Rajesh Shukla, 32, an accountant with a milk foods company, rushes out of his Nariman Point office and prays the traffic won’t be too bad.
He has to be at Azad Maidan in 15 minutes if he wants enough time to transform from a middle-class white-collar Mumbaiite into the beloved Hindu deity Rama.
He has it easier than a lot of his cast members, though. The Maharashtra Ramleela Mandal’s Sita, Hanuman and Ravan all have day jobs too, and their offices are further away.
Hanuman has it particularly hard, since he also plays three other roles.
“Sometimes, I forget which lines I’m supposed to say,” says Churchgate-based cricket coach Dinesh Kashyap, 39, speaking from behind his plastic monkey nose. “I’ve realised that the trick is to remember the story so you can make up a line to fill the gap.”
For these regular Mumbaiites, the annual traditional reenactment of Rama’s life — generally performed in Mumbai by professional troupes from northern states — is a way for them to express their devotion.
“For 30 years, we have had Mumbaiites as actors,” says Dwarkanath Mishra, general secretary of the Azad Maidan mandal. “Bankers, accountants, event managers and taxi drivers, they come from all walks of life. And they never accept payment.”
Shukla, who has lived in Kalbadevi all his life, began acting for the mandal at age 4.
“Some of us have been performing together since I was a child,” he says. “None of us charges a penny. It wouldn’t be right.”
Charni Road resident Pooja Varma, 23, an event manager, says the cast have become like family. “Most of us are educated, with good jobs. We have a lot in common,” she says. “I have become very good friends with Neelam [Dombre, a 20-year-old college student from Vile Parle], who plays Sita every year.”
Newcomers are welcome too.
This year’s Raavan, for instance, is first-timer Manoj Tiwari.
“Since I am 6 ft tall and broad-shouldered, they said I should take over the role of Ravan,” says the 39-year-old taxi driver and Chira Bazaar paan shop owner, grinning. “I always dreamed of playing the villain in movies. This is the next best thing.”
Vinit Pathak, 27, a sales manager at a private bank, is also a first-timer at the mandal, though not new to the Ramleela.
“I grew up in Allahabad and have always taken part in Ramleelas,” he says. “In fact, I made my first appearance on stage as Sita, at the age of 13. It’s a totally different experience rushing to the Ramleela stage from work. I am very glad I have this opportunity to express my devotion.”