The IPL is a good thing. It has given Yash Raj Films and other partners-in-crime a reason to do something else other than adding to the collective waste of time of Mumbaikars through plotless, brainless drivel. So when we arrived at the Tata Theater at the NCPA on Saturday evening to catch a stage rendition of Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist” – we were (un)pleasantly surprised to see a theater packed with people who would be typically standing in line for popcorn at PVR. Dee raised a disapproving eyebrow when she saw people dressed in T-shirt & Jeans and (gasp) shorts and chappals. We should have read the signs… but it was too late. The next two hours were spent in wondering why did Mahesh Dattani (ordinarily quite talented) even attempt to bring “The Alchemist” to life in such a literal way.
Now, those who have read the book, would surely know that it is a “DIY Spirituality Guide” in the guise of the parable. The parable, the characters, the settings themselves are nothing special – cliched at best. It is what they represent, it is the sybolism which makes “The Alchemist” special – and certainly the reason why it enjoyed space on my bookshelf next to my copy of “The Prophet” and “The Old man and the Sea” – during my college days. Mr. Dattani – obviously a fan of the book – has taken Santiago’s journey through remote and dangerous lands and an unforgiving desert, to the stage, as it was. There is no interpretation, no creative application (unless you call adding song and dance, creative application) and it had its characters walking in circles with slow elongated steps for long periods of time, simulating a journey through a desert on camels. Shudder. All this could have been excused if the acting on display had been good. No luck there – the cast seemed to have been picked up from the unemployment lines… apart from a couple of theater regulars. And the dialogues? Somehow they sound ok in the book – but when Santiago’s true love says “I may be a woman of the desert. But first, I am a woman.” with a vapid expression of desire confused with ineptitude – it is time to desert.
The saving grace was the ever-melliflous Asif Ali Baig – as the “sutradhar” in the form of an elder Santiago – crooning through various pivotal points in the young Santiago’s journey (and also helping him change his clothes once in a while.) We saw the play with Dee’s cousin, who is herself in the theater business – and her unenthusiastic reading of the whole thing summarized what was wrong with the play. There was no conflict, no clash of ideas or ideals, no struggle. Sure, you would say… it is after all just a journey. But then is theater the right medium for this? What it was, the play and some scenes (like the horrendous battle-dance sequence in the middle) received standing ovations from the crowd – and I realised that the play was probably ok. I was just the wrong audience. They are playing all over the country – watch it if you like bollywood style melodrama (and acting).
In a bid to get the bad taste that the play left in our mouth – we decided to watch another, more promising one the next day. This was “30 days in September” – directed by Lillete Dubey and written by guess who? Mahesh Dattani again. Aparently this play was born on the sets of “Monsoon Wedding” and deals with the struggle of a young woman, who was sexually abused as a child by her uncle. A controversial topic, handled and presented in an even more controversial manner. It was 90 harrowing (in a good way) minutes long and we could see the audience squirming uncomfortably in their seats in many scenes. The premise of the play was that Mala – the young woman – was unable to hang on a relationship for more than 30 days, and was moving from one man to the other, having sex for the sake of it. Stuff like “I like it when
men use me” are dialogues not oft heard in the Indian theater scene. Finally her last lover, expertly played by Joy Sengupta, forces her to face her demons, face her mother (played by Lillete Dubey herself) who refused to acknowledge that anything bad had happened to her daughter and face the uncle (played by the ever versatile Amar Talwar), who had single handedly destroyed a family. There was conflict, a clash of generations and most of all there was a scream for help. Now, this is my only gripe with the play. Ira Dubey (Lillete’s daughter, who played the role) was more hyper-ventilating than acting on stage. Granted there was angst, and she was pretty screwed-up in the head – but pain is best shown through silent vulnerability. I can imagine a younger Shabana Azmi giving a completely different take on the pivotal role of Mala.
This was the 100th show of the play – and again they are touring everywhere. Watch it – if you don’t mind being exposed to an uncomfortable topic. What was heartening though, was the fact that the hall was packed. I really hope that bollywood takes a hiatus – and more people discover that the experience of theater can be infinitely more satisfying than a movie. After all, actors on stage do not have the luxury of a second take – much like life. (although “The Alchemist” definitely needed one…)