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The new nataks

Once known for its bawdy love triangles, risqué jokes and double entendre, a new generation of writers is taking Gujarati theatre to a new level, wooing fatigued audiences with contemporary themes, complex plots, writes Riddhi Doshi.

mumbai Updated: Feb 10, 2013 01:44 IST
Riddhi Doshi

Living in a 150-year-old bungalow in Mumbai, a lonely 102-year-old man wants to travel to the highest post office in the world, in Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir.

He is determined to use his goal to bring his 75-year-old son, a recluse, out of his shell.

This is the plot of a popular Gujarati play titled 102 Not Out. The cast is made up of just three characters. There are no elaborate sets, costumes or melodramatic scenes, no double entendre.

None of the elements, in fact, that is typical of Gujarati theatre. Instead, the play deals with contemporary issues such as urban isolation and universal themes such as the struggle to come to terms with ageing.

Written and directed by 38-year-old Saumya Joshi, 102 Not Out has staged 202 shows across India, the US and Oman, since its first staging in 2011.

It is part of a new wave of Gujarati theatre, featuring plays written and directed by 30-something theatre professionals, based on contemporary themes, using modern story-telling techniques and higher production standards — including better lighting and sound engineering.

Industry experts say a combination of two key factors is responsible for the change — a new generation of Net-savvy young Gujaratis, with exposure to theatre cultures around the world; and a drop of 15% to 20% in audience numbers over the past three years.

“Theatre professionals began to see the depleting audience numbers as a sign that the tired jokes and formulaic plots had well and truly lost their appeal,” says Manhar Gadhia, a veteran producer of Gujarati plays.

“To appeal to younger audience, and the fatigued older theatre-goers, producers began to rope in younger writers and attempt new and different plots, storylines and techniques.”

Gadhia has produced two such plays — including Saat Teri Ekvees (Seven Times Three is Twenty-One), a series of seven monologues, including one each by a frustrated middle-class housewife, a surrogate mother and a struggling poet.

“We roped in seven writers and seven directors for the play. It was an effort to provide a platform to new writers and directors and offer audiences an entirely new experience,” says Gadhia.

Other contemporary Gujarati plays that have received critical acclaim and a good response from audiences include K Kanji No K, Made in America, Welcome Zindagi, Mummy Tu Aavi Kevi? (Mummy, Why Are You Like This?) and 2 Idiots (See box: On stage now)

“These plays are an attempt to attract a younger audience and draw greater numbers to Gujarati theatre,” says Kunal Shah of mumbaitheatreguide. com, “numbers that had been falling because of a sense of fatigue with the mundane, formulaic fare dished out in Gujarati plays.”

The game-changers
Pritesh Sodha, 30, Banker turned writer-director

Best known for: K Kanji No K; Made in America; Korat
After four years as a management executive in a private bank, Sodha decided he needed something more stimulating, quit his job in 2006 and decided to follow his true passion: Theatre.

He started out as an actor and, three years on, took to directing plays, because he wanted to make the kind of theatre he likes to watch — plays that address issues of the day.

“My aim has always been to use theatre to challenge people’s thinking,” says Sodha. “That is why I pick themes that are complex, current and socially relevant.”

Saumya Joshi, 38, Writer, director and actor
Best known for: 102 Not Out, Welcome Zindagi
Joshi has been in love with theatre since his youth, when he started a theatre group in college. Dabbling mainly in experimental plays until 2009, it was only over the past four years that he began to commercially produce his works, always picking young actors over established stars, to keep his productions fresh.

“All this while, people thought Gujarati audiences would not watch something different,” he says, “but if you package a play well, the audience will come — as they have for my shows.”

Kamlesh Oza, 42, Actor turned director
Best known for: His roles in Dharmyudh, Aadhi Akshar Prema Na and Me Mazza Mulanchya

A theatre buff since college, Oza began his career as a backstage assistant, eventually graduating to assistant director, then actor, also dabbling in Hindi TV serials and a few films.

Last month he made his directorial debut with 2 Idiots.

“After reading the script of 2 Idiots, I felt the urge to tell the story myself,” he says. “Audiences were beginning to tire of the same old themes and I thought it was time for me to direct stories that were different and contemporary.”

Manoj Shah, 56, Dancer turned writer-director
Best known for: Mummy Tu Aavi Kevi?
Shah, a Class 9 dropout, had always been drawn to the performing arts, dabbling in theatre from the age of 16, while pursuing a career as a professional dancer.

Keen to produce plays around biopics to complicated social and family relationships, Shah has written, produced and/or directed a total of 70 plays over the past 30 years, and worked with 160 actors via his theatre company, Ideas Unlimited.

“It’s nice to see the Gujarati audience maturing and warming up to these themes,” he says.