These have included various experiments which have not all been original, not all successful; have included some imitation, some sorts of adaptation and translation of titles. The latest productions have been Subhan’s ventures into the reworking of Indian movies into stage versions. When a play is made into a film the usual thing is to take the story and plot and then produce a screenplay, but doing the reverse is not as unproblematic. Of course, it can be successfully done, but it is easier for the film to be grander; it can be set anywhere, handle multiple locations and do several things with sound and visuals. It becomes more difficult when there is an attempt to re-create the cinema in a play.
Subhan’s Baghban tried to do that. But it is a task to think of recreating the glitter, sound and spectacle of the traditional Bollywood cinema. If one tries to follow the film too closely the play runs into difficulties handling the set, and since Subhan included the musical elements, his production encountered problems with the songs and the choreography. In many instances there is that little awkwardness of the actors knowing what to do during the music. It worked very well during the Valentine’s Day festival type, Bollywood style dance in Hemant’s café, for example, but not at those times when dialogue moved into song.
The use of that same café demonstrated one of the difficulties of set. Certainly the stage can handle multiple locations, but this can become a designer’s headache when the play is realistic, as this one was. Faithfulness to the film led to several very short scenes. These worked effectively as theatre moving with dramatic significance between two sets in two different homes, sometimes with easy transitions, sometimes with simultaneous action. There was even some innovation with the use of a telephone booth on the street corner. But the introduction of the café as a third setting during that whole sequence when the action had to alternate around the three locations broke that circuit.
This also led to an uneven mix of theatrical styles. The play, its set, its design, as has been said, was realistic with some grand spectacle of its own. There was the splendid detail of the grandeur and polish of one home in Act One and the striking decoration of the café for the Valentine festival, as against the representational sets in the two alternating homes in Act Two when the set worked best. But then there was the park with its imposing backdrop to create a realistic scene as against another home, which had to be very Spartan improvisation.
However, what are those against the importance and effectiveness of the message of the play? Two previous efforts directed by Subhan produced statements on the immortal value of friendship (Dosti) and domestic abuse (Kanyadaan); Baghban addressed the family and the ingratitude of children. It was a moving interpretation. The play captured the emotion, the sentiments and those moments of intense grief so well defined in the traditional Bollywood cinema. Even when not outstanding, the acting from the large cast was rarely less than an effective communication of attitudes, feelings and character types.
Most understood their roles, including the very youthful Ashish Shivraj on his debut. Aditya Persaud, Sherry Ann Dyal, Rushella Edmundson and Romel Edmundson, and even some who played briefer parts, Michael Ignatius, Lucria Rambalak, Kerri Phang and Travolta Karran were believable and noteworthy. They were little affected by the inattention paid to age differences in the production as a whole. This mattered most in Dimple Mendonca’s performance. It was not always easy to be convinced that she was an Indian matriarch, since she was not assisted with the majesty and bearing of the type. She hardly looked the age, but she overcame that with the genuineness of her acting. Mendonca had the competence to carry it off with some confidence as one of the leading performers in the play.
These leading actors were largely responsible for the overall impact of the production in the way they anchored the development of the dramatic situation, the conflicts, and controlled audience sympathy. Mahadeo Shivraj radiated the stature of a major actor and hardly suffered from the probability that many went there to see Amitab Bachchan. He carried the main action with stage presence and a sensitive appreciation of his role.
The main supporting role of the man who became the hero’s best friend was made to look even larger by the thoroughness of Richard Naraine. It was worth noting the way he played with maturity. For example, he played a man from a different part of India who spoke a different language, but avoided the use of comical false accents that would have tempted a lesser actor. Yet Naraine was convincing as one with cultural differences through the ploy of some slight eccentricities and manner of speech rather than phonology. He went through the range of emotions and performed one of the most compelling sequences when he had to rebuke the ungrateful sons of the man he had befriended.
The play was lengthy; made more so by a drawn-out ending including a long speech delivered by the hero at his book launch about love, the family and ingratitude. Such a lecture was almost unnecessary since it had all been already effectively dramatised. But Shivraj carried it off with controlled passion that made it bearable. The experience and sensibility he has acquired as an actor took him through the three places at which the play could have satisfactorily ended. It seems worth the trip every time he returns to Guyana to play a role.