Simon says...

Updated: Sep 02, 2018, 07:36 IST | Rahul da Cunha | Mumbai

The thump that the world felt, sadly wasn't the same as, say, had it been a tragedian (somehow, comedians have never commanded the same gravitas as the serious playwrights

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Rahul da CunhaNeil Simon died last week. He passed from this life to that special place in heaven reserved for the funny men. The thump that the world felt, sadly wasn't the same as, say, had it been a tragedian (somehow, comedians have never commanded the same gravitas as the serious playwrights. Never understood that). When Arthur Millerji passed on, the world grieved. For Neilsaab, there was some mourning, but it wasn't like a giant of the theatre had fallen. This man was a legend, at least for me.

There have been many areas of influence that this New Yorker had on me. The first was in the craft of comedy. No playwright, frankly, wrote a gag like him. (save maybe David Mamet) His funny lines always stemmed from the plot, not merely one liners. Simon was the master of this. Gags and punchlines were his patent.

Simon said he would tell aspiring comedy playwrights "not to try to make it funny ... try and make it real and then the comedy will come'. Within that setting, Simon's themes, besides marital conflict, sometimes included infidelity, sibling rivalry, adolescence, bereavement, and fear of ageing. And despite the serious nature of the themes, Simon continually managed to tell stories with humour, to include both realism and comedy.

But, it was his love for Manhattan and how it formed the backdrop for all his plays that was the most significant. You could argue that it's where he lived, it's what he loved; but when a city becomes an artiste's muse, that's special. Much like Woody Allen (and in a tiny way, by comparison, the way I feel about Mumbai).

I'm fascinated by writers who are fascinated by cities enough for those places to become their backdrop, their mileu, their point of reference. Their situations, characters, language, plots, themes... all stem from the urban landscape they reside in.

You could argue that any home, even a small town, can have an impact on writers. But somehow, it's the big cities, with their multi-culturalism, that seem to have a wider influence. Neil Simon always had New York's many dialects to play with. He pitted areas against each other — The Bronx, Yonkers and Brighton Beach, where he grew up. The Upper and Lower East side, where people aspired to get to — much like our own SoBo and NoBo.

His plays were filled with Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, Greeks.

Our city is similar – Bombay has the edge and excitement with drama on every street corner. It has the multi-culturalism, the dialects, the characters.

For those of us playwrights who consider Mumbai their muse, Neil Simon was the man.

The man who worked at making audiences, 'laugh to avoid weeping'.

Rahul da Cunha is an adman, theatre director/playwright, photographer and traveller. Reach him at

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