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Building a Stage to Perform: How Sanjiv Chopra Shaped His Passion for Theatre beyond his Professional Career
Author :thedesk
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Posting Date :26/10/10
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Building a Stage to Perform: From being the youngest Managing Director at Ranbaxy, Sanjiv Chopra chose to take up his passion - the theatre - full time.
          Building a Stage to Perform: How Sanjiv Chopra Shaped His Passion beyond his Career Sanjiv Chopra discovered his passion early in life. It was theatre. He was studying at IIT Delhi when he was a regular on stage and knew that was what kindled the passion in him. Yet, he was to wait a long 25 years before he could leap into his passion fulltime. He spent the first half of his life pursuing a distinguished corporate career.

The quarter of a century that brought him to the apex of his corporate ladder however could not diminish his zeal and unbridled enthusiasm for theatre and dramatics. He chose to stay in touch with theatre, planning his passion around his life in a manner that has set him apart as a role model for all those who want to pursue their passion but are yearning to have an example of clarity in thinking. His story is a panacea for all those who are caught in a dilemma of choosing between a professional career and the lure of passion.

Sanjiv founded the amateur theatre group 'Dramatech' with ex-IITians and has acted in 25 plays with known directors. After a long essay in corporate life he is now full-time into theatre. His plays have aimed at popularizing the concept of theatre through greater participation of corporate and professionals and also by giving a platform for talented artistes to perform.

The Indian version of Fiddler on the Roof was well received and there have been rave reviews about his other plays too. Some of his plays have explored the common dilemmas in society, which have struck a chord with the audience. The story of Tevye the milkman and his struggle with the progressive marital desires of his three oldest daughters is a subject that can be identified with, across societies in India.

Sanjiv has ventured into films, co-producing an award winning Oriya Feature Film 'Dhauli Express' directed by Chittaranjan Tripathy, released in 2007. He has also been an executive producer of an award winning feature Film Chintuji directed by Ranjit Kapoor, as also acted in the recent film Do Dooni Char, which was loved by the audience and critics. Besides, Sanjiv has kept himself busy on the small screen too, featuring in TV serials like Amir Khusro, Fikr Ne Kaha Tha, Purvai, Hakke Bakke, Golu Ke Goggles etc.

Sanjiv has had a successful and venerable corporate career graph too. He has been a Managing Director in both India and international markets with Ranbaxy. He was instrumental in establishing its Diagnostics business based in Delhi, European & CIS markets based in Moscow, South East Asian markets based in Bangkok, and was Managing Director, Ranbaxy China based in Guangzhou. Before he retired from corporate life, Sanjiv was the Managing Director, India of an American Medical Devices MNC.

What sets Sanjiv apart from most professionals has been his ability to live his passion while being in the corporate life and also his clarity and discipline in planning his career move from corporate to theatre.

Sanjiv spoke to 6bridges about his dreams, passion, plans, theatre, career and life. And of course, the interesting Age50 Plan that has been the cornerstone or the’raaz’ behind the corporate czar who enjoyed a stage to perform!

Interview Questions

6bridges: Tell us about your story so far - your IIT days, your corporate career and how you pursued your passion alongside your career and thereafter switched to theatre with your group of friends.

Sanjiv Chopra: I went to IIT where I studied chemical engineering during the years 1975 to 1980. I was active in extra curricular activities at IIT, taking part in dramatics and becoming a hostel cultural secretary and a General Secretary- Board for Recreational & Creative Activities. I was Father of the IITD Institute Cultural Festival ‘RENDEZVOUS’ which is now grown by leaps & bounds. I did fairly well, receiving Best Secretary Award, Outstanding Contribution to BRCA Award, Hostel ROLL OF HONOUR and many institute and inter-college competition awards in Acting, Direction & Elocution. I graduated with 1st Division from IITD. It is at IIT that I met my soul-mate Renu who was as passionate about acting.

1980 to 1984 was a period when I was into a corporate career in Mumbai and was away from the theatre. I was with DUNCANS Group & LUPIN Labs in Mumbai, and the focus was on initial career building. I used to network with the NSD friends though who were struggling then in Mumbai. There were people like Ranjit Kapoor, Pankaj Kapur, Anupam Kher, Satish Kaushik, Raja Bundela and Girja Shankar. I married Renu in 1981. She worked in Mumbai with IDM. Together we would frequent the Prithvi theatre often.

