Playwright Mahesh Dattani on Dance, Drama and Failed Dreams

  • Poulomi Banerjee, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jun 03, 2016 21:21 IST
Writer-director and veteran theatre personality Mahesh Dattani. (HT File Photo)

In the summer of 2015, theatre director KS Rajendran was looking for a play for the participants of his workshop to perform. “I wanted an Indian-English play, not a foreign one,” he says. And he chose Mahesh Dattani’s Dance Like A Man. The same cast will be staging the play again at the Shri Ram Centre of Performing Arts this Sunday. Written in 1989, Dance Like A Man revolves around the complex relationship, passions, and ambitions of Jairaj Parekh and his wife Ratna, and Jairaj’s manipulative father Amrutlal. “The text is very dense and Dattani uses the main characters and their dreams and relationships to look at the history of Bharatnatyam and the stigma attached to performing artists,” says Rajendran. In an email interaction with Hindustan Times, Dattani explains what is the enduring appeal of the play.

You had written Dance like a Man in the 1980s and the story is set in an even earlier time. Do you think the subject of the stigma attached to a man who wants to dance is relevant today?

Yes. I believe the subject is still relevant. Perhaps a small section of our society is open to the idea of professional male dancers. But by and large it is still considered unmanly, although dance requires an athlete’s stamina and muscularity, along with rhythm and grace. But the play is really a metaphor about finding the balance within. Like all internal conflicts, they can never be irrelevant.

If you were writing Dance Like A Man today, is there anything that you would write differently?

Yes. I feel audiences are very judgemental about the female character Ratna. They do not question the man. The play is about the price they both pay for pursuing their passion. Also, I would treat the character of Amrutlal more sympathetically. After all, he is only interested in the welfare of his son. However, this might just take away from the purity of the story so I would let it be!

A scene from the play Dance like a Man

For theatre directors and actors, what according to you is the enduring appeal of this play?

For actors, there is a lot of meat on the table. The sub-text and undercurrents between the four protagonists are open to several interpretations. A director can offer subtle interpretations of the father-son, man-woman, society-individual and mother-daughter relationships. The permutations are many. A good director will be selective on what he or she wishes to focus on.

Various forms of social dancing are very popular in India today, and even among men. But are classical dancers, especially men, viewed differently?

Our classical dances are not social dances. They are incomplete without the rasa created between performer and spectator. Most of the repertoire of our classical dance has been written for the Nayika (Heroine), so a male dancer must empathise with the lasya (grace) aspect of it as much as the tandava (physically forceful).

Dance Like A Man has also been made into a film. Which is the medium that you prefer, and why?

I think the film puts the dance in focus better than the play. It is a treat to watch a dancer in close-up, a privilege you can never have in the theatre — unless it is a very intimate space. Sobhana has done a marvellous job of creating the character of Ratna through her dance. Whereas Lillete Dubey who plays Ratna on stage has depicted the psychological realm of Ratna through her feelings and emotions. Both are valid.

Is there a dearth of English theatre content written in India? And is what’s available mostly romantic comedies? Do we have an audience for serious theatre?

No longer. There are plenty of talented young writers today. What we lack are directors with the ability to recognise new talent in writing. Of course we have an audience for serious theatre. Dance like a Man has proved it. It is the longest running Indian-English play. Lillete Dubey’s production has been playing it for over fifteen years.

What’s on: Dance like a Man
When: 7.30 pm; June 5
Where: Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts, Mandi House, 4 Safdar Hashmi Marg
Call: 23714307
Tickets available at the venue and

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