Instrumental women

Jan 06, 2019, 05:26 IST | Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre

Two yesteryear film entertainers join forces with a debutante producer and a first-time director to stage a Marathi play, where a piano is at the centre of action

Instrumental women
Actors Varsha Usgaonker and Kishori Shahane Vij play two middle-aged bickering women, who are in love with the same man

Sumedha Raikar-MhatreAn English title for a Marathi play doesn't necessarily strike the right note; the mix of Marathi and English (Minglish) sounds worse and often plain wannabe: Dada Ek Good News Aahe. Some titles - Why so Gambheer? - are discordant, while others are out-and-out unimaginatively lifted, like the ongoing, A Perfect Murder. Despite a long-harboured dislike for hybrid kitschy labels, I was drawn to the ad of the two-act Marathi play, Piano for Sale.

The play is an adaptation of the English original of the same name, written by journalist-turned-novelist Meher Pestonji, 72, around 12 years ago. The technical director of Pestonji's English play, Aashish Kulkarni, translated the script in Marathi in 2013. He firmed it up a few months ago, when producers Chaitanya Akolkar and Mamta Sardesai, came together under a newly-formed production company called Digital Detoxx, and decided to put money into an offbeat women-centric drama.

As the piano remained centre-stage, the original title was retained. A piano is a piano and a sale is a sale, jokes Kulkarni, who feels the Marathi rendering flows effortlessly. Irrespective of the play's language, one musical instrument is the uniting (or dividing) factor between two middle-aged women, who happen to love the same man.

Director Aashish Kulkarni, who worked as technical director in the original English play, translated the script in Marathi in 2013
Director Aashish Kulkarni, who worked as technical director in the original English play, translated the script in Marathi in 2013

The title is, however, the least of the issues in Kulkarni's play. Piano for Sale is positioned as a bumper package, accommodating strangely dissimilar energies. Its filmy-style red carpet premiere is a telling comment on its 'corporate' makeup. Digital Detoxx claims it is the first production unit to have organised a jazzy debut show for a play, an event dedicated to the elevation of the regional rangbhoomi. The razzmatazz was evident at the premiere, with the presence of singers like Anoop Jalota, Usha Mangeshkar and voice-over artist Harish Bhimani. The play has also won testimonials from Bollywood's famed melody queens. While Lata Mangeshkar endorsed the play on Twitter, Asha Bhosle's words of praise have been played during the 12-odd shows, where she boasts of the 'family connection' with the play: "Piano for Sale team has my good wishes. My nephew Yogesh, son of my elder sister (Meena Khadikar), who is as good as my son, has given the music for the play. I am sure the play will do exceptionally well."

While Bhosle's nephew adds to the piano's saleability, the real draw lies in the casting of two yesteryear actors Varsha Usgaonker, 50, and Kishori Shahane Vij, 50, who play the two bickering women. Usgaonker is Anita Jahagirdar, the moneyed beautiful pampered wife of a famous doctor; Vij is Sheela Augustine, a jilted single woman, who finds meaning in teaching children with special needs. Both stand on opposite sides of the social and ideological spectrum. To begin with, it is nice to see the actors play their age. They fit well into characters who dwell on gender-based insecurities, ill-health, female subservience in marriage, the pressures associated with 'singlehood', and most importantly, appreciation of life beyond material pursuits. Mumbai's changing skyline emerges as a recurring theme in their talk. They resent the builder mafia; they share their takes on life in blue-collar neighbourhoods as against the 'developed' high-rises. The play progresses reasonably for two hours, and ends on a sombre note.

While no dialogue has long-term resonance, both protagonists emerge as real and resilient Mumbai women. Both have spent their working lives in Mumbai, which shows in their articulation of some big-city truths. Considering the fact that neither artiste has a robust stage experience nor has been part of a repertory, the pair strikes good chemistry within the confines of a set, where an unused piano takes up half the space. Not only have they survived the rigor of regular shows in and out of Mumbai, but the production is committed to travelling across India and abroad.

Piano for Sale compels me to think of Usgaonker and Vij as women who have remained afloat for over three decades in a youth-obsessed, glamour-besotted film and television industry where prestigious roles are divided in an outsized pool of artistes. Usgaonker, born in a Goan politician's Konkani household, studied theatre in the Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, Aurangabad. She shot to fame because of her gorgeous looks and comic timing seen in Gammat Jammat and Hamal De Dhamal, and the thought-provoking, Ek Hota Vidushak. Once described as Goa's emerald-eyed Sridevi, she had her share of small screen glamour in the iconic Mahabharata and Jhansi Ki Rani. She was among the few Marathi actors whose Hindi delivery-pronunciation was noticeably flawless. It is another story that she was later seen in forgettable Hindi films like Honeymoon opposite Rishi Kapoor or Ghar Jamai with Mithun Chakraborty. In the roles essayed in Bengali and later Konkani films (she currently shakes a leg in her Konkani avatar in Zanvoy No.1), she seems to live up to the 'bold' tag that has stuck with her screen persona since the 1980s.

Like Usgaonker, Vij's career is also marked by a diversity in assignments. Once crowned as Miss Mithibai College, she claimed her share of the sky in an assorted range - blockbuster Maherchi Saadi to Hindi play, Aadhe Adhure and soap saga, Shakti: Astitva Ke Ehsaas Ki. She is a dancer who has performed in shows abroad. Her participation in the Mrs Gladrags Beauty Pageant as the runner-up in 2003 established her as the iconic fitness-conscious woman, who defies the stereotype of the 'married actress beyond the prime'. She has directed and produced two films - one on goddess Mohtadevi and one on Sai Baba. She plays the mother figure in many soap operas, where she competes with the leading ladies in the bindi-designer sari department. Of late, she has cut short her appearance in Ishq Mein Marjawa, so as to facilitate piano time.

While Usgaonker and Vij have committed their dates for the piano class, their producer and director are equally eager to chart a full calendar of upcoming performances in the US. In fact, the reason for the Marathi rendering of Pestonji's script is its 'portability'. As Sardesai adds, "Action in the script is contained and suppressed in one manageable set with two characters, which can be transported to milieus wherever the story has takers."

At one point, the US-based Maharashtra Mandals were roped in as hosts by theatre producers like late Sudhir Bhat. In the '90s, his company Suyog packaged light comedies for Marathi audiences settled abroad, which was seen as a cool and 'happening' practice. Digital Detoxx is aiming for a deeper reach, having networked with local event promotion units in New York, Atlanta and Dallas to begin with. The piano's sale now has many takers and stakeholders.

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her on sumedha.raikar@gmail.com

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