I moved to Delhi thereafter and stayed in the city for the next five years. I was with Ranbaxy and rose from junior to middle management over the next 5 years. This was a significant period that saw the birth of DRAMATECH founded by like minded IITD theatre friends both senior & junior in 1984. My son Ankur was born in June 1984. I actively joined Dramatech in 1985 with the lead role in the play ‘Ten Little Niggers’. Initially, it was difficult to take away time for my passion. I would steal and squeeze time out from work and family. Slowly colleagues and bosses at work started appreciating my pursuing my hobby; I was performing quite well at work too.

I acted in 5 plays during as many years, and also acted in 4 TV serials. I must confess that rehearsals and play performances were great stress-busters. Renu too joined me and started acting in Dramatech plays within a year of me joining there. Our daughter- Eshna was born in September 1988 and both children got used to attending the rehearsals while they were only few months old!

From 1989 as I started moving towards senior management in Ranbaxy, it became quite difficult to balance work & theatre especially due to work related travel; in 2001 I started travelling internationally. It was then that I published my AGE50 Plan. I must tell you about it!

It goes like this:

AGE50 Plan: Concentrate on the corporate career till 50 and then at Age 50 quit the corporate world and pursue my passion for Theatre (& Films). There were 3 simultaneous variables on this equation:

1. Attain a healthy bank balance which can sustain me (& my family through the rest of life);

2. Attain a reasonable success in the corporate life, if possible, reach right till the Top!

3. Time to attain the above two was till the age of 50.

Every time a friend or family member asked me why I am not pursuing my hobby of theatre any more I used to narrate my AGE50 Plan. It kept me going for another 10 years!

From 1989 onwards, I traveled extensively abroad with Ranbaxy. There was to be no theatre for almost ten years starting from 1991. I was area director in Moscow, MD Ranbaxy Thailand in Bangkok, MD Ranbaxy China at Guangzhou for three years from 1997 to 2000. Then I was MD South Asia, Boston Scientific (a US multinational Medical Devices Company) based in Mumbai 2000-2001 and Delhi 2001-2004.

Thereafter I regrouped with my Dramatech teammates which led to it’s comeback production ‘Ek Jaam Auntiyon ke Naam’ & ‘Chainpur Ki Daastan’.

I took a decision and quit executive life from 1st February 2005 at the age of 47, nearly 3 years ahead of the plan, as two criteria out of the three AGE50Plan had been met! It was to be an explosive return in theatre & films from 2005 onwards.

6bridges: How did your passion for theatre develop? We know you did quite a bit of it at IIT along with your friends? How did you join ‘Dramatech’ and what is the story behind the formation of Natwa Theatre?

Sanjiv Chopra: My passion for theatre began early. It was from a role in the hostel play followed by a lead role in the Institute play ‘Hayvadan’ directed by Late Mr. B.M. Shah in 1975-76. It was followed by the next Institute play ‘Chaayanat’, again directed by Late B.M. Shah. I acted in and directed the hostel plays ‘Nahin’ and ‘Sabrang Mohbhang’, which won several awards at inter-hostel and inter-college competitions. Subsequently, I acted in more Institute plays like ‘Bichoo’ (directed by Ranjit Kapoor and Anupam Kher), ‘Sarai Ki Maalkin’ (directed by late Ravi Baswani) and ‘Balabhpur Ki Roopkatha’ (directed by Pankuj Kapur).

Dramatech was formed in 1984 and I returned the same year from Mumbai. Dramatech was a brainchild of close IITD Theatre friends and I was involved from day one; became active on stage within the first year after I had settled down in my new job at Ranbaxy.

However, as Dramatech was an amateur group with passionate, but floating group of members (all members being from the corporate world who did theatre as hobby post-work), I felt there was a need to perform a higher standard of professional plays in Delhi giving an opportunity to Delhi based theatre artists. I met Prof. Mohan Maharishi (ex-Director of NSD) in early 2005 after he had returned back to Delhi from his long assignment in Chandigarh. Fortunately, our views on boosting the theatre scene in Delhi were similar. NATWA was born the same year with the launch of ‘OTHELLO”.

