Thought Box

A Portrait in words and pictures: Seema Kapoor

A Portrait in words and pictures: Seema Kapoor

by Aparajita Krishna January 19 2021, 8:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 23 mins, 38 secs

Isolation amidst the tranquillity of the scenic environs of Jhalawar in Rajasthan  made Seema Kapoor address this article, writes Aparajita Krishna

She also sent me her most updated photos. Our guftagu was over email and mobile. She has a very fine carriage and aesthetic sense as can be seen on her person and the environs around her. She is a person of nature, most at home amidst trees, orchards, farms, animals, birds - be it at her native place or at Mumbai.

On 6th January 2020 was Om Puri’s death anniversary. Seema Kapoor, his first wife and forever friend distributed blankets and stuff to the poor in a village called Barodiya in Rajasthan.

Seema’s familial legacy of company-theatre milieu, association with artistes of highest calibre, the adventures of creative and nomadic life deserve a book. I am in this article summarising a flavour of an artistic life and anecdotes that are fascinating.

She was born into a  company-theatre milieu. Her father Shri Madanlal Kapoor had a touring company - Parsi theatre. ‘Bhopal Theatre’, which as the article will unfold gave a platform to very imminent names of the future. This Parsi Theatre Company toured the whole of Madhya Pradesh and many parts of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Goa, Daman and Diu. This gave Seema an incredibly adventurous and creative childhood of an itinerant. Her elder brothers Ranjit Kapoor and Annu Kapoor are creative artistes who are very recognised for their work in theatre, television and films. She has another brother too associated with the arts, Nikhil Kapoor.

At the age of sixty, Seema carries in her bearing and carriage a mix of very settled maturity, clarity and also a spark of humour that surfaces quietly and unobtrusively. She is a woman of deep emotions and deep silences. She is spiritual not in a mumbo-jumbo way, but philosophically.

We have become friends over the years. The common touch or connect was Om Puri. Subsequently it became a friendship independent of him too. In Om’s death we both lost our dearest friend. While awaiting a formal re-uniting in marriage with his first wife, a standing joke between Om and Seema was that in their later years she with her articulation will carry out spiritual discourses and he would get the crowd.

She is very educated, erudite with a fine command over Hindi and Urdu languages. For all her quietude she has a sparkling humour that finds its way even amidst sobriety. She has her chosen friends in the field of theatre, film and television industry apart from colleagues.  

We get talking.

Seema, having entered 2021, how does the future appear? Personally as well as in terms of work and as a society. You are 60 years young, healthy and very disciplined. But Corona (COVID-19) is a living reality.

Personally speaking, to me each day is a new year, a new day. As one’s understanding of life increased so did the value of each moment. I am grateful to this existence that has till now been making me view each beautiful morning.  As for the future now I do not make any plans for it. It is as if each night is my last night. That is precisely the reason why each dawn, each morning is a beautiful new beginning.

As for work I am in the midst of planning for my next film which will begin its shooting in September 2021. Some projects for the OTT platforms are also underway. Coronavirus has taught us, in short, the value of minimalist lifestyle, minimalism. Less contact, less expenditure, and economical conversations.

I am one of the fortunate ones who has been witness to the changing face of society. Ours has been, in a manner of speaking, a journey through the times of the telephone, television, pager, mobile, from choolah/fireplace to stove, to cooking-gas. Correspondingly, society is continuously changing. One is witnessing and understanding the emerging new thoughts, new political ideologies, equations, a whole new change in world politics. One hopes that people, who as compared to the earlier times, are in the present more aware and will help improve upon social, political, economic changes. I believe in the change and awareness of the individual. Only when the individual changes will society as a collective change.

Seema Kapoor was born in Bhopal in the state of Madhya Pradesh, but spent a large part of her life in Bhawani Mandi, Jhalawar in Rajasthan. She studied at Aligarh Muslim University and lived in Delhi before settling down  at Mumbai. 

Tell us about your wonderful familial legacy.

