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Me and My Plays - Saibal Chatterjee - The Sunday Indian
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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Me and My Plays


The drama of life and beyond
SAIBAL CHATTERJEE | Issue Dated: March 9, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Mahesh Dattani | Me and My Plays |

Reading a play can never be never quite as exciting as watching one. A dramatic work is after all essentially crafted for performance on the proscenium stage and, therefore, the characters do not spring out of the pages at you the way they would if actors were to impersonate them in flesh and blood.

This is as true of a Mahesh Dattani work as it is of a William Shakespeare or George Bernard Shaw creation. Studying the Bard in the classroom (as many of us have done and still do) cannot hold a candle to the experience of witnessing an enactment of a Shakespearean play. Be that as it may, the two new plays in this book are informed with enough innate energy and excitement to enthuse the reader not to give up on them halfway through.

It is another matter that The Big Fat City is not as powerfully resonant as Where Did I Leave My Purdah?
The latter hinges on one last hurrah attempted by a theatre doyenne who is now in her eighties and desperate to revive the magic of a play that was mounted decades ago by the Lahore-based troupe that she was a part of in her heydays. The juxtaposition of past and present creates fascinating patterns of dreams and realities.

Where Did I Leave My Purdah? is the story of Nazia Sahiba, a feisty, self-absorbed diva whose life and work spans several decades of history, creativity and political upheavals.

With director-actress Lillete Dubey playing the older Nazia, her real-life daughter Neha Dubey taking on the role of the younger avatar, and Soni Razdan cast as Nazia’s sister, it is easy to imagine the kind of life that the play would pulsate with when it is staged. 

The Big Fat City, a black comedy that revolves around an unintended murder in an apartment block in Mumbai, is slight in comparison, clearly a piece of drama targeted by an otherwise uncompromising playwright at a wider and probably less demanding audience.

The Big Fat City would be regarded as particularly disappointing in the light of the quality that Dattani’s admirers are accustomed to being treated to.

For three decades, the Sahitya Akademi Award-winning dramatist has defined Indian English theatre with a degree of consistency that is rare in any field of creative endeavour in India, and more so in the domain that Dattani works in.
The characters in The Big Fat City – a professional who has been laid off, his wily wife seeking ways of saving her apartment after defaulting on a housing loan, a glamorous but past-her-prime television actress, a young paying guest, a hotheaded lover, among others – seem to lack the sort of depth he usually imparts to the dramatis personae of his plays.
It leaves you wondering why Dattani, whose plays have usually dealt with provocative themes such as gender politics, gay love, child sexual abuse and communal hatred, would settle for something cast in the ‘crowd-pleasing’ mould. One only has to go back to the story of his career, eloquently summed up in the opening Essay, to understand the challenges he faces as the standard-bearer of professional English theatre in India.            

Here is how it goes: a Gujarati-origin, theatre-loving boy grows up in a sleepy, Kannada-speaking Bangalore in the 1960s and 1970s. But, thanks to his education, English is the only language that he picks up with any degree of proficiency.

So what does the young man do? He decides to flow against the dominant tide of the theatre scene of the era and emerges as one of India’s most successful playwrights in what we today know as ‘Indian English’. That, broadly speaking, is the Mahesh Dattani story.

But by no stretch of the imagination was his rise in the world of theatre quite that facile. The opening Essay reveals the intense struggle that the playwright had to endure in his quest for a voice as a writer of original plays.

As a boy, he was exposed to plays in various languages, including of course English, but realized that productions in the vernacular always had a more spontaneous connect with the audience than those in English. “…I realized I was doomed,” writes Dattani. “I didn’t have an audience, because I didn’t have a language.”

The approaches that Dattani adopted in order to find his way around that huge handicap form the crux of the brief Essay. It serves as a perfect prelude to the two new plays included here.

The unevenness between the two plays notwithstanding, Me and My Plays is worth its weight in gold for the insight it provides into Dattani’s mind and craft.

Author: Mahesh Dattani
Edition: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0- 143-42228-0
Pages: 246
Price: Rs 299
Publisher: Penguin

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017