The trio of recent big-ticket imports from Mumbai gave us a variety of original drama, but none fully satisfying. Mahesh Dattani’s latest work, Gauhar by the Primetime Theatre Company, the most eagerly awaited of them, also was so outrageously overpriced that it effectively excluded genuine aficionados of music and theatre without deep wallets, resulting in un-full halls. Ironically, Mumbaikars can watch Gauhar at half the rates charged by the organizers in Gauhar Jan’s very own home city.

Assuming that Dattani wanted to convey her amazing yet sad story to those who know nothing about it, his mode of doing so puzzled me. The constant flashback and flash-forward made it tough for the uninitiated to follow, and even more difficult for the leading lady (Rajeshwari Sachdev) to develop her characterization, creating a rather static portrayal from start to finish. Evidently Dattani conceived it as a screenplay, aware that in film, zigzag timelines do not matter because makeup and distinct costumes (at different shoots, then edited later) clearly demarcate biographical phases and aid actors to express shifts in life. Theatre cannot possibly replicate these seamless cinematic quick changes, even if a brilliant actor can transform chameleonically at a moment’s notice.

Sachdev anyway does not possess that virtuosity. Still, she could have held her own in the given circumstances had director Lillete Dubey not cast Zila Khan as the older Gauhar. When the latter takes over near the end, the glorious power and sophistication of her vocals bring down the house and upstage Sachdev’s decidedly lower-key singing, overriding the concessions we had made so far. This play should have only one Gauhar – like the Bengali group Akhor had in Jān-e-Kalkattā – and, if at all two, then evenly-matched singers. Another oddity is Denzil Smith’s clipped British accent as Fred Gaisberg, the American of German extraction who recorded Gauhar in Calcutta. But Gillian Pinto and Parinaz Jal, who performed all the minor women’s parts from maids to chorus girls, kept the entertainment quotient going.

Lastly, I cannot understand why Dattani omitted the one man who may not have exploited Gauhar: the Gujarati hero of Parsi theatre, Amrit Keshav Nayak, whose compositions she sang and with whom she lived for a few years before he suddenly died. Why erase that brief, happy episode?

Meanwhile, Centre Stage Creations has stepped in to fill the breach with Mumbai productions that had of late stopped getting invitations from Kolkata. However, neither Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jān nor Bali aur Shambhu, both written by their respective directors, impressed. Both suffer from formulaic dramaturgy and a certain predictability that gives away the outcome.

In Ekjut’s Yeh Hai Bombay, Nadira Babbar constructs one of those typical feel-good metropolitan scenarios where five men room together, hoping to hit the big time in Bollywood. The situation itself is hackneyed; all cities function like flames to moths from the hinterland; and everyone who goes to Mumbai does not dream of getting a break in the film industry. As a theatre person, Babbar should have broken the myth equating Mumbai with movies, instead of feeding it. From pretty early on, we know what to expect, and Babbar does not surprise us: by turns, each friend lands in a scrape and the others help him out. Curiously, the one really critical incident – the police come to pick up the Kashmiri roommate on charges of terrorism – remains unresolved. Ekjut’s young team perform fluently, but they sorely need a better vehicle for their talent.

aRANYA’s Bali aur Shambhu, by Manav Kaul, takes place in an old-age home where a resident (Sudhir Pandey) has to share his room with a newcomer (Kumud Mishra). Obviously, Pandey resents this intrusion and refuses to socialize with Mishra, but eventually they grow closer. Not only does this denouement seem trite, we also receive signals that one of them will die and, sure enough, that happens – after one false alarm. One cannot deny the social importance of Kaul’s theme at a time when India must think about care for her burgeoning senior citizenry, but the plotting is conventional. Strangely, the home does not appear to have even a dining hall or garden where the inmates can repair.

Pandey and Mishra have flawless acting credentials, but Bali aur Shambhu does not test their abilities. And Kaul, trying to get cheap laughs, depicts the orderly who looks after their room as a superstitious buffoon. At least Colour Blind, his last play that we saw, on Tagore, was conceptually more ambitious.

(From The Telegraph, 16 April 2016)