Time to analyse the three Hindi productions from Mumbai that last visited the city. Let me begin with a technical detail that receives short shrift in reviews: the proliferating nuisance of remote mikes on stage. Ostensibly meant to aid our listening, they actually remove from the art one of the most important of acting (and speaking) skills: how to throw one’s voice. Besides, the sound attained is rarely perfect owing to drops in the pickup or shortcomings in the balance mix, while the performers become self-conscious of the gadget attached to their hip and chest, against which the slightest brush gets amplified into a loud noise on the hall speakers. I admire technology for all that it makes easier for us, but spare us this theatrically unpredictable menace, please.

I mention this at the outset because Aarambh’s Bandish 20-20,000 hz (an Aadyam enterprise hosted by Sangit Kala Mandir), which contrasts the purity of singing in the last century with the tantrum thrown by a playback artist today who refuses to sing during a power cut, seems oblivious to the irony that all its actors use remote mikes. It could have hit home its point by having the oldtime Nautanki and semiclassical heroines sing unmiked, “in full-throated ease”. Purva Naresh’s third play on the subject of our musical heritage reprises both these personalities from her Afsaneh — Nautanki queen Gulab Bai (thinly disguised here as Champa Bai) and the baithaki diva Beni Bai (Naresh’s own grandmother) — feted at a function celebrating India’s 70th year of independence, whose organizers have contracted two young top-draw stars instead to bring in the crowds.

Unfortunately, Naresh as director cannot prevent the second half from dragging, while Naresh the writer contrives a romantic feel-good ending reconciling everyone through a song. Additionally, she pressures the admittedly virtuosic singer-dancer Ipshita Chakraborty Singh (as the new playback prima donna) by also casting her as Chameli and Beni in the past, making it needlessly difficult for her and us to switch back and forth among her three characters. As the old honorees in the present, Anubha Fatehpuria (the witty Chameli) and Nivedita Bhargava (the recalcitrant Beni) leave strong impressions despite being rooted to their seats as they recollect hairy escapades, and such history as the All India Radio ban on “disreputable” female vocalists.

AGP World’s Barf (the Hindi, not English, word), set in Kashmir, raises Saurabh Shukla in our esteem above the abject disaster of his first attempt at playwriting, a sex comedy. But he calls it a thriller, which indicates that he does not know the genre. It resembles Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden until we realize that the unhinged wife had no link whatsoever with the doctor brought home by her cabdriver husband to cure her because she treats a doll as her living baby. We should interpret the child as the future hope for Kashmiris, sadly doomed as stillborn, except when the doctor ultimately tells her that it is alive. While justifiable politically perhaps, I wonder whether the medical community agrees with me that this violates the Hippocratic oath. Is it responsible for him to encourage a patient’s hallucination and walk off? Director Shukla enacts the physician himself, spicing him up gratuitously with his staple comedian’s touch and, for inexplicable reasons, often bursting out in English (to a rural couple?). However, Sadia Siddiqui and Sunil Palwal compensate with carefully modulated naturalism.

Centre Stage Creations brought Barf to Kolkata, as well as Surnai’s Indianization of Ibsen’s Ghosts, titled Pichhā Karti Parchhaiyān. Ila Arun adapted the latter into an ersatz Rajasthani context, trying to capture a decadent Rajput royal family. Then we learnt that she specifically localized it in Cooch Behar. Whatever for? As any historian knows, the Cooch Behar dynasty did not have Rajput origins, though it became Kshatriya by caste. Did Arun avoid familiar Rajasthan names and place the drama in faraway West Bengal to not cause any offence, to not risk princely swords flashing for her head? But Cooch Behar is near enough to us for the play to not ring true. She also overlooked the obvious problem in believability of Ghosts today — modern medicine can treat syphilis. As I explain in my classes on this classic, to present it in contemporary garb one has to identify an incurable inherited disease that afflicts us now. Apart from the fact that the editing of the text leaves out much of Ibsen’s psychological subtleties, K. K. Raina directs the cast acceptably.

(From The Telegraph, 29 July 2017)