Ageless Anji

Explaining the long life of a Hindi satirical comedy steeped in dated humour, but still going strong

Late playwright Vijay Tendulkar wrote one of his least performed (and least celebrated) Marathi plays, Chiranjeev Saubhagyakangshini in 1983. It was translated in Hindi in the same year as ‘Anji’ by renowned litterateur Vasant Dev and mounted thereafter by director Dinesh Thakur's Ank theatre group. The central character of Anji was essayed by Tendulkar's daughter Priya, whereas Thakur played the sutradhar. The play got a warm reception at the box office for the next five years, after which it was temporarily stopped and then revived in 1993.

Preeta Mathur, lead actor of Anji at Prithvi Theatre in Juhu. Pics/Sayed Sameer Abedi
Preeta Mathur, lead actor of Anji at Prithvi Theatre in Juhu. Pics/Sayed Sameer Abedi

Revival movement
Anji is soon approaching the 800th show, as it continues to attract Mumbaikars in its revived avatar many years after the death of its playwright, the translator, the director and the lead actress.

A scene from the play, which is directed by Dinesh Thakur
A scene from the play, which is directed by Dinesh Thakur

I recall catching Anji in its prime at Prithvi some time in 1985 on an off-college day. I have a faint recollection of a review which later termed the play “bold” and “ahead of its time” because of the heroine’s rhetoric on surviving sexual violence.

Preeta Thakur touching up her make up
Preeta Thakur touching up her make up

The reviewer said Priya Tendulkar's stage role of Anji complemented her popular television role of the civic rights-conscious Rajani. In 1991, I saw Anji’s original Marathi version in Shivaji Mandir, which also had Priya in the lead. The Marathi version had downplayed the slapstick moments, which is why the satire on a duplicitous misogynist society came across more effectively. But the Hindi and the English versions shared common ground in the portrayal of an unconventional gender perspective. What stood out for me was the protagonist’s indomitable spirit, her strength to rise above an unfortunate sexual assault. She underlined her right to life after rape.

Credit was due to the playwright for putting the thought across in so many words at a time when the term rape survivor was not in circulation; it was the time when the public debate over transfer of onus from rape victims to perpetrators had not progressed. In such times, the play successfully focused on the general societal contempt for overaged single women. And in that specific social context, I connected with the play’s positivity.

Sheer years
After a passage of 25 years, as I revisited Anji in the same auditorium in September 2015, the play underlined a different aesthetic for me; it catered to a different dynamic, much different than what it evoked at one point. I wondered about the factors that have contributed to its staying power. I pondered on the plausible reasons as to why Ank has stuck to Anji’s script for decades. Anji’s current uninterrupted journey rests on the shoulders of Preeta Mathur (Thakur’s wife) and Mukul Dev (sutradhar). Mathur and Dev are delighted about their bond with the Hindi theatregoers. The free-flowing nautanki form of Anji allows them scope for a direct dialogue with the audience. Members of the audience also love to be talked to; they enjoy the jokes in the play cracked at the expense of critics and the allied breed. The ‘live’ component of harmonium and tabla make Anji a light entertainment package. At one point, the play introduced a gimmicky fourth bell which accommodated latecomers into the auditorium. That became another added layer of fun and interaction with the audience. Some of Anji’s characters are obviously comic, particularly the lecherous colleague at Anji’s workplace, her attention-seeking sister, the English-speaking ‘dream suitor’ she meets during a train journey. As Anji is not a realistic play, action on the stage is suggested by way of mime and minimal props. Caricature movement consequently ensures laughter.

One can clearly attribute Anji’s success to the comic relief it provides. As Preeta Mathur (who has played Anji in 500 shows) puts it, “when Tendulkar spoke to Dinesh Thakur about its Hindi rendering, he had asked us to ‘have fun.’ We are living up to that mandate till date. Anji is tremendously optimistic about life; she is hopeful of a better tomorrow and our play does justice to that attitude.” Mathur is convinced of Ank’s reasons for continuing with Anji.

Beyond slapstick
While it is welcome that Anji enjoys patronage, one definitely cannot relate to the social situation in which Anji operates. Anji does not belong to the contemporary universe. In this day and age in a city like Mumbai, single unmarried women form a formidable vital workforce. Many women have chosen single life as a healthy lifestyle option. Cities like Mumbai in fact celebrate individual choices. Mumbai has evolved over the years and factored in solo travel, solo accommodation and solo amusement options for single women. While social pressures remain, single women have managed to lead vibrant self- respecting lives.

But Tendulkar’s Anji is trapped in the eighties. Her dilemmas do not connect with the current complex realities. For instance, Anji takes pride in the fact that she does not dine out with men. She defines her moral code and celebrates her restrictive social tenet. For a Mumbaikar (male or female, single or married) Anji comes from another planet where eating out and socializing are illegitimate choices; and a social do can generate tremendous guilt.

The Ank theatre group has tried to contemporize Anji’s portrayal by implanting a few new dialogues. They have promised her a twitter handle along with an e-media edge. But Anji’s minor makeover does not make a lasting impact. It may guarantee occasional giggles, but the cosmetic changes do not update a character. Anji’s frame of reference is rooted in the bygone times. As a 29-year-old middle-class Brahmin unmarried salaried job holder, Anji lacks the vibe of the times.

Actor Sanjay Mone (who co-starred with Priya as the sutradhar in the Marathi production in 1991) has a theory for Anji’s success. He says the play, an average creation of Tendulkar, was merely fortunate to get a Hindi translator and director, which helped it to survive the passage of years. The success can also be attributed only to the Hindi theatre goers’ affinity towards slapstick buffoonery.

“The play did not do well in Marathi because it was pretty ordinary. The widely exposed Marathi theatregoer could not have been entertained for long by a light comedy on a serious subject.”

While we wish a robust long life to Anji, the play certainly makes us wonder about the gambles in the world of theatre entertainment.

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a Mumbai-based culture chronicler.

Anji goes to Rajasthan
Kota-based theatre director Rajendra Panchal (who hails from the National School of Drama) has also mounted Anji in Kota, Jaipur and Delhi. He will stage the play in Jodhpur in the upcoming Om Shivpuri Memorial Drama Festival in October. Panchal has played around with Tendulkar’s script, starting from changing its title to Anjali Sharma Urf Anji. He has made Anji’s story into an open-ended plot where the sexual assault is kept as a vague reference. Anji declares in the end that she is far from self-pity. On the contrary, she is a complete woman who does not need marriage to fulfill her dreams.

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