Message in a theatre

The weekend was spent watching two plays that had very different styles of passing on essential messages. Raell Padamsee’s Mahatma was showmanship on stage. She has been working with underprivileged children attached with various NGOs, along with regular school kids, and no matter what is said about the final product, it is not easy to gather together 300 children to perform and many more to watch.

Scene from A Friend's Story
Scene from A Friend's Story

The play has a bunch of spoilt rich kids going to a camp, where, for some reason, along with being made to cook and clean (which they have never done), there are narrated episodes from the life of Mahatma Gandhi. It’s hardly likely that kids above the age of six don’t know about Gandhi. Stories of the freedom movement and the Father of the Nation are drilled into kids’ heads quite early in school.

But the kids see famous episodes like Gandhi being thrown out of the train in South Africa, giving the call for Satyagraha, or going on the Dandi march and go “Wow!” If today’s kids are really so clueless, then maybe there is cause for worry. The spirit behind the show and the effort put in being remarkable, there was also a randomness to the production that could have been corrected.

For instance, a sudden dance number to Eye of the Tiger, which no kid today would identify with; then the skilled dancers from Seva Sadan present a beautifully choreographed number set to Vande Mataram —not the original but the AR Rahman version; and there is a bhangra just like that, with the kids dancing energetically to a Rang De Basanti track. In between, really tiny tots prance about saying things like “Isn’t this fun?” and try to engage some “Aunty” in the front row in conversation.

The highpoint of the show was undoubtedly the Malkhamb performance by visually-impaired children, and that one surprise moment when a helicopter descends on stage and Lord Mountbatten steps out.

If all this acting, singing and dancing talent on display could have been integrated into a more coherent whole, Mahatma would have been a landmark production. Otherwise it remains a fun watch for very small kids. For the children who performed, it must have been a great experience — the pride and sincerity could be seen in their shining faces. As for the kids in the audience, whether they are inspired by Gandhi’s message of equality and unity, is hard to say. Their parents probably need it a lot more.

A revival of Vijay Tendulkar’s Mitrachi Goshta in English (Gowri Ramnarayan’s translation), as A Friend’s Story (directed by Akash Khurana) was austere in its presentation but powerful in impact. (Disclosure: I work for the NCPA that produced this play, so the following words are about the play, not the production).

Tendulkar’s play was provocative and so relevant that it could have been written yesterday, but for period details that set it in the 1950s. The playwright had taken it upon himself to puncture accepted social norms, and under special attack was middle-class sexual hypocrisy. Mitrachi Goshta was written at a time when there was so much confusion about homosexuality. The women’s movement was just about taking off, and though women were being encouraged to study, get involved in the arts and sports, ultimately they had to marry a man their families chose and put an end to their own aspirations.

Sumitra, or Mitra (played by Sayalee Phatak) as she likes to be called, is not like other girls her age, and in a burst of self-awareness rare for one so young and a time when coming of the closet was not an option — or the existence of a closet was even known to women — she understands that she can’t be a man’s woman. But lack of a support structure and openness about alternate sexuality results in her behaviour being aggressive, obsessive (towards the girl she loves, played by Parna Pethe) and reckless. The narrator of her story is her sympathetic friend Bapu (Abhay Mahajan), who tries very hard to help her, but after a point, even he is baffled by her and unable to withstand the gale force of her passion. The loss of Nama, the hate attacks by Nama’s jilted boyfriend and finally the withdrawal of Bapu’s friendship pushes Mitra into an abyss of hopelessness.

Back in 1981 when the play was first performed in Marathi (Rohini Hattangady courageously played Mitra) a girl like Sumitra would be lost in a haze of ignorance and incomprehension; today, over three decades later, she would probably not be so alone, but unless she had an unusually enlightened family, she would still be trying to get a fix on her identity, amidst all the token noises of understanding the ‘rainbow’ spectrum. Which is why Tendulkar’s play was, and remains, significant.

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

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