Sunday, Dec 17, 2017 | Last Update : 04:01 AM IST
There is always the cynic (like me), who wonders surely we have exhausted all that the man has to offer.
It’s been 70 years since Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi achieved his life’s ambition — the creation of an Independent India. There is no doubt that his life, trials and struggles make for compelling story-telling. His face is in everyone’s wallet, and he has been immortalised by Richard Attenborough’s incredible film.
However, on Bombay’s stages, Gandhiji has been a consistent feature. The theatre-going public can’t seem to get enough of him. Every play vaguely connected to his life, has run to packed houses for over a decade. From the controversial Mi Nathuram Godse Boltoy, to the exploratory Mahatma Versus Gandhi, every time you open a newspaper there is an advert for a Gandhi play. Some like Mahadevbhai and Mohan No Masalo have been translated into numerous languages, and been popular in each. In fact, Mohan No Masalo has been performed recently by the same actor in three different languages on the same day.
There is always the cynic (like me), who wonders surely we have exhausted all that the man has to offer. Yet there is a new generation appearing every few years who have no idea about the Father of the Nation. And in these troubling times when the constitution seems to be being modified and violence is becoming acceptable, it is important not to forget his remarkable story. That prompted Raell Padamsee’s ACE to stage a massive production with over a 100 children, so that the post-millennials can be introduced to Gandhi in a fun way.
Similarly the NCPA and Silly Point Productions put together Gandhi — The Musical. At first glance it sounds almost insulting — Gandhiji’s life as a musical? However, there have been very successful versions, and even an operetta called Satyagrah staged in other countries, so why not in his own.
It was with some trepidation that I walked into the opulent Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. Already the irony was stinging. In terms of plot the two and a half hour musical offered nothing new to me. It touched on all the “greatest hits” of Gandhiji’s life: getting kicked off a train in South Africa, the Dandi march, his trip to Engliand, etc. There were even conversations with his inner voice, but for those of us who had seen Partap Sharma’s Sammy, this offered no new insight.
What was revelatory was the staging, which suddenly gave us modern images to a period story. The madness of the South African Court was enjoyable, shocking, grotesque and hilarious… all at once. It was almost “Kafka-esque”, a phrase I never quite associated with Gandhiji. Suddenly, we felt the absurdity of what he was going through when asked to remove his turban.
There are sequences when people throng to Gandhiji, and suddenly we are reminded of his “celebrity”, so much so that even his son cannot reach him. There are some excellent “freezes” that immediately had the audience applauding, this was storytelling via instagram. And finally the biggest realisation was that Gandhiji was microblogging before the age of Twitter. His sayings were short and to the point. Clear, precise and incredibly quotable. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” would have trended had it been posted in the digital age.
The production is earnest and well told. The singing is good, the music not really memorable. Some of the staging is striking (especially the debate about partition), the sets are slightly excessive, and the performances are strong. Some of the choreography is wonderfully interpretive. However, what remains with you at the end of the day, is how current the story is. The well worn story updated to reflect the times we live in. Jallianwala Bagh reminded me of Syria’s nerve gas attack, the South African identity card reminded me of our own Aadhar problems, and the lynching of the policeman reflected the everyday beatings we read about.
The story is the same as the first time I encountered it as a child with Attenborough’s film, but if we have changed, then the story changes too. And that’s why we can watch numerous productions of Hamlet, Andha Yug and Sakharam Binder and enjoy them all.
Great stories and great lives, will always be relevant.
The writer is a Mumbai-based theatre-holic. He works as a theatre director for QTP.