Playwright Ramu Ramanathan on the many shades of Mumbai showcased on stage over the years
Mumbai is the sum total of many languages. Consider the stats: 1,500 theatre shows per month (source: PT Notes, Prithvi Theatre’s newsletter), in Marathi, Gujarati, English and Hindi, followed by Kannada and Malwani. In a city known for its cosmopolitan populace, it is hardly surprising.
As a playwright, hence, the eternal question remains: how to embrace a city lingo with narrative power and lyricism, and highlight the phrases that are uttered in the slums, chawls, dargahs, government offices, corporate offices, homes, hospitals, courts, college campuses, and brothels.
The novel Kuru Kuru Swaha (2008) epitomises the polyphony of Mumbai. Novelist Shyam Manohar Joshi deploys a start-stop structure to narrate how Mumbai’s underworld unleashed its lingo on Hindi. So, there is a mix of Bengali-Hindi and even Sanskrit-laced Hindi, along with a form of Sanskrit no one speaks today. Joshi’s book shows how Mumbai shifts from one linguistic ghetto to another.
Another underrated novelist, short story author, and playwright is Bhau Padhye, who penned the Marathi novel Vaitagwadi (1965). His characters bring together a variety of Mumbai experiences. My all-time favourite remains Namdeo Dhasal’s Gandu Bagicha (1986). I have heard Dhasal read the poems aloud and it is an incredible feat of plotting, pace and anger.
Dhasal’s work is based in south-central Mumbai. This is the area from Khetwadi to Kamathipura to Falkland Road (present-day Pathe Bapurao Marg). This was the epicentre of Bombay after the British royalty were gifted the island city by the Portuguese. The first thing to spring up were plays in English. There were 35 makeshift theatres which featured plays performed in English for the recreation of the British soldiers.
It’s been a long journey for English plays since then. Another highlight is Cyrus Mistry’s play, Doongaji House, about the Parsi community, which was penned in the 1970s. Now a novelist, Mistry wrote what is one of the finest texts for the Indian English stage. The play transpires in a decrepit house, and Mistry uses it to take a hard look at the Parsi community.
Interestingly, many a literary great escaped this city. Premchand detested every day of his stay in Mumbai (then Bombay). So he bid adieu. As did authors Amrutlal Nagar and Upendranath. They didn’t get along with the city’s crowds and queues, the cruelty and chaos, the absence of innocence. And the city like a true-blue diva, turned her back on these wordsmiths and a lot of authors lost their mojo in Mumbai.
In the case of Saadat Hasan Manto, Mumbai lingers in the background of his short stories but it is a distant love affair. His Ganje Farishte (Bald Angels) is a collection of sketches and reminisces the Mumbai film stars of the late 1940s to early 1950s.
Unknown one-act plays like Iqbal Khwaja’s Snafu (Hindi-English, 1987) in which lowbrow Raghu More from Bhandup enters St Xavier’s College and tries to become more of a Xavierite than others have captured the sense of being an eternal outsider in this city.
Another uncompromising play, not for the faint of heart, is Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Holi, translated into English for an intercollegiate theatre competition. The production brimmed with violence, swearing, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll but also a lot of laughs and agitprop resistance. That’s the spirit of Mumbai.
I started this story with Manohar Shyam Joshi. Let me conclude with a literary gem called Hamzaad (1999). It is the story of Mumbai. Bleak, sans ideals, and with zero optimism. Joshi talks about builders, film-makers, pimps, prostitutes, swapping partners, and the vileness of Mumbai. It is a belief among Muslims that once you are born, the devil is born too. This devil is a Hamzaad. The symbol of Hamzaad is used by Joshi to warn the 20 million citizens of Mumbai that our devils are hovering over our head.
And this is the drama of this city: 20 million of us, along with 20 million Hamzaads. Living our dramatic lives, together.
Ramu Ramanathan is a Mumbai-based playwright.