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The drama behind the rashtrabhasha

The national language is finally finding a new voice on stage. A bunch of young theatrewallas are changing the face of Hindi theatre with their brand of vibrant and sincere performances that talk about contemporary issues, says

It's 9 pm on Thursday night. What should have kicked off two hours ago is yet to begin. The rehearsal room at a BMC gymkhana in Vile Parle, is just filling up. Director Gopal Tewari walks over to a corner and squats beside four turban-clad musicians, who have travelled here from Madhya Pradesh to play live on Sunday evening when Preth, a Hindi musical premieres on the last day of Centrestage, the 10 day-long theatre festival of the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA). 


The crew of Hindi musical Preth that premieres today at NCPA's
Centerstage festival includes members from a mix of theatre
groups including Aarambh Production, Rangbaaz Theatre and
aRANYA. (Left to right) Purva Naresh, Rahul Sharma, Debtosh
Dorjee, Imran Rashid, Pawan Uttam (seated), Gopal Tewari,
Kumud Mishra, Rajiv Kumar and Abhishek Gautam.
Pic/ Satyajit Desai


Set deep within rural India, Preth is the story of a king with magical powers and an ill-fated villager who witnesses something he should not have. And it's not the only representative from the Hindi stable. 

Centrestage was the premier platform for another original Hindi production, The Great Raja Master Company, a musical with an ambitiously large cast. There's been serious buzz around both plays that bring contemporary issues like arbitrary execution of power and the dreams of a small town man living in a liberalised nation to the fore using themes rooted in the Hindi heartland.

When Juhu's Prithvi Theatre reopens in December, after a month-long renovation, expect the schedule to be packed with Hindi productions. Beginning with the recently formed theatre group from Mumbai, T-Pot Production's Chaar Small, the month will also see participation by Sunil Shanbag's Arpana, Lillete Dubey's Primetime Productions, Nadira Babbar's Ekjute, IPTA, and Manav Kaul's aRANYA which plans to open Laal Pencil, the story of a young girl who finds a magical, poetry-spewing pencil.


Rangbaaz Theatre's Bade Miyan Deewane premiered before an
audience of 40 people but has steadily built a fan following and
now runs to packed houses


But the big surprise comes in January 2012 when English theatre group Rage Production's Writer's Bloc Festival, will include three new Hindi plays for the first time. It's been more than a decade since Hindi theatre groups have announced such a large number of new productions within a span of few months.

In the last couple of years, while English theatre and regional productions found their footing, Hindi theatre lost its hold on prestigious venues like Tardeo's Tejpal Auditorium and Juhu's Prithvi Theatre; once venues for Hindi plays only.

"Hindi theatre hasn't changed much in the last 10 years. Gujarati theatre has its murder mysteries and family dramas. Marathi sees a combination of commercial and experimental theatre, and we, in English, have the Sound Of Musics, bedroom dramas and are attempting to find our own voice. Hindi theatre, somehow, lost its way, which is sad because it's our national language," says playwright-director Rahul DaCunha of Rage Productions. 


The cast and crew of T Pot Production's Chaar Small that will
premiere at Prithvi in December. Chaar Small is a collection of
four short stories, and includes Sanjay Dadhich's piece that
looks at the life of Dadu Tiwari, a small town boy who wants to
make it big in the city


Some blamed Bollywood for the decline; it's been sucking talent out of theatre, they rue. Others put it down to complacency. "Once the groups settled into a groove, they said, let's do stuff that pleases the audience. They stuck to a formula. And then there is the other kind of Hindi theatre, the one that casts the likes of Shabana Azmi and Farooq Shaikh who can draw in the audience over years," observes Deepa Gahlot, theatre chronicler and programming head, film and theatre, NCPA. That leaves a handful of names -- Naseeruddin Shah, Makrand Deshpande, Manav Kaul and Sunil Shanbag (all with a Pt Satyadev Dubey connection ) -- to keep experimental theatre in Hindi going.

The veterans now have young blood for company. Newer theatre groups across the urban India are willing to tell fresh, contemporary stories. They are looking high and low for ideas that can be transformed to suit the stage, and their thorough backgrounds in Hindi literature help. Collaborating officially and unofficially on productions, they are working like an organic unit.



