In films, senior citizens started being marginalised a while ago (unless Amitabh Bachchan picked a film to do), and older women have almost vanished. Hardly a mother or grandmother to be found. Bollywood could still sneak in a film like The Shaukeens, about the sexual misadventures of three sixty plus men, but would it attempt something like Mamma Mia? At best, a nonsensical Super Nani gets made and flops. Once in a while comes along a Baghban, but the problem of old people that it puts forward neglect by children is turned into high-pitched melodrama.
The Gujarati play Nanimaa does not preach or try to underline a ‘love-your-grandparents’ message. It just puts Meenal Patel on stage as Charulata Desai and lets her sparkle. If a granny deserves the title of Super Nani, it is this one!
Theatre is more inclusive towards the aged and sympathetic too several groups, have at some time or the other done productions about old people mostly stories of their loneliness and search for companionship. The two all time favourites are of course Sandhya Chhaya (Marathi original by Jaywant Dalvi) and Ashok Patole’s Aai Retire Hotay also done in several languages (including Hindi with Jaya Bachchan in the lead role.)
There have been others like Kaalchakra, Chor Chor, Dilli Uncha Sunti Hai, Begum Jaan, Bali Aur Shambhu, Hum Dono, Mitra and more recently Chhapa Kata to name just a few. There are many more Marathi and Gujarati plays with senior citizen protagonists, perhaps because their audiences are at the age where they can empathise. Unfortunately, many of these plays have a one-sided view of the issue; many of them make old people out to be victims of their children’s callousness, and then go on to give the play a tear-jerking melodramatic treatment.
A play titled Nanimaa is obviously about a grandmother. At the opening show of the Gujarati play, the producer Kamlesh Mota asked how many grandmothers were there among the audience and about 40 hands went up. Which means so many middle-aged women and above were interested in watching the play, and perhaps themselves, reflected on stage.
The character of Charulata Desai — played by the redoubtable Meenal Patel — is quite unlike the quavery-voiced, arthritic old woman people expect a grandmother to be, thanks to the relentless stereotyping by the media. She is 87, but has a ramrod straight back, walks with a firm gait and speaks clearly. She exudes confidence and wit and also displays a marked lack of sentimentality.
When the play opens, she is confronted with the sudden arrival of her 28-year-old grandson (Chetan Dhanani). A tragedy in the past estranged Charulata from her daughter, and she hasn’t seen Rahul in 20 years. Rahul is brash, rude, rejects her initial overtures of delight and affection and refuses to call her Nanimaa. Far from weeping and moaning, she gives it back to the young man in the sharp tone he uses with her, but tempered with humour.
Rahul has come to work on a project on organic farming and his research has led him to Charulata, who uses on her farms the soil-conserving, environmentally sound methods that he has just read about.
Like so many young people who make assumptions about old people — more so about women — Rahul realises gradually, that his grandmother is quite an exceptional woman. She is not illiterate or closed-minded; she is, in fact, more progressive than his urban parents who are wary of accepting his relationship with a Muslim girl. Charulata is not in the least fazed by the appearance of Zoya, dressed in tiny shorts. She makes no fuss about the youngsters’ casual relationship, or about the religious difference. She reveals to her astonished grandson, that she had a love marriage too, and eloped with her husband on a motorbike — she riding, he in the pillion seat.
When Rahul and Zoya are worriedly conferring about their college results and the distant cyber café they would have to go to in order to access their marksheets, Charulata coolly lets drop that her humble village home has Wi-Fi.
Playwright Hiten Anandpara and director Pritesh Sodha have created an admirably independent and spirited old woman, who is not bowed or broken by the tragedies in her life. She hides her erudition, but uses it for the betterment of her rural society. The most remarkable aspect to her is her unflagging sense of humour, which she uses as a shield against the gloom around death, by writing witty obituaries for the seniors her own age, who pass on, leaving her just a little more alone each time.
Nanimaa does not preach or try to underline a ‘love-your-grandparents’ message. It just puts Meenal Patel on stage as Charulata Desai and lets her sparkle. If a granny deserves the title of Super Nani, it is this one!
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. You can follow her on twitter @deepagahlot