News about a couple of nationally successful productions preceded their arrival last weekend. Yugpurush: Mahatma na Mahatma celebrated its 300th (not a misprint) show — counting all three versions in Gujarati, Hindi and Kannada so far — in Kolkata, courtesy of Centre Stage Creations. Having opened just a few months ago, its phenomenal track record and plans for further versions in other languages clearly indicate that it has struck a chord somewhere, worthy of examination.

What emerges is that Indians need and crave real-life inspirational stories, probably because the daily grind and the media bring us too much of the opposite. We may even speculate that, unlike the rest of the comparatively more sceptical northern hemisphere, Indians still nurse a deep hankering for the spiritual side of existence. The Shrimad Rajchandra Mission, Dharampur, fulfils both requirements by commissioning this play to mark the sesquicentenary of its preceptor, Shrimad Rajchandra, and meets the objective of education too, for most of us know nothing about this Jain guru who influenced Gandhiji. Introduced to each other in 1891 in Bombay, they corresponded regularly after Gandhi returned to South Africa, until Rajchandra died prematurely at the age of 33. Some of Gandhi’s core beliefs like ahimsa and satyagraha came to him through Rajchandra.

Uttam Gada, a seasoned Gujarati dramatist, lost an opportunity here. He bypassed the letters they exchanged — although contemporary playwrights have composed brilliant scripts using the epistolary method — and spent most of the first half detailing Rajchandra’s sensational feats of memory (avadhan) that floored Bombay in 1887, something that Rajchandra himself stopped because he felt it distracted from his spiritual pursuits. We could have gained much more from a knowledge of his thoughts than from such populist pyrotechnics.

Rajesh Joshi directs capably, resurrecting the 19th-century “shutters (wings) and grooves” stagecraft to change painted flats for every scene (including even a ship’s deck) — an expensive and mechanically complicated contraption. However, as I have observed about a recent production on the Buddha, the grander the theatrical visualization, the less it projects appropriately the simplicity and austerity of such visionaries: a contradiction that producers must bear in mind. The acting is less psychologically realistic and more presentational, but it serves the purpose of docudrama. With revision, Yugpurush can become a truly uplifting experience.

Zee Theatre exposes a diametrically opposed ideology in Dhumrapān by D for Drama (Mumbai), which won the prize for best original script at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards last month. So I looked forward to it eagerly, but ended up fuming, if not in fumes. Adhir Bhat’s play criticizes the arbitrariness with which chief executives take decisions about their staff based on perceptions of efficiency measured by capitalistic returns. But many dramatists have dealt with this theme before. Bhat does not even develop it with any newness, because the sacking of the senior employee for a reason he has confided to four colleagues predictably leads to a search for who ratted on him as well as a happy twist in the tail.

The only novelty Bhat superimposes is the fixed set of the smoking room in the company, where everyone goes periodically and talks. The trouble lies in the fact that it could be any other place; the smoking room itself is inessential. They could also be doing any other activity, like snacking; smoking itself has nothing to do with the subject. To compound the utter absurdity, the boss also visits the same room. Now, a CEO has no reason to leave his own desk to smoke, because as the boss he has the absolute power to smoke in his own office; who is going to stop him? Therefore, smoking exists here just as an excuse for seven actors to light up on stage, which they obviously do quite gleefully. The director, Akarsh Khurana, must have stipulated that the single qualification for auditioners was chain-smoking. I cannot imagine a more selfish, regressive concept in today’s times, when the whole world knows that cigarettes are the delayed-action grey bullets that kill the person next to you.

By the way, everybody acts excellently, their characterizations most natural — as they go about their mutually assured smoke-destruction to which they surely assented. But did they ask the consent of others near them, forced to imbibe their fumes unwillingly? Dhumrapān kills not only its own cast, but also spectators seated in the front rows. Do not indulge it. Stay away from it. Call it out.

(From The Telegraph, 1 April 2017)