New initiatives to promote theatre nationally deserve unstinted applause, always, because experience tells us that these good intentions do not last beyond four or five years — for whatever reason, the organizers back out. The possibilities of qualifying under the central government’s Corporate Social Responsibility rules do not seem to have encouraged as many potential patrons as expected. Under these circumstances, Zee Entertainment’s commendable foray into this domain with the banner “Zee Theatre” causes a big surprise, coming as it does from the world of glamour, popularity and the screen — the exact opposites of what people associate the stage with. Ambitiously, it aims to increase “the reach of Indian theatre across the globe”, and tour many cities all over the country.

Given Zee’s clout, the remarkably low-key debut of Zee Theatre in Kolkata bewildered us: hardly any advertising, forget about media blitz. As a result, the first two shows drew sparse audiences. Zee intends to bring at least one production here every month — not the conventional festival, but a continuous series — showcasing what it considers “the best of Indian theatre”. However, a cursory glance at the lineup ahead suggests that “best of Mumbai theatre” would serve as a more accurate description. If so, Zee stands to lose a lot of credibility at the outset. It also raises doubts about the process of curating behind the selection; greater transparency is of the utmost essence.

The inaugural play, aRANYA’s Chuhal, marks film hotshot Manav Kaul’s comeback to acting on stage after about ten years. He has also written and directed it, investing much time and energy (over three years) on it, which indicates that he regards it as worth the effort. Although ostensibly just a lighthearted romance, Chuhal is certainly different in the way Kaul treats his subject. It begins with typical matchmaking proceedings for a small-town schoolteacher visiting a prospective bride’s home, but the woman in question, an employee in a company, returns late from work and shows no desire to get married, leave alone have an arranged wedding. Yet (and here is the first slightly cliched touch) she takes a liking to the man. Their friendship, apparently a non-starter, develops haltingly through a series of encounters into a close bond until, at the end, they arrive at another predictable point — not the most original finale, given that Kaul admits to having composed several alternatives.

But he directs pleasingly with no affectations, no ornamentation, virtually unplugged in terms of set, costumes and technology (rare in Mumbai), placing the emphasis squarely on conversations and the life of a human relationship through talk — in this case, each trying to understand the other’s real emotions while hiding their own by playful white lies and games of pretence. Sugandha Garg exceeds all expectations from a first-timer in theatre, consummate in her independent, strong-minded character. Even though, unlike most Indian directors, Kaul acknowledges feeling uncomfortable directing himself, he and Garg give a casually natural performance as the couple, supported by Padma Damodaran (her concerned mother) and Srishti Shrivastava (her over-helpful sister).

Ansh’s Ma in Transit, by dramatist-director Makarand Deshpande, arises from his personal grief after his mother’s death, and depicts a son’s refusal to accept the loss, his constant questioning and delaying of the purohit conducting the last rites, and his imaginary glimpses of the mother, with whom he speaks so that she does not leave him. Clearly Deshpande knows of Marathi theatre’s history of similar plays, like Alekar’s Mahānirvān or Elkunchwar’s Wāsansi Jirnāni. Compared to their distanced objectivity, Ma in Transit seems more self-preoccupied, as he tries to simultaneously get the sorrow off his chest and understand the rituals that help him to release the mortal ties.

As director, Deshpande creates striking images through design and lighting: the funeral pyre on the ghat with burning embers underneath, a tin trunk opening into a portable stove and kitchen racks, and the huge mock-up of a crow worn in one of the mother’s appearances. Not unremittingly grim, he displays the contrast between two generations of Brahmin priests, the father’s orthodox beliefs juxtaposed with the son’s willingness to chant prayers over a mobile. But above all, this remains Deshpande’s vehicle, his own portrayal of himself in denial surpassing everything else in intensity.

(From The Telegraph, 25 February 2017)