The man who didn't give a damn

Gujarati theatre director Manoj Shah loves people who don’t give a damn. Circa 2000, after he read the biographies of Vincent Van Gogh and Charles Bukowski, Shah was deeply impressed by the greats who weaved magic, uncaring of what society thought of their work. “I knew, back then, that I had to find a similar personality who was a Gujarati, and make a play in the same language,” says Shah. 

In the play Mareez, actor Dharmendra Gohil plays the role of the famous Gujarati poet of the same name

In 2004, Shah found the man, his muse, the poet Mareez, who was born in the 1920s and wrote evocative ghazals throughout his life. Mareez, says Shah, had a difficult life, and was a chronic alcoholic — only to change for the worse after his love was unrequited. Shah’s famous 2004 play on the man, also called Mareez, will be staged at the National Centre for Performing Arts today. It sketches the underrated poet’s life and unfortunate instance of businessmen passing off his works as their own.

If there’s one thing Shah despises, it is the sorry sense of humour people exhibit when they hear about the play, he says. “Most people come and ask me why I am staging a play on patients and hospitals (since the word ‘mareez’, in Hindi, refers to a patient). But then, Mareez was a rather little-known philosopher of his time,” says Shah.

That, perhaps, was the reason why the play has been demanding on Shah’s faculties. “I knew nothing about the man, except the fact that he existed and wrote heart-breaking ghazals. I only had a few documents with his work, but nothing that discussed his life.” So, back in 2004, Shah went to Surat, Mareez’s birthplace, to unearth the man’s story.

“I came across rare but fascinating stories about Mareez in Surat. Once, a group of butchers I met, told me that as a six year-old, Mareez often met butchers back then at that very place to hear them recite ghazals. To me, as a Jain and a vegetarian, the irony is unfathomable. Ek banda murge ki khaal udhadta hai, aur phir halki si, marmari ghazal sunata hai (A butcher kills and skins the chicken and, then, recites moving poems)?” says Shah.

Shah traced Mareez’s life back to Mumbai (then Bombay) and met people who remembered the poet as a regular on the streets of Dongri. “I found that Mareez hung around the Railway bar near Naaz Cinema at Pydhonie because it was the place to be for film aspirants and artistes who wanted their work read and critiqued by the who’s-who in art and literature back then.”

Language means a lot to Shah — so, even though Mareez is primarily a Gujarati play, Shah has characters speak in English, Hindi, the Bori dialect (he hired an expert for that, too) and even Sanskrit. Wait, Sanskrit? “Well, there’s a scene in the play where Mareez is hallucinating. He’s had too much to drink and sees Lord Indra come down to speak to him. He tells Mareez that his ghazals are popular up there too, but it’s not much fun if he doesn’t hear them from the man himself,” smiles Shah.

Actor Dharmendra Gohil, who plays Mareez in the play, says the task of playing such a layered character was made easy as soon as he heard his ghazals. “Mareez said the deepest things using the simplest words — that’s the mark of a great artiste, right?” The difficult part for Gohil will be the scene in the climax where Mareez is severely hallucinating and crying out loud. “It will be difficult to be in control yet render a believable performance. His ghazals may help,” smiles Gohil.

At: July 22, 7 pm, Dance Theatre Godrej, NCPA, Nariman Point
Tickets: Rs 280 for members and Rs 300 for non-members
Call: 66223737 

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