Report: Prithvi Festival 2023 - Hindustan Times
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Report: Prithvi Festival 2023

Nov 21, 2023 08:00 AM IST

Love poetry and plays that examined nostalgia and the workings of patriarchy featured at this year’s theatre fest

When Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre, a stone’s throw from Juhu beach, announced its line-up for the 38th edition of the annual Prithvi Festival, I rushed to my wall calendar and promptly blocked most of my evenings between November 3 and 13. This is a time of the year that I look forward to because – corny as it may seem – Prithvi is not just a place, it is an emotion for those who continue to be drawn by its enduring charm.

Ratna Pathak Shah and Naseeruddin Shah in Old World (Courtesy Prithvi Festival) PREMIUM
Ratna Pathak Shah and Naseeruddin Shah in Old World (Courtesy Prithvi Festival)

This year, the festival opened on a grand note with Aalam-e-Ishq – a musical celebration of love poetry from the Sufi and Bhakti traditions, composed and performed by singer Shubha Mudgal along with tabla player Aneesh Pradhan (whom she introduced as “my best half”), and supported by Sudhir Nayak on the harmonium and Siddharth Padiyar on the dholak. Two of Mudgal’s students, whose names were not listed in the itinerary, joined on their tanpuras.

Instead of sticking to popular numbers by Kabir, Mirabai and Bulleh Shah that would have ensured instant applause and tapping feet, they introduced the audience to poems by Abdul Hadi Kavish, Shiv Narayan, Mohammad Afzal Jhinjhanvi, Shah Turab Ali Qalandar, and Mustafa Khan Yakrang. When artists are confident about their craft, they can take risks and surprise the audience. It was a pleasure to listen to these unfamiliar melodies. They did perform Amir Khusrau but not the usual crowd-pullers like Chhaap Tilak or Aaj Rang Hai. They chose the much quieter Jab Yaar Dekha Nain Bhar/Dil Ki Gayi Chinta Utar, which speaks of how the very act of gazing at the beloved can put the seeker’s heart at rest.

I was so spellbound by the music that I lost track of time. They performed for an hour-and-a-half but that did not seem enough. I hoped someone would ask for an encore, and I would get to listen to at least one more song – if not more – but that did not happen. The listeners were either coy, desperate for dinner, or waiting like myself for someone else to do the job.

Arghya Lahiri, director of Old World (Urmimala Bandyopadhyay)
Arghya Lahiri, director of Old World (Urmimala Bandyopadhyay)

The most impressive play at this year’s festival was a production of Old World, written by Russian playwright Aleksei Arbuzov and translated into English by Ariadne Nicolaeff. In the adaptation by director Arghya Lahiri, Naseeruddin Shah plays a 75-year-old doctor named Rashid and Ratna Pathak Shah plays his “just past 65” patient Xenobia. Set in a sanatorium in Ranikhet, it is a tender depiction of the goodbyes that people are compelled to say as they grow older. Health deteriorates, loneliness sets in, and it becomes increasingly difficult to let go of sweet recollections from the past that also bring up remnants of pain tucked away.

Rashid grieves for the wife he lost in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Like him, she was a surgeon who worked in the Indian army. Xenobia grieves for the son who went missing during the communal riots in Bombay in 1992, and the husband who left her for a younger woman. Xenobia tried cohabiting with this man and his new wife but that did not work out.

Despite the heartaches that Rashid and Xenobia live with, they give themselves a chance to open up to each other without any strings attached. The initial bickering turns into a friendship that makes space for flirting, grumpiness, confusion, and unabashed silliness. The changing graph of their relationship was depicted through a mix of banter and shared silences. The Shahs did a marvellous job, supported by Avantika Bahl’s choreography and Dhanendra Kawade’s set design. The actors are known for their prowess, so I did not expect anything less than superlative but it was a rare treat to watch the two of them dance.

A scene from Purane Chawal (Courtesy Prithvi Festival)
A scene from Purane Chawal (Courtesy Prithvi Festival)

Nostalgia was the overarching theme of another play titled Purane Chawal, originally written by Neil Simon as The Sunshine Boys in English and adapted into Hindi by Farrukh Seyer and Avinash Gautam. It revolves around two comedians – Mehndi (played by Kumud Mishra) and VD (played by Shubhrajyoti Barat) who cannot see eye to eye after collaborating on an iconic show for four decades. They are persuaded to come together to do one more show.

Their gigantic egos prevent them from expressing genuine care, so they keep their relationship alive by squabbling. When push comes to shove, the masks drop and they make themselves vulnerable. Ageing has been a difficult process for them. They are not as agile as they used to be. They have lost loved ones. They struggle to kill time and to find new work.

While the subject was grim, the treatment was just the opposite. Directed by Sumeet Vyas, the play had the audience in splits especially in scenes where Mehndi and VD try to outsmart each other but end up looking like fools. Mehndi’s nephew, Vicky, who is also his manager, was played to perfection by Ghanshyam Lalsa. He is stuck between pacifying his uncle, and playing nice in front of VD. He cannot afford to alienate either of them because that would mean forgetting all about the show, and the money that would come with it. Of course, the veterans pretend that they do not want the cash. They are doing it for the love of comedy.