My father did his college from the prestigious DAV College of Lahore. In 2014 Puri Saheb (Om Puri) and I visited Lahore. Puri Saheb too wanted to visit Babuji’s college. But I chose to visit it alone, in my own company. I wanted to relive the memories of my father’s association with those brick-walls, which even ninety years later stood firm as before. Those walls are witness to my father’s youth. In the lanes and by-lanes of Lahore I recalled my father. Puri Saheb respected my sentiments and gave me my privacy to emotionally recall my father in the midst of his bygone days and environs. I am not one who sheds tears amidst people, it’s my personal communication with myself.

My paternal grandfather was colonel in the army. My paternal side have been in the army at respectable posts. During my father’s times, during my own childhood years as well, in North India theatre/plays as a profession was not given due respect. But my father was a revolutionary of his own kind. After getting his training as a veterinary doctor in Lahore he ran away from home to establish his Parsi Theatre Company. At that time there would be just about two to four big theatre companies. We had a group of 100-150 people. We would travel around in our trucks with our tents.

It was our theatre company that gave a space and birth to artistes like Master Mumtaz Ali (Actor Mehmood’s father), Master Puttan, Leela Mishra, Shakeela Bano Bhopali. Our company would perform plays of Agha Hasan Kashmiri, Narayan Prasad Betab, Radhe Shyam Kathavachak and many other writers. With time most of the Parsi Natak Companies closed down but ours existed till about 1970. It gave a platform and shelter to many artistes of the shut-down theatre companies. Those artistes had no other means of livelihood. My father gave solidarity and refuge to art and the artistes. That is why my father was in a way cast away by his family. It was like ‘desh-nikala’. He was branded as a natak-company-man. By the time Annu Bhaiya (Annu Kapoor) and Ranjit Bhaiya (Ranjit Kapoor) earned names and accolades, our society and its point of view, opinions had undergone a sea-change. Theatre, plays had by now earned respectable place and space. And we started to get the respect for which our Baoji and mother were the rightful claimants.

Seema’s mother, Kamal, was a poetess, a classical singer and Urdu teacher. Her pen-name was Shabana. She had shared the dais with poets like Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Ali Sardaar Jafari, Kaif Bhopali. She was a double MA and very well versed in Arabic and Urdu. She got married at a very young age. From a Bengali background she now entered a Punjabi set-up. She gave the children, sons Ranjit Kapoor, Annu Kapoor, Nikhil Kapoor and daughter Seema Kapoor a cultured upbringing. For no reason known to them their professional journeys brought to them social ostracism.

Seema recalls, “When I was in class 10, during the holidays I visited my elder brother Ranjit Kapoor at Delhi. After having graduated from the NSD he had joined the repertory. He would be busy the whole day and I would be deposited at Raghuveer Bhai’s (Raghuveer Yadav). It was his duty to look after me. Raghuveer Yadav had joined our family’s theatre company in 1966 when we were camped at Harpalpur in Madhya Pradesh. I was then 6 years old. Raghuveer Bhai had, after completing his class 10, run away from home at Jabalpur and come to seek work with our theatre company. I, alongwith Ranjit Bhai, Annu Bhai, my younger brother Nikhil had come visiting our company during school holidays. My father made my mother the care-taker of Raghuveer Bhai as also to test and interview him for admission in the group. I still recall that for the audition Raghiveer Bhai had rendered a song. We kids were with full curiosity hearing him sing. Raghuveer Bhai had sung Mukesh’s song from Milan - 'Mubarak ho tumko samaan ye suhana, main khus hoon….’ The rendition of word khush as khus was a problem with Babuji. He remarked that the voice was fine but talafuss, pronunciation was wrong. My mother made Baoji understand that gradually this would get rectified. And that is precisely what happened. With my mother’s help, and from other company members; also Raghuveer Bhaiya’s own initiative and hard work, he started to claim main roles in our plays and he earned laurels from the veterans in our team. That is how Raghuveer Bhaiya became a very important part of our family.

