How Karnad saw 2020

Updated: Feb 02, 2020, 08:17 IST | Gitanjali Chandrasekharan | Mumbai

Months after Girish Karnad passed on, his last play comes to Mumbai. And actor-director and friend Arjun Sajnani says, it's a new, sympathetic, look at today's conflicts

Actor-director Arjun Sajnani
Actor-director Arjun Sajnani

How Crossing to Talikota landed in his lap, is a story that Arjun Sajnani has repeated often. But, it begs to be retold, at least for the Mumbai reader. The play, which will be staged for the first time in the city, at the National Centre for the Performing Arts next month, is the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Jnanapith, Sahitya Academy awardee (there's a longer list) Girish Karnad's last play.

"It was a great piece of luck for me. I run a restaurant called Sunny's and Girish and his wife [Saraswathy Ganapathy] were my neighbours. Girish and I had a long association of three-four shows. One afternoon in July 2018, while having lunch here, he told me that he wanted me to read his new play. It's always an honour when a living playwright and someone as great as him offers a new script," says Sajnani, known for productions like Tughlaq, Fire and Rain, and Bali.

He admits to being bowled over by the second act. "But the first was so immense in scope that I couldn't get around it and took around four months [to get a grip on]. Then, Shama Zaidi [scriptwriter, costume designer and art director], who is known to Girish and me because we did Tughlaq together—said, 'don't be an a**. Just tell Girish you are doing the play and do it'."

It took Girish Karnad three years to research this play
It took Girish Karnad three years to research this play

The play is based on the legendary battle fought in 1565 between the Vijayanagara Empire, led by Aliya Rama Raya, and an alliance of the Deccan sultanates centres around Talikota, today a town in northern Karnataka. It's believed to have triggered the collapse of the empire and attributed to Rama Raya's hubris. Karnad has said in an interview, that it took him three years to research the play.

When Sajnani finally agreed to take on the play, help came in from the Rohini and Nandan Nilekani Foundation and bio-pharma entrepreneur Kiran Mazumdar Shaw. "Nandan wrote me a mail saying he'd like to fund it. This was a first. Usually, I am out with my begging bowl to do theatre. Of course, when the budget came it was a shock to all of us, including the sponsors," Sajnani laughs during the telephonic interview from Bengaluru. Production and rehearsals took four months, but Karnad's death was a heartbreak. "His death left a vacuum in the literary, theatrical world. And his liberal thinking on politics…we shared so much."

What stayed with Sajnani was Karnad's own vision for the play. "When he was giving the script, he kept saying, 'it's mega. It's really mega'. It was a good comment. It ensured that I didn't think small." The play, he admits, has such a large scope that he is considering making it into a movie.

While Karnad wasn't there for the world premiere of the play, his family and friends, says Sajnani, made up for it. "Saras was there and so was Radha [their daughter Shalmali Radha] for a later show. People came from Kuala Lumpur and Nigeria. Ashok Kulkarni, who heads the Pune Sarang Theatre Festival, saw it and said he wanted to open his festival with this piece."

The play, which has been supported in Mumbai by Vikram and Geetanjali Kirloskar and Cyrus Poonawala and Trilegal, deals "with the Hindu-Muslim issue honesty and integrity," he says. "The conflict, as Girish saw it, is not religious but geo-political. It was the betrayal of values that seem to dominate the theme, and one act of intense hubris by a ruler and his counter point Nizam Shah. And I believe that we have been able to bring sympathy for every person in that wrangle. What we face in the country today is the lesson that coexistence has been part of our culture for so long. Within this quartet of people, there's so much interaction, understanding of what it meant to rule a kingdom. Like a Shakespearean piece—I feel Girish was inspired by Shakespeare—one fatal flaw leads to tragedy. We are exactly in the same position now."

The other level of honesty on which the play worked was that it was written for older characters, says the 74-year-old. "All my actors have grown older with me. We have been together for 25 years and everyone had a good role. They were playing characters that allowed them to be comfortable and real."

Sajnani misses his friend. "Food is a great bonding agent and he and Saras would visit the restaurant three times a week, we'd talk a lot about everything—politics included."

Premiering without him has been tough. Because of the trepidation of being judged by Karnad's family and friends. "But seeing Saras and Radha there was a moving experience. Saras had tears and Radha said, 'Appa would not have not imagined that it would be done like this.' I am fortunate to have had him in my life."

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