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Interview Hindi

Acting on stage and on screen are so different: Pranay Manchanda

Manchanda speaks about his first feature film, Comedy Couple, filming during the COVID-19 pandemic, and transitioning from theatre to the screen.

Sonal Pandya

In Comedy Couple (2020), actor Pranay Manchanda is the harried manager of performers Deep (Saqib Saleem) and Zoya (Shweta Basu Prasad). But more than a manager, Manchanda’s Siddhu is also friend, counsellor and fixer to the duo when the need arises.

Comedy Couple review: Amiable rom-com about pitfalls of living and working together

The dramedy about the zany relationship between Deep and Zoya went into production during the lockdown and was premiered online on Zee5 in October.

The talented actor who has made a name for himself in digital shows spoke to Cinestaan.com about making a shift to the big screen, how different it is shooting and acting during a pandemic, and what changes the future might bring.

Manchanda, who got a master's degree in classical acting from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) in 2011, started his own theatre company, Free Parking Entertainment, in college. With the feature film Comedy Couple, he is moving into new territory.

“To be honest, from the beginning, I didn’t think I wanted to be an actor on screen, but I knew I had to be an actor on stage,” Manchanda said. “There was always that question mark about how do you make money as an actor on stage and how do you sustain yourself.”

He stuck with theatre for a while until an opportunity arrived from a theatre friend to shoot for a web-series called Baked in 2015.

“We had never heard of what a web-series was," Manchanda said. "That’s the first time all of us were on screen together. It was a very different atmosphere. I realized that acting on stage and acting on screen are such different things.”

Baked was released at a time when the only other web-series around was Permanent Roommates and quickly gained popularity. Pretty soon, Manchanda had to relocate from Delhi to Mumbai for work. Despite his work on web shows, Manchanda insists he is new to the industry and acting for the screen is something he is still learning.

“I really enjoyed both the processes of shooting for feature films because you get to really create an arc for the character,” he explained. “I think that’s a little similar to what you do in theatre because you get to really pick momentum and dip into different parts of the script with different intensities. In a web-series, it needs to be a little more limited. Your highs and lows can’t be as big as in a movie or a theatre piece. I like being unlimited in that sense. I’m not worried that this is going too much or too little. But this is new to me so I’m hoping to do a lot more of it.”

The move to features happened with Comedy Couple (although he has shot for another film earlier) and it was something he couldn’t pass on, though he loves acting on stage.

“It sounded like a really good opportunity, and also because it was the lockdown and I hadn’t done anything in a while, so I was dying to bite my teeth into something,” he said of his audition. Later, when he got the part, he thought about whether he should take up the gig in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With the whole COVID situation, I had no idea how it’s going to work, but it was a learning curve,” Manchanda said. “The first few days were a little tough for me because I came back from Delhi to Mumbai to shoot. Everybody on set was wearing masks and there were so many people I was talking to that I didn’t even know what they looked like! Then, finally, as we got more comfortable with it, I think the beauty of acting is also that you tend to forget everything that’s happening around you when you are in the moment. Once that took over, then it was smooth sailing."

While Comedy Couple was filmed during the pandemic, with all safety measures in place, the film is set in a world in which the virus never existed.

Manchanda said, “You had to play a character that was completely oblivious to anything that’s happening, like a pandemic hasn’t even struck there. So it was nerve-wracking because you have to sort of forget one big piece of information that you have in your mind. I realized that the one thing common with everybody is relationships. It’s the relationship between Deep and Zoya, it’s the relationship between them and Siddhu, and, of course, all the other characters. The relationships between people remain the same [and] that’s what I banked on a lot while playing this.”

Asked about the future of the comedy world, which has been hit hard with no live shows or audiences, Manchanda said the virus is not going away anytime soon. “It has changed our lifestyle, for at least the next two years,” he said. “As a performer on stage also, I feel bad because that limits the amount of shows you can do. Stand-up comics do that all the time.

"I don’t know what is going to happen, but the hope is that people start going out in a [physically] distanced way, and we can start doing shows. I’ve seen Vir Das is doing a lot of that, and he has really sort of embraced the new normal in a cool way.

“Stand-up comics who are doing that are paving the way for the future,” he continued. “I think slowly and steadily, when people get more and more convinced that this is not something we can do without, they will start coming out, they will start going for live shows.

“Because [Comedy Couple] talks about stand-up comics in this time, in terms of people getting offended with things that stand-up comics say, which is happening so often and rampantly all over India. I don’t think that’s going to change very soon. I think offence is the new normal.”

During the initial days of the lockdown, Manchanda also acted in and directed the second season of Dice Media’s Firsts, which was conceived and released on YouTube in April itself. With much of the world at home, he and real-life partner, actress Kirti Vij, had to rely on themselves to complete the series.

“At that point, it was a different world,” he said, recalling the shoot. “All these Amazon deliveries all started after that. There was nothing that people were able to get so Kriti and I didn’t even have a tripod on us. We took these small side tables and taped them up together, put a few books on top of that, put an old cassette tape and made that a tripod and shot.

 “Our families were getting so pissed off at us. We were getting up early in the morning, shooting late at night, [and] running around. Every 15 minutes, we were shouting, ‘Silence please!’ It was a lot of action happening in a house where suddenly everybody is shocked that there is this coronavirus going on and these buffoons are just running around and shooting. It was a lot of fun. And because we got to do it in such guerrilla style, we really got to experiment and to relearn things that otherwise we would have found really easy, but because it was a lockdown, we had to find new methods of doing them.”

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