Two of Mumbai’s long-running English productions visited Birla Sabhagar recently. The revue Stories in a Song, by Arpana and Underscore Records, not only boasted an original concept of playlets contextualizing old Hindi songs, but featured thorough research by Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan, as well as exceptional live singing by everyone (unlike in most theatre).
It took time to warm up, as the first two dramatizations from Amritlal Nagar and Qurratulain Hyder did not excite much, barring the tidbit that Gandhiji encouraged tawaifs to use their popularity to help the freedom struggle with patriotic songs. There followed a rousing Nautanki piece, Gulab Bai’s Bahadur Ladki, where she gave an obnoxious British officer (brilliantly satirized by Namit Das) his comeuppance. Another Anglo-Indian encounter found an opera-trained memsahib (perhaps played too much for laughs by Meher Mistry) transcribing “Hindustani airs” from a nautch girl. Since Vikram Phukan sets it in the 1880s, director Sunil Shanbag should rethink the anachronism of a 78-rpm gramophone – only cylinder phonographs existed then. Phukan’s next script sardonically tracked the lifting and remixing of a classical bandish into a pop hit. Finally, we heard an entertaining kajri contest sourced from Arjundas Kesri between two teams of three men each, the hilarious “Dear darling Radhe” bringing the house down. We wish Shanbag had brought his full musical with ten sketches, including Calcutta’s own “Bengalee Babu”.
Rage’s The Glass Menagerie fell flat, surprisingly lacking any directorial vision from Rajit Kapur. Shernaz Patel and Ira Dubey failed to give life to Tennessee Williams’ women, Patel turning Amanda into an unintentional comedienne, and Dubey making Laura too simpering. Quite contrarily, the men came out more convincing: Roshan Mathew (Tom) and Neil Bhoopalam (Jim, strangely named James here). Kapur’s addition of a violinist also flopped, for she merely played literal accompaniment, high notes for emotional phrases, and sliding down-scale for anticlimaxes. Worse, he allowed a complete mismatch of accents, Patel’s Parsi/Indian Christian inflections at odds with the others’ neutral register. The classic drama, not the cast or director, won the ovation.