They are more confident and you can know that from the stories they choose to tell, the production standards they adhere to, and the fearless ambition that's driving them to take on a cast and crew that run into double digits.

Meet the new faces
To categorise theatrewallas Purva Naresh, Gopal Tewari, Avneesh Mishra, Trishla Patel, Imran Rashid, Pawan Uttam, Gagan Riar and Bijon Mondal as playwright, director, actor or technical assistant would be naive. Often, they take on multiple, and varied roles depending on the need. All native to pockets of north India, they have grown up listening to the same local folklore, and are immensely comfortable in their mother tongue.

Suddenly, therefore, it's the common man hailing from a small town who is the most popular protagonist. Aaj Rang Hai, a T Pot Productions and Aarambh play that opened at Centrestage 2010, was based on Amir Khusrau's poetry, written by Purva Naresh and Vijay Naresh, and had an old lady named Beni Bua hailing from a small town in Madhya Pradesh, driving the script.


Mohan Agashe and Lillete Dubey in Adhe Adhure. Primetime
Productions has encouraged Indian-English playwrights for 20
years. This August 2011 production was the group's first Hindi
play


The same team is working on Preth. Playwright-director-choreographer-production in-charge Naresh speaks fluent English, but is most comfortable with Hindi when she is writing a theatre script. "I write in Hindi because my characters and ideas are emerging from my own experiences, straight out of the milieu I know. Writing dialogues in Hindi makes them organic.

Since I started off as a dialogue writer, I am instinctively drawn to characters who speak in a certain style," says Naresh, whose family hails from Madhya Pradesh. Exploring regional dialects adds layers to her work. That explains the choice of the Bundeli dialect for Preth.

Chaar Small is a collection of four short stories, and includes producer-director-writer Trishla Patel piece titled, Laash-ting Impressions inspired by Mumbai's potholes and their impact on the average Joe. In a coup of sorts, Patel has got Makrand Deshpande's long time assistant Sanjay Dadhich to write one of the stories. Dadhich's piece looks at the life of Dadu Tiwari, a small town boy, who wants to make it big in the city.

When they don't find an original script to work on, the bunch digs into their reservoir of regional folklore and stories untouched by mainstream theatre. Imran Rashid and Pawan Uttam launched their banner Rangbaaz Theatre with the intent to work on quality plays in Hindi. Their first production, Bade Miyan Deewane, was based on Budbhas, a novel by UP-based writer Shaukat Thanvi.


Veteran actors Tom Alter and Sudhir Pandey essayed the roles
of Einstein and Dr Ausada respectively in Rangshila Production's
Teesveen Shatabdi


They had to, of course, add their own ideas to Thanvi's original story, so they presented the play in Moli re's style. "People are experimenting with devices. Hindi theatre is becoming a lot more physical, with the arrival of young talent. It is an exciting time," says Gopal Tewari, co-director of Preth, and a rare National School of Drama product who decided to try his luck in Mumbai instead of sticking to the safety cocoon that Delhi theatre offers.

Even when they choose a classic, they bring their own local sensibility to the play, like Avneesh Mishra did with Hungarian writer Fritz Karinthy's work, Refund, that he staged in Hindi last year. The story is about an unsuccessful middle-aged man, who blames his school and teachers for his failure, and returns to demand a full refund of his education fees, with interest.

Mishra found a connect to the play when travelling across the country, conducting theatre workshops in schools. "In most of the small town schools I have been visiting since 2004, I have seen disinterested teachers who don't care much  for the kids. Their parents aren't equipped with academic skills to challenge them either," says the 30 year-old. 

Breaking feudal barriers
In trying to find and establish their own space, the young theatrewallas have managed to crack the feudal system that once ruled Hindi theatre, preventing creative professionals associated with one group to collaborate with another. The logic? The parent group had spent precious time and money honing the members' talent and skills. In the last few years, several old timers have lost young professionals who have broken away to set up independent groups. 

Juhi Babbar, actress with Ekjute, a Mumbai-based theatre group, agrees. "We have been instrumental in creating a platform for new theatre groups through the theatre workshops we hold regularly. But you have ditchers (sic) and people who part cordially. It's all part of running a theatre group. We don't react to such instances because we've been here for 30 years. Those who leave us should continue to remain dedicated to theatre... that's what's important."

