Theatre in Mumbai has always been dominated by Marathi and Gujarati — and even today, they exist in their own strong spheres. Their dominance over the city’s culturescape is understandable since Marathi is the native language of the state, and the earliest trader-settlers in Mumbai were Parsis and Gujaratis, who patronised theatre (and later films).
It may not be true across the board, but Marathi and Gujarati theatre manage to run professionally, paying playwrights, directors and actors decent remuneration, and giving them a springboard into television. The best writing continues to emerge from Marathi theatre, while Gujarati producers have their economics firmly in place. While Marathi plays go for volume — a number of shows in multiple cities; Gujarati theatre has perfected the “sold out show” route — when a play opens, impresarios pick it up for special shows for community groups in Mumbai, other cities and overseas, which is where a bulk of the revenue comes from.
Marathi audiences swear by experimental plays that challenge the mind — the experimental theatre movement thrived in Maharashtra along with mainstream theatre and even sex comedies called “hit & hot plays”; Maharashtra produced genre-breaking contemporary playwrights like Vijay Tendulkar, Satish Alekar and Mahesh Elkunchwar. In Maharashtra, even conservative, middleclass audiences supported controversial plays Ghashiram Kotwal and Sakharam Binder, while sobbing over family dramas by Vasant Kanetkar and Jaywant Dalvi.
Along with plays inspired by mythology and the epics, comedies and social plays also joined the march by the late 19th century. Annasaheb Kirloskar laid the foundation for the unique Marathi Sangeet Natak form with plays like Shakuntal, Sangeet Saubhadra and Ramrajyavirog. Names like Govind Ballal Deval, Shripad Krishna Kolhatkar, Krishnaji Prabhakar Khadilkar, Ram Ganesh Gadkari, BV (Mama) Warerkar remain legends of Marathi theatre. Then PK Atre came on to the scene with plays like Lagnachi Bedi (1936) and Moruchi Maushi (1947). And PL Deshpande with his realistic comedies about the common man became a household name.
Playwrights Vijay Tendulkar, Vasant Kanetkar, Jaywant Dalvi and SN Pendse among others remained at the centre of the theatre scene. Directors Vijaya Mehta, Jabbar Patel, Damu Kenkre and Amol Palekar, and actors Nana Patekar, Sadashiv Amrapurkar, Shreeram Lagoo, Vikram Gokhale, Mahesh Manjrekar, Atul Kulkarni and Shreyas Talpade all owe their roots to Marathi theatre.
Gujarati audiences, by contrast, are more conservative — their theatre is still full of saas-bahu melodramas and ‘social comedies’, a genre invented by and for Gujarati audiences.
Folk forms like Bhavai have been a part of Gujarati culture for centuries, but modern Gujarati theatre started in the late 19th century with historical plays like Rustom Sohrab (in 1853) and a lot of Parsi and Gujarati natak mandalis were established. The Gujaratis were also busy with dramatic pursuits — poet Dalpatram, Nagindas Marfatia, Navalram, Mansukhram Suryaram and others wrote plays. The Gujarati natak mandalis not just entertained audiences but also had a deep social impact with progressive themes.
The new generation of Gujarati theatre practitioners brought in a wave of change. Theatre in the mid-late 20th century swept in talents like Damu Jhaveri, Praveen Joshi, Jayant Parekh, Sitanshu Yashaschandra, Girish Desai, Kanti Madia and others.
Today’s writers, directors and actors admit that Gujarati theatre is now too commercial with the exception of Manoj Shah, who works on offbeat plays. Today, names like Kaustubh Trivedi, Kiran Sampat, Sanjay Goradia, Manhar Gadhia among others rule the Gujarati stage. Top talents in TV — Apara Mehra, JD Majethia, Shobhana Desai, Aatish Kapadia — have their roots in Gujarati theatre, so does Paresh Rawal.
Marathi and Gujarati theatre practitioners have kept theatre alive while exploring other fields of showbiz. In spite of fame and money being limited, theatre in these languages has thrown up an astonishing amount of talent. And Mumbai’s culture has been kept throbbing with creativity and excitement because of them.
The writer is head of programming, Indian theatre and film at NCPA.