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Top Bollywood actors who started life on stage

It was Shakespeare who said — All the world’s a stage. And who better to know it than our actors. Theatre has been cited as a stepping stone to films since the beginning of cinema in India. Most of our top actors, be it Prithviraj Kapoor, Balraj Sahni, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah to Paresh Rawal, owe their beginnings to theatre. The discipline of performing in front of a live audience honed their craft to perfection. On the occasion of the World Theatre Day, we bring you a list of some of the best Bollywood actors who have come from a theatre background…

Prithviraj Kapoor


The history of both the Indian cinema and Indian theatre won’t be complete without the inclusion of this giant’s name. Prithviraj Kapoor was one of the founder members of India People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and also the founder of Prithvi Theatre, which has been the epicentre of Mumbai’s theatre activities. The tall and handsome Kapoor, who had a booming voice as well, was often the lead in his productions. One of his plays, Pathan, which was first staged in 1947, talked about Hindu Muslim unity at a time when Partition riots were ravaging the country. The play is said to have a 600 show run in the theatres. Deewar, which came out in 1945, was another of his famous plays. It forewarned the public about the horror of Partition. Kapoor also was said to have staged plays by Sanskrit playwright Kalidasa as well.


Paresh Rawal

Girish Karnad
He is one of our most famous playwrights, winning worldwide acclaim for the plays he has written. His first play, Yayati, influenced by stories of the Mahabharata, came out in 1963 when he was just 23. His next, Tuglaq, which came out in 1964, was about the idealist Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad bin Tughluq. It was a critique of Nehruvian politics and won him instant acclaim. It was first staged by the National School of Drama Repertory by Ebrahim Alkazi, with Manohar Singh playing the title role. Other plays like Hayavadana (1971), Naga-Mandala (1988) and more too won him plaudits. Karnad, who later had a flourishing career in both Kannada and Bollywood films won a Sangeet Natak Akademi award for his efforts in 1972.


Paresh Rawal

Utpal Dutt
It won’t be an exaggeration to say that Utpal Dutt single-handedly revolutionised the Bengali theatre world. He founded the Little Theatre Group in 1949. And enacted many English, Shakespearean and Brecht plays, before changing tracks towards political satire and Marxist ideology. He became famous as a Shakespearean actor when he brought to life Richard III. He was also a founding member of IPTA. Satyajit Ray was the president of the Brecht Society, founded by him in 1948. Then, as said earlier, his plays took on political hues and some, like Barricade, Dusswapner Nagari and Ebaar Rajar Pala even got banned by the government for their anti-establishment content. He was one of the foremost actor-managers of Indian theatre. Incidentally, Hindi film viewers know him more for his comedic acting than his serious works in films like Guddi, Gol Maal, Naram Garam, Rang Birangi and Shaukeen.


Paresh Rawal

Balraj Sahni
The handsome Punjabi originally hailing from Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan) was always interested in acting. His first wife Damayanti was a well-known theatre actress. He was associated with Tagore and taught briefly at Shantiniketan. Born with a dulcet voice, he even worked as an announcer at the BBC Hindi service in London. He started his career as an actor with Indian People’s Theatre Association and made a name for himself in plays like Zubeida and The Inspector General. Though he was known for his serious roles in Hindi films, this stalwart was a versatile actor when it came to the theatre and his comedic turn in the play Jadu Ki Kursi came for much praise.


Paresh Rawal

Amrish Puri
He will be forever known as Mogambo but before becoming Bollywood’s most hated villain, Amrish Puri was a much-respected name in Indian theatre. His claim to fame was Satyadev Dubey’s adaptation of Girish Karnad’s Yayati in Hindi. He worked with Ebrahim Alkazi and P.D. Shenoy as well and played the lead role in plays like Andha Yug by Dharamvir Bharati, Ashad Ka Ek Din by Mohan Rakesh, Vijay Tendulkar’s Chup, Court Chalu Hal, Badal Sircar’s Evam Indrajeet and Girish Karnad’s Hayavadan. He was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1979 for his contribution to theatre.


Paresh Rawal

Om Puri
The internationally acclaimed star started life as a theatre actor in Punjab during the late ’60s while in college. He was a part of the Punjab Kala Manch, headed by Harpal Tiwana. He was part of many plays like The Father by August Strindberg, Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, The Misunderstanding by Albert Camus. He joined the National School Of Drama, situated in New Delhi in 1970. In 1977, he formed a theatre group called Majma in Mumbai. The group was active till 1986. When Prithvi Theatre was inaugurated in 1978, his production of Govind Deshpande’s Udhvastha Dharamshala performed there in the evening. His most famous play as an actor was Ghashiram Kotwal, where he played the title role. Om left the theatre world when he became active in films, though he did make a comeback after 25 years.


Paresh Rawal

Naseeruddin Shah

Naseeruddin Shah is the founder and creative director of the Motley Theatre Group. For more than forty years, he has been actively involved either as an actor, director and producer for various plays like Waiting for Godot, The Lesson, Julius Caesar, Dear Liar, Katha Collage, A Walk in the Woods, Kambakht Bilkul Aurat and other celebrated plays from writers around the world. Unlike other film actors who seldom went back to the theatre once they crossed the film threshold, Naseer treats theatre to sort of charge his batteries, to rejuvenate and reinvent himself. 


Paresh Rawal

Amol Palekar
The actor, known to Hindi film audiences as a mild-mannered common man in films like Gol Maal, Chhoti Si Baat and Rajnigandha, started out doing experimental theatre with Satyadev Dubey in the late ’60sand later formed his own group, Aniket. His minimalistic approach to such plays like Chup! Court Chalu Hai, Hayavadana and Adhe Adhure won him a lot of fame. Sadly, he left the theatre world after becoming popular in films. Though he did make a return last year to the theatre world with Kusur, an adaptation of the Danish film Den Skyldige.


Paresh Rawal

Anupam Kher
The actor, who has been a chairperson of NSD in the past, was rejected by the academy during his first attempt at joining it. But passed with flying colours during his second try and later graduated with a gold medal. After winning critical acclaim as a theatre actor, he graduated to films and never looked back after Saaransh (1984). He has, however, returned to the theatre with two plays, the autobiographical Kucch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai and Mera Woh Matlab Nahi Tha.


Paresh Rawal

Paresh Rawal
He started doing plays while studying at the Narsee Monjee College in the ’70s. The successful Gujarati play, Khelaiya, brought him into the limelight. Maharathi and Thokaar too were successful. After making a name in films, he did venture back to theatre again tasting success with plays like Dear Father. His play Kishan V/S Kanhaiya, which started in 2011, is hugely popular till today and has been performed all over the world.


Paresh Rawal