6bridges: What were the key challenges you all faced with Natwa/ Dramatech in the initial phase and how did you make the concept sustainable considering it was a part-time involvement initially?

Sanjiv Chopra: The initial challenges faced by Dramatech & NATWA were quite different from each other.

At Dramatech it involved late evening rehearsals, absences due to travel/ work pressures, core members moving out of Delhi/ India and difficulties in getting committed production/ backstage people.

At NATWA, the challenges involved retaining good talent in Delhi away from the lure of Mumbai and bringing organizational discipline in budgeting, accounting and administration.

6bridges: What were the interpersonal dynamics like given that there were multiple people who chose to be a part of this organization with different professional interests. How did you people work it out over the years?

Sanjiv Chopra: I will take you through the background, functioning and aims of both Dramatech and NATWA. Lets take Dramatech. Like any other organization, Dramatech’s core group continued to tap on each others’ strengths with each member playing varied roles- acting in one production and helping backstage in the next or even ushering in the next. For example, Dramatech worked on the simple principle that anyone who did any work for its production was automatically co-opted as the member. This brought a sense of involvement and ownership, and attracted newer members. Unlike most personality driven groups, Dramatech supported anyone who brought a good project on the floor; differences of opinion were usually managed through informal consensus, and it continues to be so.

As far as NATWA was concerned, it evolved out of basic professional respect for each other’s background. NATWA was formed with the executive board having equal representation from theatre professionals and corporate ones (who were passionate about theatre). At NATWA, creative liberty is given to theatre professionals while they do not interfere in matters of finance and PR/Publicity. In a nutshell, in NATWA theatre professionals ensure a good product is designed while corporate ones ensure it is properly exhibited with enough audiences to watch it (including scouting for funding).

6bridges: Theatre is a field where people pay to go and watch full-time professional actors. How did you manage to get the audience to warm up to the idea of a bunch of part-time actors on stage, in the early days?

Sanjiv Chopra: Dramatech was always conscious about product quality- I suppose it had to do with the upbringing at IIT/IIMs and the corporate world. Delhi, unlike Mumbai, did not have too many professional groups other than the National School of Drama and Sri Ram Centre Repertories and occasional visits by the Mumbai groups. Dramatech created an image of a committed bunch of people who put up credible performances and the viewers expanded from friends and relatives to the Sahitya Kala Parishad and NSD audiences. Initially Dramatech alternated between a Hindi and an English play to have a unique image. It bore fruits along the way.

6bridges: Dramatech was formed in 1984 by three alumni of IIT Delhi: Subramanian Sanyal (1978), Deepak Gidwani (1981) and Rakesh Kumar Gupta (1981). It later expanded to attract talent from other institutions, including IIM Ahmedabad and Delhi University? Did you have a specific model for professionals or technology professionals who were also theatre lovers - especially since the name has the word ‘tech’ in it?

Sanjiv Chopra: Not Really, but yes! Dramatech has a particular character with several very high IQ members. Thereafter anyone who enjoyed being with this group found a place for himself/herself. At the end of the day intrinsic talent was most important. As a policy we continued to rehearse within the IITD premises, which ensured that newer crops of IITians joined the group and theatre/dramatics continued to prosper at IITD. Today’s Dramatech has equal representation from IITians & non-IITians. Yes, but we were and would continue to have a core group who are IITD alumni.

6bridges: What is the kind of audience DramaTech wants to bring to the theatres with its plays?

Sanjiv Chopra: With every production Dramatech brings several ‘first time audiences’ to the theatres. We avoid doing ‘self-fulfilling’ theatre. We have a direct eye on audience expectations. Dramatech members do theatre to add further value to their lives and we want audiences to catch the same vibes! We try and bring to the audience students, young professionals, parents with their children and grandparents.

We seek corporate sponsorships for funding and also inspire them to bring their employees/ clients to the auditoriums. We remain in touch with the college theatre groups as some of our members (especially Renu Chopra and Rakesh Gupta) have been offering their services as judges at the IITD Rendezvous Drama competitions.