My mother would tell people that her children are Ranjit, Raghuveer, Annu, Seema and Noni. Later when Ranjit Bhai joined the NSD, it was to his credit that Annu Bhai and Raghuveer Bhai too followed suit. Whenever I would visit Delhi I would spend a day with Raghuveer Bhai. It was around this time that Habib Tanveer Saheb, who we would call Habib Saheb, was doing the rehearsals of his play ‘Uttar Ram Charitra’. Raghu Bhai would daily take me over to Habib Saheb’s place at Trimurti. I would watch the rehearsals with curiosity and fascination. Neelima Azim was performing the role of Aatreyi. One day it so happened that Neelima did not come for the rehearsals. Habib Saheb asked me to read the role as proxy. He was impressed by my pronunciation and I performed that role at Ujjain’s Kalidas Samaroh. That was also being watched from the wings by Mr Alkazi and my brother Ranjit Kapoor. As soon as I finished my part on the stage and entered the wings, Alkazi Saheb, who knew of me being Ranjit Kapoor’s younger sister, there itself asked me to join the NSD, even without an interview. Ranjit Bhai pointed out that I was then just in class 10. Another important factor was that theatre and Natak Companies were not respected disciplines. My mother turned down the offer of my joining the NSD.

On Facebook there is the link – Rangsamvaad-mera-manch - 5th May 2020, that carries Seema’s video talk-online. It informs, “Today people from all class of society want their children to be artistes. In my childhood I would sing. We would be living in a small place, Bhawani Mandi. My school friends would not visit my home. Nor was I encouraged to visit their homes. Till class  5th, 6th and 7th, I could not fathom why they did not like me. Naseem was my classmate. Our school was 7 kms away and we would walk through the pagdandi. On both sides would be fields or forests. Then Naseem told me that, “You people are singers, dancers, you have a natak-company. Our parents feel you’ll are not nice people.” In a small place art was considered a kalank. Today the whole outlook of society has changed in this regard. Art is a matter of pride. At that time my mother had instructed me not to sing even in school. I will get stamped as a singer-dancer. But I must also share some valuable aspects of those times. We 3 girls of 12-13-14 years would everyday walk across lonely roads and feel so safe. Today it would seem unimaginable. No phone, mobile. We would leave home in the morning and return in the evening. Safety was in-built. There was a special bonding between teacher-student. My mother was a very strict disciplinarian. I recall film Aan Milo Sajna (1970), was released. Rajesh Khanna was our hero. Dream Man! There was a song in this film - ‘Yahan wahan saare jahaan mein tera raaj hai, jawani o diwani tu zindabad.’ We were not allowed to utter some words. Jawani (youth) was one such. In class 6th or 7th I was singing this song and dancing to it with my younger brother. Annu Kapoor who is my elder brother by three years, heard me. He too was very young then. He went and complained to my mother ‘Guddo, jawani ka gaana gaa rahi hai.’ Mummy came and gave me a slap. I assured her that this is not that jawaani. There came another slap. ‘Oh so you know of all the jawanis? You will bring disrepute to us?’ I wanted to grow up fast. Mummy would at a drop of a hat talk of ‘Naak katwaogi?’ Our childhood got very prolonged. We remained kids for years. We took time to become grown-ups. Not that we were not intelligent. One was good at studies. But childhood and curiosity remained for long.”

Your theatre company milieu, artistic wanderings sound so intriguing and fascinating to someone like me in the now. Must also have been challenging.

We stayed in small villages, then at Bhawani Mandi, Jhalawar, Shivpuri. For studies we lived at Bhawani Mandi. I also studied at Jabalpur. I would give tuitions to the children while myself learning music. Each of us in the family was involved in our own struggle. In the North, especially, it was not considered respectable for girls to be doing theatre. In my childhood none of my girlfriends were allowed to visit me at home. We were socially ostracised. My brothers Ranjit Bhaiya and Annu Bhaiya only later took up theatre. My mother would not perform in theatre. She was sensitive to the social reactions. Ranjit Bahiya, who was studying, married young and had his own family. Annu Bhaiya was still studying. Sabhi apne jugar mein lage. Poor Mummy, in some way or another, kept working. My father’s company theatre had gone into deep loss after the advent and spread of cinema.

