About a year ago, Naseeruddin Shah and his group Motley opened a new play, A Walk in the Woods. It has gone on to become one of the most successful plays in recent times. Initially, audiences may have come to gawk at Naseer, but later, the positive word of mouth brought in people who are not regular theatregoers.
The strength of the play (superbly directed by Ratna Pathak Shah) is not just the performances (Naseer, Rajit Kapur excellent as usual), but the script, and it is hard to believe that the play about an Indian diplomat’s strange friendship with a Pakistani counterpart has been adapted from an American original by Lee Blessing. Faisal Rashid and Randeep Hooda (yes the actor) who did the adaptation, have just taken the idea and made the play their own. Blessing’s play had a Russian and an American diplomat going over the mine field of long festering issues, to find a solution that will hopefully lead to lasting peace.
The question is, do their countries really want a permanent end to hostility?
The plot works perfectly in the Indo-Pak context, but the adaptation is not just a matter of altering names of people and cities. It has delved into the subcontinent’s fractious history, put in events, references and humour that are identifiable to Indian audiences.
For many years, Mumbai’s English theatre has survived on adapting foreign plays (some companies still do), but a majority just involved making superficial changes. One of the earliest adaptations that was expertly and thoroughly Indianised — or rather Mumbai-ised — was Rahul da Cunha’s I’m Not Bajirao, a brilliant adaptation of Herb Gardner’s I’m Not Rappaport. The original about two old men, one Jewish and one African American, sitting on a park bench had observing life around them, were turned into a Parsi (Boman Irani... come back!) and a Maharashtrian (Sudhir Joshi, whose passing away brought curtains down on the hit production) and that play could very well have been written with Mumbai as a setting.
The adaptation that far surpassed the original was Javed Siddiqi’s Tumhari Amrita. To say it was based on AR Gurney’s Love Letters would be unfair, since Siddiqi just took the bare bones idea of two people writing letters to each other over a period of time, and wrote a piece so rich with history, nostalgia, poetry and nuance, that it became a political and cultural treatise on post-Independence India. It has run successfully for over 20 years (director Feroz Khan, and stars Shabana Azmi and Farouque Shaikh kept it alive) and has been adapted into practically every language in which theatre is done in our country.
Then Bhavesh Mandalia took a little known film The Man Who Sued God and wrote a play called Kanji Viruddh Kanji, a play (directed by Umesh Shukla) that is totally steeped in the Gujarati (and by extension Indian) ethos, that it has run for hundreds of shows — two versions in Gujarati, one in Marathi (Keshava Madhava) and Paresh Rawal’s celebrated production in Hindi, Kishan vs Kanhaiya (that was made into a film, Oh My God). Mandalia’s characterisation of the eccentric atheist Kanji, who sues God when his shop is wrecked in an earthquake, and the insurance company turns down his claim because his policy does not cover ‘acts of God’ was hilarious. Mandalia caught the pulse of the Gujarati/Indian attitude towards religion and made fun of our fears, superstition and gullibility, in a way that people were amused and yet not offended. Kanji Viruddh Kanji was as Indian as a play can be, with not a single trace of the Australian original.
These thoughts were triggered off after revisiting A Walk in the Woods and watching the opening show of Namaste, Ila Arun’s adaptation of Tom Dudzik’s Greetings. She changed the setting from Christmas to Janmashtmi, which just about passes muster, but the Catholic-Jewish friction has a history that is not so easily transcreated — it needed her considerable comic skills to keep this production afloat.
Adaptation is an art by itself and a lot tougher than mere translation — though a good translation is also a skill that demands understanding of words and cultures. Adapting from one Indian language to another is difficult enough, because it’s not just language that changes, but entire lifestyles. But a good adaption of the work of a writer from another country, amounts to writing a fresh play. The rewards may not always be worth the effort.
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator