He had it all- an economics honours degree from India’s foremost institution, St. Stephen’s college, an M.Phil from Oxford University and a cushy job with an economics consultancy firm in the U.K. But, the acting bug had struck him, and in his heart, he knew he had to give it his best shot. A child who had always enjoyed the creative field, the performing arts is Saattvic’s first love. A self-confessed workaholic, he has his hand on many projects and has carved his own success in the cutthroat Mumbai theatre industry.
“I work in films and theatre in Mumbai. I make most of my money from conceptualizing, producing and directing commercial videos for startups. I perform in plays, and I have my own Theatre Company. I write, produce, and direct plays and short films as well. I used to be a full-time economist, so that took a back seat when I started acting. I’m also an amateur musician!”
In fact, at the time of this interview, he was busy working on one of his major roles – scriptwriter.
“I have been spending a lot of time in Banaras writing a feature script. Besides that, I have a couple of plays to do in Bombay as well as some projects to earn my bread. This field is about balance- some projects you pick up for the money, and some are ones you do despite there being no money because you really want to do them.”
For Saattvic, it’s always been about finding a balance, which is why he gave in to people urging him to take up economics honours in St. Stephens (his heart was set on geography) for the brand value, yet using that time to establish himself in theatre, starring in many plays while also taking on a managing role of St. Stephen’s College Dramatic Society- the Shakespeare Society. Between acting, economics, music and debate (whew) he found time to accept the Centenary Award – an honor given to the most outstanding student in a batch.
He recalls his attempts to break stereotypes in the college about Hindi plays and celebrating Indian authors.
“I’ve worked very hard since then, and even in college, to break this whole English vs. Hindi divide. I recall trying to make sure that the Hindi dramatics society and our plays didn’t overlap. Our society had an obsession not only with English vs. Hindi but also with English plays we performed were not from Indian culture. There was mandated Shakespeare play every year.”
“I tried to fight that but the establishment was what it was and kids got swept up by that. I wanted to do a play by Mahesh Dattani or Girish Karnad; they wanted Agatha Christie or Tom Stoppard. I always wondered how we can pretend to be them; you have to know what it feels like to grow up in the culture. In my third year, I put forth the play Tughlaq twice and was rejected twice. I did manage to make the society more inclusive, however, and broke barriers between production and creative, as I was an actor who ran the publicity department.”
After Stephen’s, he took a year off to explore the theatre circuit in Delhi and further hone his skills. In that time, he applied to Oxford on a lark, not really expecting to get in for an M.Phil in Economics, as usually, UK universities do not accept students for a Master’s in Economic unless they’ve obtained their honors degree in the UK as well. But he did get in, so he jumped at the chance to have a plan B in case acting didn’t work out.
“Post-college, I started work at an Economic Consultant Firm in the UK but my plan was always to come back to India and act. Once back I e-mailed my contacts looking for leads in theatre. I got only one response from Alyquee Padamsee’s son to act in his play. The role wasn’t the greatest in terms of size or substance, but it was a start.”
“However, I soon realized that the acting work that was on offer was not satisfying enough and the sort that was satisfying was so hard to get because your ability to get the work has nothing to do with your ability to do the work because there are so many actors wanting those few, coveted roles that even if one percent of the population has dodgy morals there’s an entire line of people waiting to sleep with producers and directors to get the role.”
“Because of this, I started creating my own work. I figured it’s easier for me, as a creative person, to dream up projects and write a role for myself, than to take another route. That’s when I started writing and directing plays.”
“Coming from the UK after living there for a few years, the shift in culture was terrible. I was very used to the Western working style where you work when you work and when you are at home you are free. There you treat everyone with respect, you don’t scream and shout and it is very professional. Acting roles can be attained through open auditions which are very rare in India where the industry is very incestuous and it’s more about who you know. “
After realizing it was not in his nature to network or to sacrifice his morals for work, Saattvic started writing, directing, producing and acting in his own plays. This helped make him an all round performing arts talent.
“Professionally I have written, produced, and directed 3 full length plays. On the side, I’ve written a host of stuff for NGO’s and schools, and directed them to them. The first play I directed was Ten Years with Guru Dutt, based on a book that an acquaintance of my mother called Satya Saran had written about the relationship between Guru Dutt and his closest writer, Abrar Alvi.”
“In 2014, I wrote and produced a play called The Pad. This was completely original work about two couples who inhabit the same flat in Bandra, six months separated.”
“It was very well received and we had a good run. In 2015 I made a play called Staged Economics because of my past as an economist. It was a collection of 3 shorts that were inquiries into some of the major issues the world faced at the time.”
“One was the immigrant and refugee crisis, one was a piece about pollution, and the last one was about globalization and its effects on local stability in terms of hunger and famine. After that, I lost interest in the theater per se because it is a very time-intensive medium and a drain on monetary resources.”
This is what led to his shift into television, and into filmmaking.
“As a maker of work I’m focusing much more on film. At some point, you need to make a choice, and I’ve made the choice to explore film because that’s where the future is in India. In2015-16 I started making short films; one film of mine went viral. Then I made a film last year called Alvida, and it’s got over 1.2 million views on YouTube. “
With his effort, and by his skills, he managed to get what should have been his big break in an Ashutosh Gowariker TV show, Everest.
“I auditioned for a TV show- Ashutosh Gowariker’s Everest and got a role. However, what followed was disorganized shooting schedules and a lack of structure. I had to cancel a play and back out of a few as the shooting didn’t stick to a schedule, it went on for an extra month.”
“12 hour days would often become 16 hour days and the set was full of subtle manipulations. Thereafter, I was known as difficult to work with as I left the shooting early to fulfill prior commitments.”
This experience led to him deciding to write his own film, as well as encouraged him to be open about his sexuality.
“The hope is once my script gets finished someone likes it enough to pick it up and produce it so I’m writing the first draft. I expect at least a couple of months before I have a final draft that I can send out to a few people and then fingers crossed to see where that leads.”
“The film will get made but I don’t have many high hopes that it will get made soon, but if I have to save for ten years it will get made, that is for sure. As for my sexuality, I’ve known since puberty that I was attracted to other men and came out publicly in college.”
“Coming to Mumbai, I had to keep it a secret as it would affect the roles I would be offered, but eventually, I had to stay true to myself and come out. It has never been easy, but I don’t regret it.”
Alongside, he plans to go back into economics, as he feels that it is this skill that gives him the power to frame policies that actually impact people’s lives. A message to aspiring actors? He shares,
“Develop a thick skin and be ready for the harsh realities. But do not not give it a shot if you feel you belong to this industry!”
P.S.- Saattvic doesn’t have a last name.
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