We are bang in the middle of a dramatic scene at Shivaji Park’s Ram Leela. Lord Ram, on his 14-year odyssey during his vanvaas (exile) from the royal court of his father, King Dasharath of Ayodhya, is refusing to sleep in a palace.
His host, the Bhilon ka Raja (King of the Bhils) is aghast as Ram insists that he will sleep under a humble tree. Requests Ram of the Raja, “Will you kindly give us a place to rest?” The king of the Bhils is up to the drama of the moment: “Pehle mike to lana!” he responds urgently — and rather audibly.
I am reminded of the climax in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, the kind of scene that I thought happens only in the movies. But here it is, in the heart of urban Mumbai, asking for suspension of belief at its best.
Exceptionally entertaining is the actor who plays the Bhilon ka Raja, as he scratches his stomach and twirls his moustache with a rustic abandon. Very much the actor who gets edgy after playing the same part hundreds of times and wants to move on to something more challenging.
But the Raja gets back into character easily as he describes his agony at having to see Lord Ram sleep under a tree. However, he is reassured by Ram's brother Lakshman, who explains to him that sorrow is but fleeting in a world that is all maya (illusion).
All this while Ram sits on a sofa, yawning, while Sita (played, in Ram Leela tradition, by a man) tries to awaken some expression in a stony face.
On the fringes, the Bhilon ka Raja’s associates double as prop masters, adjusting mikes and opening and closing the curtains while still in character. They come in all shapes and sizes with extravagant costumes and hairdos that look, even from a distance, like really bad wigs. One actor in a traditional costume (who is clearly not part of the ongoing action) nonchalantly walks on to the stage with a laptop.
And then the Bhilon ka Raja and a singer get into a jugalbandi, each cutting into the other's lyrics happily.
The audience of course, watches with rapt attention.
As your eyes drift, you notice that the stage is lit up with strings of colourful light bulbs that spell ‘Ram’ and the background is actually a shaky print of a painting of a medieval English castle. You also see that the stage is flanked by banners from big real estate companies and banks and thank them for ensuring that an art form like this hasn’t completely vanished from our lives.
For, despite the comic nature of the dramatisation, the overly exaggerated actions and dialogue, and the actors’ constant fidgeting with stage equipment, the Ram Leela still charms. Some of the dialogue is sharp, the musicians are very good and once in a while you get to hear the kind of sweet tunes that hark back to an innocence that one rarely sees in entertainment today.
This wonderful mix of entertainment, education, religion and culture costs just Rs 10 for the seats in the ‘Ram khand’ and Rs 5 in the ‘Laxman khand’.
As the Dusshera action hots up, the performances can only get bigger and better.
And as a bonus, the Bengal Club’s Durga Puja pandal is also on the same ground. You can pop in at any time to see the goddess. If you're lucky, you could catch the aarti as well. What more could you ask for?
This weekly column explores the city’s low-cost pleasures