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Mumbai, the drama city

Ramu Ramanathan, the theatre pundit, writes on plays which have brought Mumbai to life on stage...

art and culture Updated: Sep 29, 2008 14:30 IST
Ramu Ramanathan
Ramu Ramanathan
Hindustan Times

If it’s Mumbai, anything goes. So here’s a brief celebration of a handful of Mumbai's plays and what we can salvage from “the dry words of dramatic playwrights, the fancy games of foolish actors and the vain calculations of box office.”

Ramu Ramanathan, the theatre pundit, writes on plays which have brought Mumbai to life on stage...


Cyrus Mistry rose from obscurity when he bagged the Sultan Padamsee Playwright Award for this one, penning what could be one of the finest texts for the Indian English stage. The play is located in an ailing decrepit house which is used to look hard at the Parsi community in a cosmopolitan city.

The play staged by the late Toni Patel combined Parsi and Mumbaiyya life. The stage setting was realistic and magical, personal and archetypical, with daughters who drifted away, resonating with Chekhovian imagery.

ADHANTAR (Marathi)

Reams have been written on the rise and fall of cotton mills in Mumbai. This play by Jayant Pawar was a path-breaker. Pawar’s inside knowledge gave an authentic view of a mill worker’s family. Adhantar starts well— promising to trace Shiv Sena’s trajectory in Mumbai — and then sinks halfway through, and soon sounds similar to most Marathi melodramas.

In spite of that, Pawar’s voice was welcomed as a new voice in the city. The play heralded the arrival of Sanjay Narvekar as the lumpen youth and Bharat Jadhav as a mindless young man glued to cricket commentary on his transistor set. Last heard, Mahesh Manjrekar was adapting Adhantar into Big Bazaar.

PATRO MITRO (Gujarati)

Naushil Mehta deftly adapted AR Gurney’s Love Letters into Patro Mitro. The play is awash with letters, friends, the Gujarati language, Gujarati literature, Gujarati culture and above all, Vile Parle. The staging was minimal and elegant with Jawahar (Darshan Jariwala) and Kalpana (Mallika Sarabhai) playing childhood sweethearts.

Jawahar is the conscience driven son of a biscuit factory owner (in Vile Parle, quite naturally) and Kalpana belongs to a chaotic wealthy family. He is an IIT graduate who moves to Boston for higher studies. She is a Fine Arts Graduate from M S University, Baroda, who travels to Europe to soak in the culture. Later Naushil Mehta explored Mumbai through a Ghatkopar chawl in Devno Deedhael and then in a park in Loving Mumbai.


Shafaat Khan is perhaps one of the most underrated playwrights in India. Shobha Yatra was a tour de force and performed in six languages.

In a dumpy godown, a motley bunch of self-seekers rehearse scenes from the freedom struggle featuring nationalist heroes, as part of an Independence Day parade. The pageant is sponsored by an underworld don.

Shafaat says: “Shobha Yatra was triggered when I visited a maidan where a huge historical pageant was being rehearsed for the Independence day procession. As I stepped into the ground

Pandit Nehru came up to ask me to light his cigarette. I found Tilak, Jhansi ki Rani and Subhash Bose having a little party, glass in hand.”

Khan’s bleak but bizarre look at life led to two sparkling farces: Mumbaiche Kavle and Bhoomityachya Farce.


As coincidence would have it, Vikram Kapadia had staged Shafaat Khan’s Shobha Yatra in English. It didn’t do well. The residue of that experience stayed with Kapadia.

A bit of Shafaat Khan, a bit of Joe Orton and a huge dollop of Parsi theatre farce, he created a building society wherein sub-nationalism clashed.

Almost every member was foul-tempered and bloodthirsty. Post-riots and bomb blasts, Kapadia critically lampooned the Mumbai which claims that the city belongs to everyone. He conveyed the complex politics of the time with political incorrectness, flippant jokes and a devastating climax.


Playwright Uttam Gada’s claim to fame is Maharathi which starred Paresh Rawal. His Moolraj Mansion with Paresh Rawal and Darshan Jariwala is lesser known. Although a typical Gujarati thriller, Gada painted the story of the Mumbai’s real estate tussle on a wide canvas.

His play is the story not only of agents, sharks and the mafia but also of the snobbish autocracy of the nouveau riche.

It was also one of the first plays to highlight the menace of the self-professed property developer who wants to create high rise building and demolish old world heritage mansions.


After Vastraharan, this play was a personal favourite of the late Machindra Kambli. The play was (and is), a manifestation of deprivation and social alienation, plus a gut reaction to the north of India and ‘Hindiwallas’. Whatever academics may say, the play has been a roaring success among the Marathi audience.


In Jitendra Patil’s debut play, a young woman aspires to be a kabaddi player. She (Mukta Barve) wants to be a kabaddi champion like her ostracised uncle, but her father (Vinay Apte) wants her to settle down like his other daughters in the US. Needless to say, after a few stock situations, like Shreyas Talpade in Iqbal and Shah Rukh Khan in Chak De India!, kabaddi wins.

CHAWLS on stage

Mumbai’s chawls have inspired innumerable stage performances. From Sai Paranjpye’s Sakhe Shejari and One Room Kitchen to Shambhushyacha Chawlit and Batatyachi Chawl (an adaptation of PL Deshpande’s essays). Each of these plays have a massive fan following.

And there is the rare gem, Bhupen Khakkar’s Mojila Manilal. Khakkar recreates a chawl on stage (which Atul Dodiya and he painted for the late Mahendra Joshi’s production of the play).

Manilal brings bliss in the lives of two domesticated women, in the process shocking the sensibility of his Gujarati audience who didn’t take kindly to being told that free love and sex after marriage could be a key to happiness. Suresh Chikle’s Golpeeth about the red light area was another trail-blazer.

The One Acts

Kiran Potrekar’s one-act Prasangik Karar (Marathi) was a delightful journey in a BEST bus that travels through south Mumbai to central Mumbai on the day of a bandh call. Unfortunately, he transformed the play into two-acts and the piece auto-destructed.

Then there was Iqbal Khwaja’s SNAFU (Hindi-English) in which Raghu More from Bhandup or Borivli enters St Xavier’s College and tries to become more Xavierite than a Xavierite.

Another piece was Zubin Driver’s Rathod the Cockroach Killer (English) menacingly performed by Denzil Smith about a pest control agent who disrupts middle class gentility in suburban Mumbai.

First Published: Sep 29, 2008 13:57 IST