In 1974-75 when the Bees Sutri Karyakram (Twenty Point Programme) came into force and our theatre company shut down completely, Baoji was in deep debt, nor was my mother in a job. We were studying. Somehow we would make two ends meet. It was at this point in time that I wrote a letter to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It was in secrecy. I tore out a page from my mother’s register in which she would write down her poems, sher and ghazals. With a red ink pen I wrote a long letter. I voiced my resentment at the status of creative, talented people. My so well educated mother has no job. The light of your Bees Sutri Programme is spreading everywhere but at our place. Literally too, our electricity had been cut. We would study in the chimney-light. I wrote many points in the letter and posted it to ‘Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Capital Delhi’. After posting I was beset with my own worry that what if Indira Gandhi sends the police to track me? I had in my anger written a lot of complaints. Anyway, I then forgot about the letter. Time passed. When I was at Delhi doing Habib Saheb’s play I received, at NSD address, my mother’s postcard that a reply has come to Seema from Indira Gandhi. Annu Bhaiya asked me if I had written a letter to her? Trust me I have never been as scared in life as I was then. I was imagining police and handcuffs all around me. Consequently, one learnt that my letter travelled from the PMO to Jaipur to Jhalawar and the admininstration was shaken up and because of that letter, my mother got a government job as an Urdu teacher. It was a miracle. In an India of 1975 with about 62 crore population, a 15 year old kasbai Indian girl’s letter in Hindi written on a register page with red-ink, broken down language and script had earned a reply from the PM of India and a job was granted. It was nothing short of a miracle. In my life there have been many such miracles.

Amidst great financial challenges Seema Kapoor would go on to do her graduation in Hindi honours at the Aligarh Muslim University.

You have worked with  Dadi Pudumjee in his The Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust. He is India’s most recognised and internationally feted puppeteer. It seems such an interesting chapter in your life.

I was in my final year at Aligarh Muslim University. I got wondering now what to do in the future? My mother had got a job but a government job had a fixed, modest salary, Rs 455/-. At Delhi’s College Lane in a railway quarter I rented E-63, a room with an aangan, at Rs 120/- as monthly rent. Annu Bhai would send me Rs 600/- monthly from Bombay. I felt burdened because he too was then struggling. One day Subhash Bhai who was related to my sister-in-law approached me asking if I would do Puppet theatre. I wondered what this would be like but the offer of Rs 550/- per month was tempting.

I joined the group at Sri Ram Centre for Art & Culture. I met Dadi Padamjee there. He was our director. That is how puppet theatre became a part of my life and we travelled all over the world to participate in festivals.  Dadi and I became friends. We toured to perform and represent India in reputed puppet festivals held in countries like U.S.S.R, Germany, Japan, Bulgaria, Canada etc. I worked in the company of the masters of international repute in the puppet world like Dadi Padamji, Gunter Wetzel (SWE), Sergey Vladimirovich Obraztsov (Soviet Puppeteer). I stayed with Puppet Repertory till 1987. I specialized in Rajasthani Puppet Theatre.

In the meantime during Dadi’s one month stay at Australia, Vinod Dua directed a play - Neena Aur Main. Neena was a rat/chuhiya. I enacted that. I most enjoyed playing Kaushalya and Surpanakha in the Ramayan, As Surpnakha I had to wear half-mask and do movements. Astad Deboo taught me some movements of Kathakali for this. He also became a friend. I also worked under Sh Rajendra Nath,

You have also acted in plays.

Under Ranjit Bhai’s  direction I acted in the play ‘Ek Ghoda Chhe Sawaar’. The shows were held in Calcutta, Mawana and Delhi. I did Molier’s play adaptation ‘Afsarji’ and with Rajendra Nath, I did Mohan Rakesh’s ‘Ashadh Ka Ek Din’.

