Saturday, April 05, 2014

Middle-class Mores

Lillete Dubey's Primetime Theatre Company brings alive Mahesh Dattani's extraordinary play, 'Dance Like a Man'

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the introduction of Mahesh Dattani's play, 'Dance Like a Man', at the JT Pac, Kochi, the announcer says, “This is the 501st show. It is the longest-running play in English in any genre in India. An original Indian play in English it is written by an Indian about Indians.”
Interestingly, there was applause following this statement. Because, for decades, English theatre in India has always borrowed plays from the West. So, it was good to see that desi plays are having a resonance, not only in India, but all over the world.

'Dance Like a Man' has been performed in Portland, USA, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and in Auckland, New Zealand, among numerous other places,” says the announcer. “There have been two-week runs at the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival, Off-Off Broadway, and London's West End.”

So, it was with eagerness that the audience looked forward to see the actors of Lillette Dubey's Primetime Theatre Company enact the story.

Jairaj and Ratna Parekh, ageing Bharatnatyam dancers, are anxious that their daughter Lata make a powerful impact at a concert in New Delhi which would be attended by many luminaries including the President of India. But their immediate worry is that the mridangam artist, Srinivasan, has broken his arm and cannot perform. Husband and wife are discussing alternatives and the dialogue is typical of the gossipy nature of Indians.

Jairaj: “We could ask Seshadri.”

Ratna: “Are you mad? He is busy rehearsing with Chandrakala. When he is not rehearsing, he is sleeping with her.”

Jairaj: “It is just gossip.”

Ratna: “I have seen it with my own eyes. In a hotel at Moscow. 3 o'clock in the morning I saw him sneaking down the corridor and into her room.”

Jairaj: “What were you doing in the hotel corridor at three o'clock in the morning?”

Ratna: “I was checking to see in whose room you were sneaking in.”

As the audience laughs, Jairaj says, “I was downstairs in the bar drinking vodka.”
In a sub-plot, Vishwas, a son of a businessman, who is courting Lata, has come to see Jairaj and Ratna at their large bungalow in Bangalore in order to ask for their daughter's hand in marriage. But when he arrives, only Lata is at home. The dialogue quickly highlights the materialistic mind-set of the middle classes.

Lata: “I am the sole heir to this property. It is right in the centre of town. A Sindhi builder offered my father Rs 2 crore. He wants to build a shopping complex. But my father does not want to sell.”

Says Vishwas: “Did you tell them [parents] that my father owns a mithai shop on Commercial Street?”

Lata: “Yes, also that he owns half the buildings on that road.”

The story within the story is of Jairaj's late father, Amritlal Parekh, who made a fortune by buying and selling houses. He cannot tolerate the fact that his son wants to be a dancer. 
Amritlal tells Ratna, “A woman in a man's world is considered progressive. But a man in a woman's world is considered pathetic. Help me to make him an adult.” In the end, the domineering and contemptuous Amritlal destroys Jairaj's self-worth and confidence.

This flashback into the past is done so well. Actor Vijay Crishna just moves to one side of the stage, puts on a cream waistcoat, a Gandhi cap and spectacles, and immediately transforms from Jairaj to Amritlal. The facial expression and the change in tone are remarkable. This also happens when Joy Sengupta, who plays Vishwas, becomes a younger Jairaj while Suchitra Pillai who is Lata takes on the garb of a younger Ratna, with a distinct South Indian accent.

One of the most remarkable scenes occurs when Lata's performance is a huge success and a certain Dr. Gowda calls up to congratulate Lata. But she is sleeping, so Ratna picks up the phone. The way she cloyingly talks to the well-connected doctor and her rage that erupts subtly when Ratna comes to know that her arch-rival Chandrakala is on the selection panel for an upcoming cultural tour to Canada.

Chandrakala?” says Ratna. “She was such a good dancer (a tiny pause) twenty years ago.” With this sentence, playwright Dattani confirms the intense jealousies and hatreds that mar the relationship of rival artistes.

Meanwhile, newspaper critics also take a hit when the family reads the write-ups on Lata's performance. Says Lata, looking at one newspaper, “See this: 'Lata's rendition of Jaidev's 'Geet Govinda' was tenderly intense and intensely tender. Her cheerful expressions and heaving bosom convey all that was humanly possible.”

A mocking Lata says, “Arrey my bosom was heaving because I was breathless from the previous varanam [the centre-piece in a Bharatnatyam dance].”

The other topics which were explored included the contentious husband-wife relationship, the pain of being a parent and losing a child, sexual abuse by relatives, social ostracism and the class divide.

Throughout, the actors were brilliant – Vijay, Joy, Suchitra and Lillete herself. And who can forget Lillete's biggest asset: her unique voice. It was husky and sweet, serene and cold, kind and cruel, sarcastic and cajoling, moving and merciless. Long after the play was over, Lillete's voice continued to echo in the head. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

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