Sunil had become immune to such negativity and didn’t let the refusal dim the fire that had already ignited in him. To prepare for his next auditions, he would go to a small institute near Tariq Road (Karachi) “where Akbar Subhani sahab and a few other would teach acting”, a place has since closed down. Needless to say, Sunil cleared his auditions the following year in front of an even bigger panel and got enrolled in the academy in a diploma course for acting.

The 38-year-old’s purpose in life came along with its own set of difficulties. “I looked for alternative jobs thereafter. I stepped down and took up phone banking at night shift near the academy and took classes during the day. I barely got a couple of hours of sleep in between, so I spent the diplomas years under a lot of stress, but agar aap ki niyat saaf ho tou raastay khultay jatay hain,” he claims happily. Ever since his graduation, the actor-turned-director has made quite an impressive resume. He has acted in and directed the critically acclaimed Equus, participated in International Theatre Festival in New Delhi, India, and been a part of plays like Mantorama, Where’s the Apple, Joshinder?, The Goat or, Who’s Sylvia, Court Martial, Qusurwaar, and Conver-sation-s 2016 - a love letter to Karachi, as actor and director. He has also worked with Australia-based actor and choreographer Joshinder Chaggar, and collaborated with British director, Gregory Thompson, in the Urdu adaptation of Shakespear’s Winter’s Tale. Alongside, Sunil has been featured in a lead role by UK-based director Ahmed Alluaddin Jamal in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, which saw a successful run in the UK and is still being shown in France.

Deeming Chaggar a good judge of the Pakistani sentiments, Sunil expresses that he always enjoys working with her. For Thompson, however, he has a different kind of respect. “Gregory brought to the table some western influences with him. He taught me what it means to be a director and create a play. You can always get inspired and copy paste a play in a different setting, with a different cast. But with him, it is about evolving and being natural. We would rehearse, and the mistakes we made at that time would become part of our performance and character later on,” he explains. I inquire about what his methodology as a director entails. “I think it’s in my blood to aggressively pursue whatever people discourage me from. I [also] love to explore and experiment,” he is quick to respond. “What I do is, I spend the first week or two trying to get to know the person. When we reach the point of doing excercises, I try to hit at the person’s vulnerability to get a reaction out of them,” Sunil says with a develish smirk, giving a deeper insight into his process. But a good director, according to him, is one who “is able to make a team because a play is a collaboration”, and one who gives “importance to everyone and everything they say.”

It is natural to wonder which does he enjoy most – acting, directing, or directing himself on stage? “When you are acting, you want to deliver according to the director’s vision. When you are directing, you have to convey your vision to the actors. When I am doing both, I can’t see myself acting and that makes it difficult for me to decide whether I am doing things right. Everything presents a different challenge and I love doing them all,” he elaborates, saying he couldn’t possibly choose one job over the other. But same might not be the case with choosing his favourite projects. Even though he cosiders them all his children, Stumped, The Goat or, Who’s Sylvia, Chup (written by fellow thespian Fawad Khan), Sarmad Sehbai’s Dark Room, and Zia sahab’s Othello are amongs his most reverred works.

Around the close of our relaxed chat in the garden of the academy, I ask Sunil what his 10-year plan is. That he could ever stop doing theatre, even if for a little while, sounds absurd to him. But there are other opportunities that he is looking forward to, like acting in and directing his own film and directing advertisements. He also has high hopes for working on television. “I want to change the way it [TV] treats things and bring a more cinematic approach to it,” the young man full of talent and passions lets on, and concludes, “I keep getting approached from foreign collaborators, as well, so if I accept one of those offers, you never know where I might go.” •

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COMMENTS

    Rashif commented a week ago

    I know Sunil from the time we played at the cricket club, he is so very ambitious and yes he is very right that he doesn't take no in what he do. He goes back to the basics and do things right. I am delighted that an ordinary person has done much more by discovering great talent of acting and direct

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