Watching Anupam Kher and Neena Gupta in Rakesh Bedi’s new play Mera Woh Matlab Nahin Tha, it’s good to know that some stars, who started their careers with theatre, occasionally return to it and help build audiences.
Both Kher and Gupta are National School of Drama graduates and have done theatre on and off. But over the last decade or so, audience preference has moved considerably towards theatre as entertainment, and they want their money’s worth. Having a star in a play certainly helps. Only Naseeruddin Shah could fill up the 100-seater Tata Theatre with his one-man show Einstein; the same play with a competent but unknown actor would not have worked. Anupam Kher’s autobiographical Kucch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai, Paresh Rawal’s Kishan vs Kanhaiya, Shabana Azmi’s Broken Images and recent hits, Ek Mulaqat with Deepti Naval-Shekhar Suman, Unfaithfully Yours with Ronit Roy-Mona Singh, Gardish Mein Taare with Sonali Kulkarni-Arif Zakaria, all ride on the performers’ star power.
Anupam Kher and Neena Gupta in the Hindi play Mera Woh Matlab Nahi Tha at Tata Theatre, NCPA
However, the actor needs a good text to work with, and that brings us to the problem of the lack of popular playwrights why think original when an adaptation will do? Anupam Kher was willing to back Rakesh Bedi, who has proved to be an audience-pleasing playwright, with Shimla Coffee House last year and now Mera Woh Matlab Nahin Tha.
As any theatre will testify, finding a first-rate two-hander is a dream come true. Tumhari Amrita ran for 20 years on the strength of its writing (Javed Siddiqi making AR Gurney’s Love Letters his own) that was enhanced by the presence of actors Shabana Azmi and Farouque Shaikh; all they had to do was sit at their desks and read out letters and the audience was bewitched.
In Mera Woh Matlab Nahin Tha, the two characters sit on a park bench and reminisce about their past (Rakesh Bedi makes an appearance too, but he is not a part of their story). Pritam Chopra and Hema Roy had grown up together, fell in love and would have liked to marry, but for their parents’ interference. Her parents don’t want to see her end up as the wife of a kabaadi (junk dealer); his parents have arranged a marriage of conveniences for him. In a plot device that would not work in this age of computers and cell phones, their letters are intercepted and remain undelivered.
They are meeting thirty-five years later, to find out what had happened back then, and why they went their separate ways into ill-matched unions. In India, even today, parents choosing or approving of their children’s partners is common, with caste, religion, social and financial status as benchmarks in choice of potential mate. The fear of what people will say always remains. In Mera Woh Matlab Nahin Tha, Pritam is still jittery when Hema sits too close or touches his arm; what if the neighbours see and gossip? But Bedi also acknowledges a less sexually inhibited India, as his character of the genial Mr Kapoor, offers his neighbor Pritam the use of an apartment for what he believes is a romantic rendezvous. Which it is in a way, though the romance is tempered with sweet and bitter memories and the unbearable burden of regret.
The characters’ past belongs to the gullies of Chandni Chowk, a community that stands apart in quaint isolation from a growing Delhi around it. Bedi evokes the memories of the area, its landmarks, its street food and the surreptitious cinema dates young boys and girls went on, hoping that no one they knew spots them. As Pritam recalls, when he spotted his father’s friends in the move hall, he was so terrified that he didn’t even get up to go to the loo for fear of running into them. There’s a strange middle class Indian trait that lets boys and girls be friends and playmates up to a certain age it is then bewildering for the kids-turned-teens to be told that they can no longer meet their friends of the other gender. Or what will people say?
Till a few years ago, it would have been unacceptable for a middle-aged couple to date or think of a future together. In fact, popular cinema has marginalized the post-fifty age group (only Amitabh Bachchan gets lead roles written for him), perhaps that is that added charm of this play. Anupam Kher still gets some decent supporting roles, but a gifted actress like Neena Gupta won’t get anything worth her while in films. On television, actors in their late twenties or early thirties are playing parents to grown-up kids. Ultimately it is theatre that respects talent... at any age.
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. She tweets at @deepagahlot