Then began your foray into television and films and documentaries.

In Puppet Theatre it was very difficult to make ends meet. So I submitted a story to Doordarshan and with a great struggle made a serial Qile Ka Rahasya in 1986. All those acting in it were back then struggling: Annu Bhai, Ranjit Bhai, Virendra Saxena, Ravi Jhankal. It was Piyush Mishra’s first work on TV. That is how the works followed.

Seema’s work resume as a television and film writer, and director, include works like screenplay and dialogues for film Abhay. The film won the National Award in 1994-95 for the ‘Best Children’s Film.’ She wrote Kahani Qismat Ki directed by Farokh Siddiqui. She has written and directed Mr Kabaadi. She wrote and directed Haat: The Weekly Bazaar, a feature film in 2009. It received the Best Director Award at the Third Eye Asian Film Festival.

She went on to make more serials for DD and satellite channels; Zindaginama, Rishte, Awaaz Dil Se Dil Tak, Babuji Ka Circus, Salakhein, Mera Gaon Mera Desh, Eklavya, Pal Chinn were among them.  

Her documentaries include, Urdu Shaiyari - Ek Safarnama (2002-3), Song Of The Soil (2006-2007), Nautanki & Parsi Theatre - A Journey (2006-2007), Mahanadi Ke Kinare (2008-2009), Orchha - Ek Antar Yatra (2012-13), Samriddhi Ki Disha Mein (2010-11).

Mr. Kabaadi, a satirical film is directed by you. You had canned all the scenes with Om Puri, but his running track as an on-camera narrator and some dubbing was left incomplete. His death necessitated improvised replacement and alteration, so actor-director and close associate Satish Kaushik stepped in to give his voice as a narrator and also complete the dubbing for Om Puri’s unfinished portions. The music release was held in Mumbai on September 6, 2017 and the premier on Friday, September 8, 2017. It was produced under the banner of Anup Jalota Films, helmed by the noted veteran singer Anup Jalota and in association with Om Chhangani Films, Sadhna TV and others. A social satire on classist society, it had Om Puri play the character of Channu Khan, an ittar and surma seller on the streets of Lucknow - he is also a narrator in the film. It also had Om Puri lip-sync to a qawaali song. The film had an impressive cast that included Annu Kapoor, Sarika, Vinay Pathak and Bijendra Kala. Watching the film post his death, I found Om look tragically bloated and unhealthy and trying hard to address his part with great gusto and spirit. As Channu Khan, an ittar and surma seller, Om who was in life getting closer to his death, had even at this fag end of his life sunk his teeth in the role.

It was a tuff task to edit Mr. Kabbadi. Puri Saheb would taunt me that I had not given him a role in Haat. He insisted being part of Mr Kabbadi. I had to create the role of the sutradhar for him. During the shoot he would be upto pranks. Once he insisited I too must partake on-camera, so I had to wear a ghoonghat and make an entry. He then announced on the mike that he and I will be going to France for a month after the release of the film. But what followed was most unfortunate…

Om and your relationship was out of the ordinary. Friendship, marriage,  divorce, re-union, friendship, on the verge of re-marriage and then Om’s tragic death.

My and Puri Saheb’s relationship started during his struggling days. I was studying in Aligarh in first year college. My family was against the relationship. Firstly because he was ten years older to me and there was no stability of income at his end too. My father liked Puri Shaeb because he was a Punjabi. And Puri Saheb’s father, Babuji, gave me a lot of love. Puri Saheb and I became very good friends. I have laughed the most in his company and he too would say that he has had maximum and loudest bursts of laughter in my company. We would laugh at small, small incidents too. He walked out of my life for another woman and within six months he came back to me to apologize.

When he re-entered my life it was with a baggage of illness and troubles. He wanted to re-start his life with me. But he was not allowed to live.  He kept getting emotionally blackmailed. Today he is present in his absence. Noor Jehan’s ghazal he had WhatsAppd me a few hours before his death. It is with me.  It has become the philosophy of my life. “जो ना मिल सका  वही बेवफ़ा, ये बड़े अजीब सी बात है, जो चला गया मुझे छोड़, कर वही आज तक मेरे साथ है.”  (Jo na mil saka wohi bewafaa, ye badi ajeeb si baat hai, jo chala gaya mujhe chorh kar wohi aaj tak mere saath hai///One who remained unattainable was the betrayer. It is indeed a strange thing that the one who left me and went away is the one who stays with me till today.”      

Update one about your latest work in progress.

Am preparing a film project - ‘Sitti Pitti Ghum’.

Ranjit Kapoor, Annu Kapoor are not just very feted and recognized artistes, but very talented ones. As is your niece Grusha Kapoor. What are their distinctive qualities?

Annu Bhai as everyone knows is a very fine artiste. In my estimation he is a complete solah kala kalakar. A complete artiste. Watch him in Prakash Jha’s film, Damul, as a very serious character, or in Ketan Menta’s Sardar as Gandhi, or as a doctor in Vicky Donor… the range! There was complete possibility for an actor to vulgarise that role in Vicky Donor. But Annu Bhai’s training in theatre and his own understanding of how much spice to add in a role made that role memorable. I don’t know what source of energy lies within Annu Bhai!

Ranjit Bhai is a genius. I have not seen a more knowledgeable and well-read person than Ranjit Kapoor. But the best part is that he is least conscious of it and till today keeps himself immersed in reading. He brought about a kind of a revolution in Indian theatre. My younger brother Nikhil is a very good poet. He has also written lyrics for some films. His book is also being published. But as an introvert he keeps away his talent from public gaze. My niece Grusha Kapoor is a very experienced actor. She is very sensitive as any artiste ought to be. Don’t know from where she has accumulated so many characters within her. It is difficult for me to praise or boast about my family members, but my compulsion that my brothers and niece are so talented. How do I not praise them?

Which of the writers, poets, film makers impacted you the most?

The ones who impress me the most are the farmers, laborers of our village. They are my poets, film makers and writers. The list of writers is a long one. Dostoevsky, Gorky, Maupassant, Premchand, Renu, Bamkin Chandra, Sharat Chandra, Victor Hugo, Amrit Lal Nagar. From Ghalib,  Meer, Zauq, Raskhan, Tulsi to Neeraj, Sahir, Majrooh, Kaifi, Shailendra to Kabeer, Meera, Habba Khatoon, Bulle Shah. Among philosophers Buddha, Mahavir, Osho, Jesus to Krishna. They are all close to my heart; my friends, my co-travelers.

You are very disciplined person. Also spiritual. Throw light on this aspect of your personality.

Since childhood my interest lay in a world beyond just this material one. In our house Kadambini magazine would come. In that I once read an article that said that looking at the rising sun in the early morning can impart such energy that one can destroy with one’s eyes. There I got into the task of looking at the sun in the eye. No energy I got but certainly a slap from my mother. She said, ‘You will spoil your eyes’. I have been a disciplined person but also a rebel. I have broken rules. At one stage I was a Marxist. Then I chose to marry. I am now an agnostic. I have a sense of inquiry. Life, nature, universe intrigue me.

Among the Awards and recognitions her works have been featured in official selection, nomination and honours at Cairo International Film Festival 2010, Tongues On Fire London Film Festival 2010, Hidden Gems Canada 2010, Indian Panorama Goa International Film Festival, 2010, Jagran International Film Festival 2010, Gandhinagar International Film Festival, Jaipur International Film Festival, MAMI Film Festival.

You have written short stories in the shape of a book. Tell us about it.

Since the age of 15 I would be writing poetry in hiding. That old, half-torn diary is still with me. I am now re-visiting and compiling them and also my stories around relationships and things. They would get published.  

Write your autobiography. It will be riveting, so absorbing!

I cannot say anything about it. 

Whether Seema choses to write her autobiography or not there is a book very much wanting to be written.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.

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