6bridges: A few years back Dramatech went into hibernation. However, you revived the plays and came back with a Hindi adaptation of “Fiddler on the Roof” directed by Ravi Raj Sagar. Tell us about this gap and what made you return?

Sanjiv Chopra: Dramatech went into hibernation for nearly 10 years between 1991 & 2001 as most key members moved out of Delhi. Deepak and Archana Gidwani went to Singapore and then finally settled in USA; Rakesh Gupta went on various assignments as an IAS. I was exploring the Globe, Ravi Raj Sagar had a stint in Mumbai and then was back in Delhi with corporate and family focus.

Fiddler on the Roof was the 5th production (after regrouping in end 2001) performed in 2007. Yes it is with this production Delhi woke up to the resurgence of Dramatech. Subsequent productions ‘Ek Jaam auntiyon Ke Naam’, ‘Hello Dolly’ and recent Renu S. Chopra’s ‘Run For Your Wife’ have made most professional theatre groups quite nervous due to the sheer production quality and box office bookings! Since 2001 I have played the role of the ‘Chief Mentor’ for the group.

6bridges: Coming back to your AGE50Plan. Why did you precipitate it by 3 years and retire at 47 (and not at 50, as you originally planned)? What was the specific trigger that made you quit your job after many years and take to theatre full time?

Sanjiv Chopra: The answer is that I was getting impatient as the date (the age of 50!) was inching closer and I didn’t need to earn anymore! The 3 years early entry has made me a recognizable name in Delhi Theatre as well as in the Mumbai Film scene. Please see my profile for the films.

6bridges: What have been the challenges after you joined Dramatech/NATWA full-time?

Sanjiv Chopra: There have been no new, real challenges, nothing that I hadn’t seen before in life. The Dramatech challenge was and still is how to bring a professional attitude while still retaining the fun element for part-time theatre enthusiasts. In NATWA, the challenge is to ensure creation of marketable creative products and taking the creative team along on financial planning.

6bridges: You have said in an interview earlier - ''I didn't start my career here. I'm not looking at sustaining myself through theatre.'' What is the revenue model for DramaTech & NATWA? Are you involved with other ventures as well, at the moment?

Sanjiv Chopra: Both for Dramatech & NATWA the revenue model is to fund the initial production through corporate sponsorships and thereafter sustain it on the basis of box office sales. It’s easier in Dramatech as no artist is ‘paid’ other than ‘hired technicians’; while in NATWA all external professionals are paid. In Dramatech corporate reach is high as all old and new members bring in their contacts both for sponsorships and ticket sales. In case of NATWA, I individually take this responsibility.

6bridges: Over the years, how do you think theatre has evolved in India? Do you think the involvement of established former corporate professionals like you will help bring in more funding and corporate participation into such areas and thus lead to more interest amongst professionals?

Sanjiv Chopra: The business of theatre hasn’t changed much in decades- a good product well marketed fetches good viewership. What has changed is that today’s audience has too many entertainment options. A play performance today has to compete with the likes of films, music, concerts, TV etc. In a simple equation of demand and supply viewers are aware of their options and value only quality.

Everyday I see the advantage I bring on the table- both for funding and corporate participation. I also take pride in the fact that we have managed to retain & sustain several good talent in Delhi. A good example is Mahendra Mewati, a brilliant NSD graduate who was doing sub-optimal roles in Mumbai, I brought him to Delhi for playing the role of ‘Othello’ and he stayed back to play ‘Aurangzeb’ and is actively seen in several Delhi plays, while still working for TV & Films (including a role in my production ‘CHINTUJI’).

6bridges: What’s the best role that you have done so far?

Sanjiv Chopra: A very difficult question for an actor! My most challenging role was of an activist /professor in Uddhvast Dharamshala, as to look the role I had to lose 10 kgs. That along with Sir Wilfred in ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ and Jonathan D’Souza, in ‘Ek Jaam Auntiyon ke Naam’ are my best roles.

