Ahoy! Actor alone

Over the last few days, having watched two productions, comprising solo acts, one’s admiration for Mumbai’s actors, goes up even more. Some of that is reserved for the writers and directors too, who find ways of making the monologue work for an entertainment-seeking audience.

In the last few years, the one- and two-hander has caught on because of the relative ease of scheduling and logistics. Two or more actors and it can be a nightmare to coordinate rehearsal and show dates. These days, any slightly well-known theatre actor is busy with films, TV, ads, and web series. If they still have time to do plays, it’s a wonder.

Vrajesh Hirjee in One on One 2
Vrajesh Hirjee in One on One 2

Seema Pahwa did a remarkable job of converting some of Bhisham Sahni’s stories into short plays in a programme titled Bhishmotsav. The great writer — best known for his Partition novel Tamas, turned into a landmark film and TV series by Govind Nihalani — also wrote some incisive stories. Naseeruddin Shah, playing the mendicant in Samadhi Bhai Ramsingh was outstanding — he is always fabulous on stage and has also worked with the monologue form earlier (Ismat Aapa Ke Naam, First Love). The sadhu who is caught in the web of superstitious followers is a character ripe for caricature (more so in the era of Radhe Maa), but Yashpal Sharma’s school teacher in Oob was a delight to watch. The man dressed in drab clothes talks of the tedium of a teacher’s life — particularly the days when he is an invigilator during exams. To make boredom interesting and funny for the audience, without any overacting needs a lot of work.

In the past there have been quite a few popular solo plays, but many did well because they had known names — like Anupam Kher (Kuchh Bhi Ho Sakta Hai), Sarita Joshi (Sakubai), Ashish Vidyarthi (Dayashankar Ki Diary), Shabana Azmi (Broken Images), Tom Alter (Maulana Azad). Shekhar Sen has done a series of solo acts, using his talents as an actor, composer and singer. Gujarati director Manoj Shah is enamoured of the monologue and producer Manhar Gadhia has brought out the Gujarati audiences in droves to watch his Saat Teri Ekvees and its offshoots, with good writing and acting as bait.

Rahul da Cunha and his group Rage saw the potential of the monologue when they produced Going Solo in 1998. He got together with Vikram Kapadia and Anahita Uberoi to direct actors like Shernaz Petel, Jayati Bhatia, Radhika Mittal and Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal and opened with an 18-day run. The stories were about life in the city and used a mix of humour and pathos. So popular was the production that a second series of eleven monologues was presented, this time taking a risk with darker themes and actors like Darshan Jariwala (his piece on road rage is still remembered), Sohrab Ardeshir and Zafar Karachiwala.

In 2010, a bigger team of writers and directors collaborated on Rage’s One On One — a new series of monologues and duologes in English and Hindi. Already sure of the response the production would get, with directors like Akarsh Khurana, Rajit Kapur, Arghya Lahiri, Kunaal Roy Kapoor, Nadir Khan, Pushan Kripalani and Rahul da Cunha, writers like Anuvab Pal (his piece about a bureaucrat was expanded into a full length play), Ashok Mishra, Purva Naresh, and da Cunha himself, actors that included Anand Tiwari (playing a lamp post in a hilarious piece), Neil Bhoopalam, Anu Menon, Amit Mistry, Yashpal Sharma, Rajit Kapur and others — this time it was not a major risk.

The success of this production lead to One On One 2, a collection of eight Hindi and English pieces, again a diverse group of writers and directors working together, with a bunch of actors that rose about the slightly weaker writing — as compared to the superb line-up in the earlier version. (What do they say about competing with your own success being the toughest!)

Watching Vrajesh Hirjee in Farhad Sorabjee’s Game, Set (ing) and Match, directed by Rajit Kapur, made one wonder why this actor doesn’t do more theatre. (He was equally excellent in Chinese Coffee). Putting on a perfect American-Gujarati accent, he brought the house down with his act as the ambitious guy who wants to make a match that will help him set up his Gujarati food franchise in the US. He wasn’t expecting what he gets!

Gopal Datt is utterly brilliant as TC Rasbihari in Ashok Mishra’s piece again directed by Kapur, in which a hapless ticket checker on a rough North Indian stretch of railway, learns some lessons the hard way. It was his own fault he rues, if he gets beaten for asking the railway minister’s relatives to show their tickets.

They are slice-of-life pieces that audiences laugh at because they see themselves or people they know in the characters on stage. The man who goes to a funeral and gets a full blast of bureaucracy, a producer who has signed a star who starts dictating the scenes, a bride who knows she is marrying the wrong man… Rajit Kapur, Neil Bhoopalam, Sumeet Vyas are actors who can work wonders with words. (Three of the actors from the original cast were busy and had been replaced in the show watched — the date clashes mentioned above.)

This format has all the strengths needed to appeal to the audience looking something enjoyable but not mindlessly so. For a writer, a short piece is perhaps easier to work on than a full-length play, and actors’ dates don’t need to be coordinated for joint rehearsals. And a director can share of serious subjects without putting off the audiences. It’s a win-win situation all round.

Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. She tweets at @deepagahlot

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