Anton Chekhov was a Russian playwright whose short stories are iconic. They not only captured life in Russia in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, but have been turned into movies and award winning stage productions. His works continue to influence playwrights and writers. One such writer, who decided to adapt Chekhov’s short stories, is India’s Mahesh Dattani. A Sahitya Akademy award winner, this playwright, actor, writer and director adapted the stories into a familiar Indian context. I was lucky to see some of his work transformed on stage, this past weekend. Dare I be blasphemous and say I found some of his adaptations even more enjoyable than the originals?
One possible reason for this could be my sense of identification with the subject matter. While Chekov’s protagonists are in Russia, Dattani has set his characters and situations in an entirely Indian environment. So we travel to a village in Goa and an ashram in Gujarat, from a funfair in Punjab to a bridge in Central India. We meet Indian housewives, Parsi mama’s boys, bureaucrats and page 3 gazetted officers, a temple priest, a dentist and even a film heroine; aptly named Sakhi Rawant, portraying a woman whose only claim to fame was her body, reality TV and her page 3 appearances! Dattani has cleverly shown how Chekhov’s stories are universal.
Daayan kahin ki is an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Witch. A small temple priest and his glamorous young wife replace the pastor of the church and his frustrated wife. While a Parsi boy aptly portrays his mother’s only child in Chee, mirroring Chekhov’s, A work of art. Hitting close to home is the immensely believable Ha choo, the story of how a junior clerk allows a simple sneeze to take over his life and eventually lead to his death. A faithful representation of The death of a government clerk. Mazaak hi to tha cleverly adapts a sledge ride in Chekhov’s A Joke and transports us to a village fair where the protagonists ride a ferris wheel. The ideology of Gandhiji has been used to highlight the story of an employer and employee in Ji Motaben, a Gujarati adaptation of The Ninny. A Goan landlady is more interested in the price of kerosene than in her tenant’s inadvertent consumption of it and his near death, in Chekhov’s Carelessness made into Mehengai mar gayi.
Chak de Chekhov was a production of ICS Theatre. The South Asia Festival was organised by the Epic Actors Workshop.
The Indian-American actors played the roles to perfection. The stage set was created using milk crates, which are not just easy to move around but used in a most effective manner. They brought to life a typical Gujarati housewife on her ‘jhoolo’, and a young couple in a ferris wheel at the fair. They replicated a dentist’s chair as well as the home of a temple priest and his wife. The attention to detail made the scenes plausible, despite the simplicity of the sets. Like the act of wearing chappals while leaving the home or putting on gloves before a surgery. Scenes were brought alive using the sutradhaar concept of a narrator taking the audience through the story.
Far away from India, events such as these are also a great way to stay in touch with the diasporic community. The organizers had arranged for Indian snacks and street food to be sold. There were also vendors selling unusual sarees and arty jewellery. Though I did not bother dressing up, the attendees, many of who were Bengalis, obviously took their garb seriously.
I feasted on the fashion spectacle of Indians turning up in their tanchois, dhakais, kalamkaris and big bindis, looking striking and elegant.
Plays apart, movies are also a favourite form of entertainment, like Atomic Blond where Charlize Theron plays a female James Bond quite effectively. But a movie that’s receiving rave reviews is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk about the heroic evacuation of allied troops stranded on the beach during World War 2. What I find interesting is the slew of articles and video posts deriding movie makers for neglecting Indian soldiers who played a large role in the war. In fact, Dunkirk had a large number of Indian soldiers. There is a huge thrust currently, in trying to correct the impression that Britain stood alone and to focus instead on how the colonies played a significant role.
British rule and colonization reminds me August 15th looms and India prepares to celebrate seventy years of Independence. I cannot help but remember school days and being caught in the fervor of patriotism. We practiced for weeks before flag hoisting, learning words to Vande Mataram and perfecting intonations. After twenty-five years, we were still not jaded. India was a young country, in a manner of speaking. In history class, we all stood up and cheered as we read about the midnight hour approaching and India’s tryst with destiny. Seventy years later, disillusionment and despondency have struck. Those born in independent India do not want to indulge in maudlin emotions. Indians want answers; solutions to mismanagement and corruption. They want to stop the slide.
Many years ago, renowned Professor C K Prahlad had encouraged India to stop looking over her shoulder at what has been and instead look to the future. Look at the India we want to build and start reeling it in. Hopefully, as we raise the tricolor this year, India will pay heed and look ahead. At seventy-five, let’s hope for a different India than the one we have today. It’s time to seize the day and bring India back to her former glory.