6bridges: Tell us how you think professionals can adopt this model of DramaTech - of coming together with their passions and then pursuing it alongside their respective corporate careers? Do you think with increasing travel, commitments, time constraints - this model can be used successfully in other fields too?

Sanjiv Chopra: Pursuing any hobby seriously along with a corporate career is very helpful. It is a stress buster and freshens you up for new corporate challenges. What theatre does in addition is that it keeps you grounded and makes you cognizant of role-play. You may be a CEO in your corporate life but have to play a role of an office peon in a Play, it’s an experience which very few can get outside of theatre. You may be sitting on a high back luxury swivel chair in the office in the board room but at rehearsals you have to sit on the ground or at best boxes in non-air conditioned environment!

Though I think theatre is very unique as a hobby, but other fields that may give similar results are: photography, filmmaking, painting, playing a musical instrument, singing, sports etc. Theatre is a good mix of several of these and has yoga type benefits for mind and body alike. On top of it you get to receive the audience claps! Increasing travel, commitments, time constraints can all be circumvented if one is passionate about the hobby. Infact my next dream is to institutionalize corporate training and problem solving through theatre exercises.

6bridges: In the last few years, more and more professionals have been taking up their passion - part-time or full time. When you started out in the early 1980s, following your passion was sometimes considered as straying away from professional focus. Did you ever have to face a question from family and friends on that count?

Sanjiv Chopra: Our parents were justifiably concerned when we used to take just a few months old children (babies) to late evening rehearsals, come rain or snow (I mean heat or cold!). This after, a full day at work and thus, having neglected the children in any case during the day (their point of view).

Overall friends and family were quite supportive as we were financially independent and not staying in a joint family. Yes there were concerns during the IIT period by family, batch mates, well wishers and faculty, but they all backed-off as I managed consistent 1st Division throughout.

During 1980’s I was able to reasonably balance the Professional and my part -time passion. In late 80s (at the turn of the decade), I did once seriously consider taking up theatre full-time, but then decided in favour of a professional career for the obvious reason (family, monetary security etc.). But thereafter my AGE50Plan kept me going. Timely focus (with vengeance!) on the professional career helped me in having an exponential career growth with corresponding financial growth. I was the youngest General Manager and then the youngest Managing Director in Ranbaxy (and probably the industry too).

During the 10 year ‘sanyas’ from theatre, interestingly a lot of people (family, friends, colleagues) quite frequently asked me why I was not pursuing my passion any more. To them, I would religiously narrate my AGE50Plan. Some took it as a joke in the beginning, but my sticking to this line of thought made them somewhat suspicious that maybe this guy is actually serious!

Unlike the 80s today’s working couples are over-indulgent with their children’s activities and do find it difficult to bring about the required balance. I must say since Renu & I really shared the same passion, it was easier.

6bridges: What was the reaction from family and friends when you decided to switch to full-time theatre after a long corporate career?

Sanjiv Chopra: They had been primed by my narration of AGE50Plan through the years. I didn’t have too many pressures as I had lost both my parents way back in 1991. Yes, my brothers, in-laws, close friends & well wishers were quite concerned, fearing the worst. More so as at that time, I was probably among the top 25 highest paid executives in the country.

They did try their best that I should take on one more CEO assignment of 3 years and stick to my original plan of age 50. Ironically, nobody by now was really asking me to quit my Plan, they were just trying to delay it to the original (agreed) date! Surprising how things work. For several years I continued to get tempting corporate offers, and it has taken 5 years for the headhunters to realize that I have opted out of the job market.

6bridges: You are someone who has sustained his passion for around three decades. These days the numbers of youngsters taking to their passions is more. However, what do you feel does it take to make a choice of passion sustainable over a longer period?

Sanjiv Chopra: Clarity of mind, I suppose to start with. After that you need to take a well-calculated risk with reasonable financial security as a backup. Having said that, it is much easier to make a living out of your passion today than it was in 80s or 90s. The possibilities are immense as long as you are good at it and are committed.

6bridges: If a professional wants to pursue his/her passion in a field like theatre or creative arts where there is not much financial recognition in India, how should he go about it today? What tips would you like to offer?

