The playwright’s ‘Me and My Plays’ is his own definitive statement in more ways than oneIn Mahesh Dattani’s play Where did I Leave My Purdah? the ageing actress Nazia says, “No matter what, nobody can take away the dances you’ve already had.” Dattani began his own “dances” in the middle to late 1980s. His essay, Me and My Plays, published in the book of the same name, lists several firsts.
He watched his first play at age nine, formed his theatre group Playpen in 1984, and wrote his first full-length play, Where There’s A Will in 1986. Arguably the best-known English language playwright in India, the Sahitya Akademi Award winner admits that he began because he felt the absence of English language drama written specifically for Indian audiences. In the past twenty-five years, Dattani has firmly established himself atop Indian professional theatre with which to both entertain as well as also hold the mirror up to various social issues.
Dattani’s essay reflects on his evolution as a playwright and the challenges he has faced along the way. It forms a sort of extended preface to this book that includes two of his plays, Where Did I Leave My Purdah? and The Big Fat City, both of which throw light on the work of an actor past her prime. Together, this essay and these two plays are almost like a manifesto of Dattani’s work.
The nine year old Mahesh Dattani got his first taste of theatre at the Town Hall in Bangalore when his parents took him to watch Madhu Rye’s Gujarati play Koi Pan Ek Phool Nu Naam Bolo To (Say The Name Of A Flower.) As a child growing up in Bangalore he was mesmerised by his father’s accounts of attending Gujarati musical drama near Mumbai’s opium bazaar.
Dattani speaks poignantly of early failures like not being accepted in the college drama club because he was not cool enough. He admits to giving up on a career as an actor due to his “thin, nasally voice” and “effeminate gestures.”
Dattani confesses that he was fortunate to enjoy the financial support of his businessman father, without whose patronage his early projects might not have seen the light of day. In this essay, we learn of his relationship with mentor Alyque Padamsee, his training in classical dance, his journey through the years, and his admiration for actor Lillete Dubey for whom, he says, the part of Nazia was written.
While the anecdotes and chronology of events are entertaining, the most revealing moments in the essay come when Dattani analyses his relationship with Indian theatre. Faced with the challenge of selecting and directing a play for a local theatre festival, instead of resorting to the usual suspects – classic European plays by the likes of Harold Pinter or Bertolt Brecht – Dattani chose instead to write his own play. What he wanted was to write something that the middle class Indian audience would identify with.
For, they “were all too tired of the fake accents on stage and the posturing that went on in the name of theatre in English.” Dattani was delighted to have discovered “Indian English,” the perfect medium in which to write about Indian reality.
The essay is valuable because it offers a glimpse into Mahesh Dattani’s inner life. He says at one point that the warm reception his work has got perhaps fulfils a craving for “unconditional acceptance.” Moments like these hint at a vulnerability that finds echoes in the characters in his plays.
The first of the two plays in this volume, Where did I Leave My Purdah?, is the third part of a triptych. The first part of the trilogy, the play Dance Like A Man, was about dance, while the second part, Morning Raga, is a film about music. The final play “explores the life and travails” of Nazia, who has been a stage actress for over sixty years.
Dattani says the play is meant to serve as a tribute to theatre actresses who were brave enough to pursue their passion at a time when it was looked down upon. The inspiration for Nazia’s character was the venerable Zohra Sehgal. Lillete Dubey writes a brief introduction to the play in which she praises the character of “the irrepressible, irreverent, iconoclastic and utterly human Nazia.”
Nazia is an aging star who wants to return to the stage after an interval of thirty years, by once more enacting the part of Shakuntala in a modernised adaptation of Kalidasa’s play. As Nazia prepares for her role, her niece Ruby confronts her about her mother – Nazia’s sister – and their family’s past, a past that is set against the backdrop of the Partition.
The structure of the play is complicated, involving past, present and a play within a play, but as Dubey points out, they “flow seamlessly into each other.” Nazia is a somewhat self-absorbed diva who cannot accept her fading stardom, but as the play unfolds, we, along with Ruby, discover the hidden layers of sacrifice and grief that she has harboured for decades.
The second play in this book, The Big Fat City, also features an actress. Once a popular TV star, Lolly is now a troubled wife and mother, and neighbour to a young couple who face financial ruin when the husband loses his job. They are stuck with paying a huge EMI, a term that is thrown about quite casually in Indian cities nowadays. The whole play is a shout out to contemporary Indian life.
Throughout, the different characters send and receive text messages that flash on a screen over the stage. Achint Kaur, who plays Lolly, writes the introduction to this one, and she points out that the use of text messages is an ingenious way to add contradictions between the characters’ thoughts and actions.
The Big fat City is in many ways a critique of life in Mumbai. While the plot is quite farcical – and hilarious with superbly-timed entrances and exits – it underlines the sordid and melancholic side of Mumbai. References to pop culture, the underworld, house loans, and random ideas of film productions create a sense of an absurdly complicated and superficial milieu.
People fall in love very quickly, vomit in their clothes when drunk, get thrown off the balcony, and are arrested for possession of drugs, all within a few hours. While these are everyday events in Mumbai, people like Harjeet from the heartland and the simple-minded Murli from Thirunalvelli act as outsiders who are bemused by the big fat city.
As Murli and his wife prepare to leave Mumbai for a less expensive and perhaps simpler place, they are gifted a beautiful painting by Lolly – an image of the people and buildings of Bombay – “So many people just going about as if life was all about…getting somewhere.” As they gaze at the painting, the couple resolves to come back. Just the way Nazia cries out at the very end of the first play, “Come on, spin me up! Don’t stop!” There’s a sense throughout the book that things are meant to continue, not cease.
The pairing of Dattani’s autobiographical essay with these two plays about fading stars who refuse to go quietly into the night seems to imply that, despite the many successes of the past, it is not yet time to stop. He confesses that with the trilogy about dance, music, and drama, a part of him has come to rest. “I am now hungry to move on and find another person in me, a new playwright maybe.”