It is 7:15 pm on a sultry Monday evening. Scores of cars and motorcycles are honking frantically, trying in vain to get into the jammed parking lot at Balgandharva Rangmandir, as hundreds of people mill about, taking over every available square foot not occupied by a vehicle. This evening the Vinod Doshi Theatre Festival opens for it’s 7th innings, a 5-day-long festival, where the turnout of passionate; committed theatregoers from Pune would put many larger festivals in other cities to shame.
The Chief Guest at the opening ceremony – Mohan Agashe, in his characteristically irreverent fashion – tells us he knows exactly what we are waiting for – the ringing of the third bell to announce the first performance. A moment later, he traverses the stage vigorously ringing the bell. And with that, the shortest (yet dramatic) opening ceremony I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing, we are thrown into the world of Shakespeare, via Rajasthan.
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ becomes ‘Kasumal Sapno’ – a nautanki version of Shakespeare with all the best elements of this traditional Indian form – painted faces, slapstick moments, live music and sound effects and songs to propel the story forward. There is even a man in a beard who plays the doomed girl Thisbe in the play within the play, raising much hilarity from the audience. The sheer exuberance and vitality of the cast carries the play through to constant hoots and cheers, so much so, that it matters not a whit whether one understands a word of the language or not. This show needs no language.
Day 2 brings us into the world of Shilpa – a mobile application – female, and willing to do anything you desire. Well, almost anything. We soon learn that Shilpa has a mind (or many algorithms) of her own, and she soon has us eating out of the palm of her hand. Now emotionally invested, we watch with horror as she holds up a mirror to society and shakes free of the shackles she was born with. This play – ‘C Sharp C Blunt,’ an Indo-German co-production performed solo in English – is a tour de force perhaps only because it is carried on the extremely capable shoulders of MD Pallavi. Her incisive, hilarious, and tragic Shilpa is only outdone by her singing voice. Perfect Pitch!
Day 3 unveils the only new play being performed at the festival, this time in Marathi – Aparadhi Sugandha. Being a new piece, it seems overlong and overwrought, and in the shade of so many other finely honed, long running productions, fails to captivate the audience. The story is about an ancient Sandalwood Tree that has caught the eye of a thief, and how the monetary value of the tree wins out in the end over the struggles of those who come close to destroying themselves in an effort to preserve it. It’s a simple story, told with too much complexity, and loses itself in the process.
On Day 4, we are witness to another age-old battle in the play ‘Kaumudi,’ this time between father and son. The father, a once-great actor who is about to retire as he is going blind, has to perform with a younger actor who is about to replace him, his estranged son. The play they perform is based on an interpretation of a scene from the Mahabharata (Kaumudi refers to the night of illumination, when Krishna gave his sermon to Arjuna). The father plays the ghost of Eklavya, and the son is Abhimanyu. The tussle between the characters in that play moves seamlessly into the tussle between father and son, as they vie for power, understanding, and perhaps – absolution.
The last day of the festival brought us to watch an old classic that most theatregoers in India have already had an occassion to watch. ‘Ismat Apa Ke Naam’ is so popular that it even has a sequel that has been playing on the theatre circuit – ‘Ismat Apa Ke Naam – 2.’ However, it is Part 1 that does the most justice to the sometimes risqué, sometimes poignant, but always sharply observed and outrageously funny stories of Ismat Chugtai. With performances by Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah, this play is deservedly a classic, and brings the curtains down to the sound of much applause.