Sanjiv Chopra: Financial recognition depends on an individual’s self-confidence and capability. Wanting to do something and being able to do it are two different things. Everyday I see people converting their hobbies to full time work - fine arts, photography, script writing, composing, acting, direction, film-making- the list is endless. Several theatre and film enthusiasts of IITD that I have mentored over the years have taken on to theatre, acting or filmmaking full time soon after passing out of IIT. And they are doing reasonably well.

6bridges: What has given you the biggest joy and satisfaction in your career and in your passion?

Sanjiv Chopra: My biggest professional joy & satisfaction was in setting up the Ranbaxy business from scratch in erstwhile USSR soon after it split. I landed there in February 1992 and had ‘conquered’ it from Odessa to Vladivostok in 3 years.

On the passion front, all firsts brought the same level of joy- my first Institute play acting ‘Hayvadan’, my first play direction of ‘Nahin’, my first commercial play acting ‘Ten Little Niggers’, my first TV serial acting ‘Purvayee’, my comeback play acting in ‘Ek Jaam Auntiyon Ke Naam’, my first NATWA production of ‘Othello’, my first film acting in Indo-Canadian film ‘AMAL’, my first Mumbai play production of ‘Night Song’ and my first film as producer ‘CHINTUJI’. It’s difficult to pick one!

6bridges: Having seen both worlds, how would you compare a regular job with the kind of work you do now?

Sanjiv Chopra: They are not comparable, other than the normal management & financial principles. Firstly, I do not consider it a job; I do what I want to and when I want to. Secondly, I am not doing it for money.

6bridges: What is your big plan? Tell us about the big dream that you have with DramaTech & NATWA and with your interests in the field of your passion.

Sanjiv Chopra: Let me tell you about both Dramatech as well as NATWA. Since Dramatech is an amateur theatre society, we would continue to enhance the group and take on larger projects. In the coming years NATWA shall form a performing repertory company which shall both train actors as well as put up professional performances in Delhi, periodically. Coming to Nakshatra, it has two-fold objectives:

- On the theatre front, Nakshatra shall start a ‘Theatre In Education (TIE)’ wing, which shall undertake Drama education/ instruction at the schools in Delhi & NCR.

- On the films front, Nakshatra shall continue to inspire ‘small budget’ film projects with the intention to produce a film every two years.

6bridges: There are regular professionals who want to strike out on their own or follow their passions. However they are hesitant for a variety of factors. What are the factors that a person should consciously internalize before taking such a decision?

Sanjiv Chopra: It is important that following points be ensured:

- Commitment to the passion. It should be a real passion and not because others are at it. Then it would merely be a ‘fashion’, which would change in due course.

- Carefully do a risk-analysis. Either jump into it before age 25, when your risk taking capacity is high or after you have atleast 5 years worth of bank balance!

- Make a future plan and stick to it.

6bridges: How did going to IIT help? How did you connect with IITians at Dramatech? How has a premier education and then a professional career helped you in something you consider your passion - theatre?

Sanjiv Chopra: IIT helped me in nurturing my analytical capability, in networking; and in giving a good career. The IIT connect in Dramatech is obvious as everyone had a certain level of intellect, career options and high passion for theatre.

A premier education and a professional career ensured that people looked at my passion for theatre with the same seriousness that I showed towards my education and my job. No one took it frivolously. When people around you (family, friends and work colleagues) take you seriously, they unknowingly become facilitators for your job and passion. Something like the SRK dialogue in OSO ‘Saari kaynaat….’.

6bridges: Tell us how you worked out your work-life balance and managed to keep in touch with your passion despite the demands of a corporate career?

Sanjiv Chopra: In the initial 10 years of the career, work-life balance wasn’t difficult and one had to ensure everyone is involved and respects your passion. Theatre was a great stress buster in these years. During the next 10 years when corporate career demands were high I made my Age50 plan which ensured that I concentrate on the career and family, while my passion had a distinct place in my future.

During the next 5 years, at the top of the executive ladder, I called the shots and was capable of allocating requisite time to all three- theatre, family and work. Thereafter with 25 years of work behind me and with systematic financial planning I could pursue my passion for theatre & films without sacrificing attention to the loved ones.

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