Mahesh Dattani could easily pass for a history professor or a marriage counsellor, with his ever-ready smile and calm demeanour.
Not given to starry tantrums, the actor-director-playwright belies the eccentric nature that artistes are known for. After spearheading plays like Double Deal, Mad about Money and movies like Morning Raga, he’s ready to take on Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist..
Produced by his old friend Ashwin Gidwani, and adapted by Deepa Gahlot, the much-loved novel will bring to the stage the trials of Santiago. The Alchemist will mark Dattani’s first turn at directing a musical. “We’ve kept the integrity of the play intact,” Dattani says. “But we also felt like we needed to elevate the sense of drama by bringing in some music.”
Quiz him on whether he had to step out of his comfort zone and pat comes the reply. “I felt I needed to stretch myself a bit. My first service is to the medium that you are performing in, not just the medium you’ve taken it from.” What if Coelho loyalists consider the song and martial arts routine selling out? Gidwani responds, “Because of the sheer sweep of the story in terms of time and place, we’ve brought in computerised lights, live singing and great sets. We’re trying to engage the audience in a complete visual experience.. entice all their senses.” Dattani adds, “The music and martial arts are not used as embellishments. They are essential to take the story to the next level.”
He explains the balancing act between giving the audience what they want and understanding what they expect. “I’ve been through the phase where I felt the audience should lap up whatever I offer.
“To put it very plainly, that’s the difference between sex and masturbation,” he deadpans. So with a cult novel, live music and great expectations, what was the most difficult part of the process? “Choosing people who could act, sing and perform martial arts,” they reply in unison. “We’ve met some very interesting people, we could make a hilarious home video based on the auditions.”
Despite the rare combination of skills required, the duo found their ideal cast including Mohan Kapoor, Sandeep Sikand and Tarun Negi who will essay the role of Santiago.
“We had a martial arts trainer who helped with the fight sequences. It was a very systematic production, notes were made and discussions were held after each rehearsal.” Gidwani remembers.
So did they have to deal with drama queens on stage? “We play good cop-bad cop,” he grins. “Though I’m usually the one who’s called in to crack the whip. It takes a lot to get Mahesh to lose his cool”
Any final words? “In all modesty, I’m not presenting a very radical departure from the book,” explains Dattani. “But I would love it if people say, ‘I’ve read the book, but wow, I never looked at it that way.”