This Time, written and directed by Akarsh Khurana, was yet another play about a blast from the past. Instead of milking a conflict between former colleagues for dramatic tension, it used the setting of a college reunion to bring two estranged exes – Pranav (played by Adhaar Khurana) and Alisha (played by Mallika Singh) – together. Though the script did not name St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, there were a lot of obvious references – the basketball court, the make-out spot behind the chapel, the Jesuit priest, and the talkative librarian – to it. The language was a melange of conversational Hindi and English, peppered with some Punjabi.

Pranav is a futurologist living in Andheri. Alisha works as a museum curator in Vienna. Running into each other at the reunion is awkward at first but their friends help them break the ice. They are able to articulate all that was unsaid when they were in an intense relationship. The play does not force them into a happily-ever-after scenario, leaving things open-ended and allowing the audience to imagine what happens after the actors step off stage.

Actors Garima Yajnik, Kshitee Jog, Mantra and Siddharth Kumar play multiple characters. This assortment gives viewers a glimpse of the various types of people who went to the same college two decades ago. One of them is a therapist who thinks that people use the word ‘trauma’ too loosely on social media to attract attention. Another is a writer of raunchy romantic novels, who uses his own sexual escapades as source material. One of them has given up his career as a chartered accountant to become a stand-up comedian. This mix becomes even more colourful with a sports doctor, a lawyer, an adman, a politician, a socialite, and an owner of a store selling pre-loved merchandise. Two college sweethearts from this batch are now married to each other, and run a desi restaurant in London.

Kshitee Jog’s portrayal of Lata Joshi brought tears to my eyes. While everyone else is reminiscing about the good old days, Lata talks about how things were not hunky dory for her. She was bullied for being a “vernacular medium” student. During my years as a Xavierite, it was not uncommon for people to be shamed not only for their pronunciation but also the clothes they wore, the suburbs they lived in, and the lunch they brought to college. It was good to see a funny play also making space for such a serious conversation.

A scene from Urmila (Courtesy Prithvi Festival)
A scene from Urmila (Courtesy Prithvi Festival)

There were traces of dark humour in three other plays – Urmila, Red, and The Queen. The first, written and directed by Nimmy Raphel, takes off from the story of Urmila in the Ramayana and recasts it into a contemporary idiom. Apparently, when Lakshman followed his brother Ram and sister-in-law Sita into the forest for a 14-year-long exile, Lakshman told his wife Urmila: “Sleep my sleep”. He knew that he would be busy keeping vigil, and serving Ram and Sita, so he wanted Urmila to make up for his lost sleep.

The play argues that Urmila had to pay a heavy price for Lakshman’s decision by being subjected to a long period of rest that she had not consented to. Not only did she have to live without her husband for 14 years, the palace itself became a gilded cage for her. Meedhu Miriyam, who plays Urmila, was quite convincing as the angst-ridden Urmila fighting the soldiers of the sleep goddess (played by Sooraj S and Anil Iyer) to reclaim her agency. The play combined English with Kannada, Malayalam and Tamil. The antics of the two soldiers reminded me of the characters Vladimir and Estragon from Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot as well as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet.

Urmila is also a critique of how patriarchy imprisons women, limits their choices, and creates the illusion of protection and care. It made me recall Mallika Taneja’s Thoda Dhyan Se, a feminist satire written and performed in various parts of the world after the Nirbhaya rape case in Delhi. Taneja drew attention to the manner in which the mobility of girls and women is curtailed by fathers, brothers and husbands. They are made to believe that staying out is dangerous, so they must stay indoors where they will be safe from predators.

Patriarchy as a theme showed up again in The Queen, written and directed by Aditya Rawal. Set in 16th century India, it was presented as an intimate play reading in English rather than a stage performance. Rajeshwari Sachdev was excellent as Durga, the jilted and spiteful queen determined to assert her relevance in a world where her husband Amar (played by Denzil Smith) no longer desires her as he has married a younger woman. Durga resolves to burn down the palace to take revenge. At the same time, Amar is also being pushed to bow down before emperor Akbar and rule at his pleasure or face the Mughals on the battlefield.

Durga wants her husband to know that she must not be messed with, so she seduces her own son (played by Rohit Mehra), and tries to turn the king and the prince against each other. This play blurs the easy distinction that is made between the categories of victim and perpetrator by showing how the same person can occupy both roles in different circumstances.

A scene from Red (Courtesy Prithvi Festival)
A scene from Red (Courtesy Prithvi Festival)

Red, written in English by John Logan and directed by Daniel Owen D’souza, had a completely different storyline but it had one thing in common with The Queen. It dealt with the murky aspects of the human psyche. Set in the 1950s, it is based on the life of Jewish painter Mark Rothko who was born in Latvia and migrated to the United States. The majestic set, the live painting on stage, and the beautiful light design added to the engaging performances delivered by Vikram Kapadia as Rothko, and D’souza as his young apprentice. The play holds up a mirror to the arrogance and frustration of a genius who is under the delusion that he makes art for art’s sake while other artists are pawns in a capitalist world.

These plays were enjoyable and thought-provoking because they not only told gripping stories but also pushed me to think about my beliefs and preoccupations with critical insight. We are often too harsh and judgemental towards others and ourselves. The theatre can remind us to be gentler because we are never fully aware of the battles that people are waging out in the world and within.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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