Imran Rashid of Rangbaaz calls it their 'hub'. "Every group comes over to watch the other's production, which is  followed by vibrant discussions. It's important because most groups in Delhi enjoy government or institution funding. In Mumbai we struggle to find funds, so we must be successful." You know what Rashid's saying is true when you see him play a sutradhar (narrator) in Preth, directed by

Tiwari and Naresh of Aarambh. Gagan Riar who is known in the theatre circles for his musical talent is helping the group with creating poster art for the premiere. "The cast of Aaj Rang Hai and Bade Miyan Deewane even share production and costume petis (trunks)!" smiles Naresh. "I think it is a great thing to happen. We get to work across genres and follow various styles and directors. I, for instance, have learnt a fair bit from Sunil's (Shanbag) calm way of working. When I'm about to lose my temper, I think of Sunil," says Tewari.

Filling the auditorium
But theatrewallas are undecided whether the renewed interest in Hindi theatre is helping draw in the crowds. Sceptics from the old garrison say new groups will have to struggle to find an identity, without which it's tough to pull in audiences. But the young groups are opposed to being restricted by an identity. "It was difficult, initially," Rashid admits, "For the first show of Bade Miyan Deewane (BMD), there were barely 40 people in the auditorium," he laughs. Now, of course, getting your hands on a BMD ticket is rather tough.

Gradually, they are finding their feet with gathering support and funding from the right quarters. Tiwari speaks of a possible collaboration with Sukant Panigrahy, a Bollywood art director and production designer, who has worked on Chak De! India, Badmaash Company and Dil Bole Hadippa! "I'm working on the sequel of Tunni Ki Kahani, a musical we had first performed at Prithvi's Summertime Festival. Sukant has agreed to produce the play, while handing over the directorial reigns to me," he says.

Last year, NCPA announced Ananda, an exclusive Hindi theatre festival which featured Rangbaaz's Falsafa, IPTA's Kabuliwala Laut Aaya and Yatri's Ravanleela. Participating at festivals helps groups reach out to wider and newer audiences, while hoping to receive support from institutions. With the loss of venues like Tejpal, festivals gain even more importance as platforms. "The way to survive is to participate in festivals and travel out of Mumbai. Unless we are able to create small to mid-sized auditoriums, the new groups are going to have to struggle to find a place to perform," says Gahlot.

The Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Award (META)-winning Aaj Rang Hai was staged in Bareilly and Lucknow and impressed members of Darpan, a 50-year-old theatre group from Kanpur. Even groups like Akvarious Productions, known for their English plays, now consider it important to include a Hindi play in their repertoire in a bid to reach out to audiences when they travel to tier-2 cities.

Akvarious collaborated with Rangbaaz on the 2008 production Namak Mirch, and with Purva Naresh for Afsaneh (a META nominated play) in the same year. "It widens the reach of the group. We have participated in festivals across Bareilly and Jabalpur, and the Hindi plays were a huge hit. Cities like Bhopal are opening up to English theatre gradually, but we find that Hindi plays work better. So it's important to have them in our kitty," says director Akarsh Khurana of Akvarious.

It's telling that even actor-director Lillete Dubey, known for producing Indian-English plays, produced Mohan Rakesh's Adhe Adhure under her Primetime Production's banner, earlier this year. Ekjute now has a sibling group called Performers that focuses on 'Hinglish' plays. And finally, more than 15 years after they got together, Rage Productions is dabbling in Hindi theatre. Actor Rajit Kapur will direct playwright Akash Mohimen's Mahua, a play set in Orissa.

Dacunha can't hide his excitement over the next installment of Writer's Bloc being a multilingual festival. Although, he adds, "We still don't have enough vibrant writers who write in Hindi." Dacunha hopes that will change. Rashid is confident his genre of theatre will reclaim its lost glory. "Aage aage dekho, khel kar denge hum," he smiles.

Gopal Tewari and Gagan Nair play an instrumental role in Sunil Shanbag's Stories In A Song. When Rage began work on Writer's Bloc 2012, Purva Naresh was the first person they approached. Rashid, who considers Makrand Deshpande an inspiration, is currently working in a play produced by Naseeruddin Shah's group, Motley. If that doesn't inject excitement into Hindi theatre, what will?

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