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A For Adventure

Deepa Gahlot With theatre, as with anything creative, unpredictability is part of the excitement. Something that starts small and modest can fly so high, it takes on a life of its own, and a big production can crash after one show.

┬áIn 2010, at NCPA Centrestage Theatre Festival, a small play by a new playwright opened -Siddharth Kumar’s The Interview, directed by Akarsh Khurana.

Uney Purey Shahr Ek, a play by Mohit Takalkar
Uney Purey Shahr Ek, a play by Mohit Takalkar is the Marathi adaptation of Girish Karnad’s Benda Kalu on Toast

A stark office setting, four major parts, and a dark comedy about a young man who goes to give an interview in a large MNC. The play became an instant hit, because everyone who had ever worked in a corporate set-up, could identify completely with the cut-throat competition, office politics, insecurity bordering on paranoia and stopping just short of murder.

Much to the surprise and delight of everyone on the team, what Akarsh describes as a “little play” won four Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META), was selected for several other festivals in India, performed at the Indian Embassy in Muscat, was selected for the HotINK festival of new writing in New York, has been officially translated for upcoming productions in the Czech Republic, and has a production coming up in
Johannesburg in June.

So far, in a little over two years, it has completed 82 shows across 15 cities in India. This kind of success is gratifying, because it can’t be planned or even anticipated. Siddharth did not turn out a one-play wonder but has written two more well-received plays, In the Cat House for children, and Spunk, that was part of Rage’s Writers’ Bloc Festival. If Bollywood does not grab him, here’s an original English playwright -still a rare species.

Under Akarsh Khurana’s able leadership, Akvarious literally goes places. It is the most prolific theatre group in Mumbai (possibly in the country) today, has a loosely connected repertory of very fine young actors and has by sheer dint of volume and quality created a brand that theatre lovers follow -if it’s Akvarious, it must be good. Or at least, not bad.

In Pune, another ‘A’-Aasakta has established a strong presence, as a young group that can be relied upon to impress, provoke and occasionally awe with their selection of plays, from Marathi plays by local writers, to a stunning production called Gajab Kahani, based on Jose Saramago’s novel, An Elephant’s Journey -a connection that would not occur to a regular theatre group.

Mohit Takalkar is not just prodigiously talented as a director, he also has a team that works wonders with few resources -out of thin air sometimes. The set of Gajab Kahani, for instance, was made up of scaffolding, which, with additional props was transformed into a palace, a marketplace, a boat, a mountain range -leaving the audience to imagine the actual visual.

Takalkar’s latest, Uney Purey Shahar Ek, is the Marathi adaptation of Girish Karnad’s Benda Kalu on Toast (which he has translated into English as Baked Beans on Toast, a production that Lillete Dubey is working on, to open at the end of the year), translated by Pradeep Vaiddya, and from all accounts coming out of Pune, a production Aaksakta can be proud of. Unlike many Marathi theatre groups that choose to be insular and content with their own little pond, Aasakta has always reached out, it is a regular at the META Festival and travels to many places.

Takalkar, who says he likes to pick plays that shift the ground from under his feet, is a director who wants to work with challenging texts, and throws himself into his productions applying thought, energy and gusto, so what emerges from the words on the page is a theatre at its most innovative. Like Akvarious, Aasakta too has a bunch of actors attached to it, and others joining in when there’s a production that requires them; perhaps no actor looking for a creative upper can turn down an Aasakta play.

This time Karnad has also written a play that is not for easy consumption, but has layers of history, society, identity and evolution of a city through the eyes of its original inhabitants as well as immigrants who have made it their home. Bangalore in Karnad’s original can be replaced by Pune or Hyderabad or Ahmedabad-any rapidly changing city. It’s a play without a conventional structure, which gave Takalkar just the kind of freedom that he seeks to interpret and mould in his style. Chances are, every version of the play will be different -and there will be many, because who would not want to work with a new Karnad play?

Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator

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