Once Upon A Time In Mumbai:
The textile mills strike in Mumbai, that led to a lockout and mass unemployment in the early eighties, had a long term impact on the lives of mill workers and their families.
The city’s soul had been defined to a large extent by these hard-working girni kaamgaars, and when their workplaces and humble chawl dwellings made way for gleaming malls, glass-fronted office complexes and swanky restaurants, a part of that famed spirit of Mumbai died.
Jayant Pawar’s Marathi play Adhantar (1997), directed by Vinay Apte (the filmed version by Mangesh Kadam), captured the devastation of just one family, and each character of the squabbling Dhuri clan represented a ‘type’ that emerged from the working class milieu. Pawar had a journalist’s insights and a writer’s eye for detail, that brought to life the shabby one-room home of Aai (Jyoti Subhash), her three sons and a daughter.
In so many working class households in Maharashtra, the women struggle to keep the family going, and in spite of their ceaseless labour, are given little or no respect by the men. Aai looked after her ailing husband for years till he died; she makes some money supplying tiffins and taking in sewing. The married daughter, Manju (Leena Bhagwat), lives at her mother’s house, while her husband Rane (Anil Gawas) takes part in a union struggle against mill owners. She is aggressive towards her brothers, because she has a job and contributes towards domestic expenses.
The three Dhuri sons are all hopeless, but the worst of the lot is the oldest, Baba (Rajan Bhise), a pretentious writer, who thinks he is superior to the rest of them, and that taking up a job would be beneath him. He argues about poetry and literature with his journalist pal Satish (Hemant Bhalekar), and wants to write an award-winning novel. The second son, Mohan (Bharat Jadhav), is a jobless layabout, who spends his days sprawled in the only bed in the room—the women automatically sit or lie in the floor—listening to cricket commentary. Naru (Sanjay Narvekar) is the one that got away– he works for a local strongman, and his anti-Muslim rants indicate his bent towards a son-of-the-soil party that found its strength during this period upheaval by mobilizing unemployed and angry young men. Naru’s entries and exits have a lot of drama with secret signals and a henchman called Butter (Prasad Oak) sent ahead to whistle an all clear.
Aai is treated worse than a slave by her sons, but gets some assistance just from Manju, whose desire to get out of the suffocating ghetto of frustration, and a loveless marriage, leads to the tragedy that wrecks the fragile hopes Aai had built up. The neighbouring Mami (Savita Malpekar) keeps turning up to gloat about her dutiful son, who has a job and gives his salary to her.
Before the heart-wrenching climax, Aai’s pent up grief erupts when none of the sons bother about the shraddh pooja that she has organized for her dead husband; to make it worse, Baba and Mohan bicker over a share of their father’s insurance money, without once considering the needs or wishes of their mother. Rane arrives, defeated—the mills have shut down, the workers have been thrown out with some compensation; he plans to start a small business and set up home properly with Manju. He believes something good has to come out of such crushing failure, but none of them has accounted for Naru’s destructive machismo.
The performances are all excellent—though they could have been toned down a bit for the filmed version. Jyoti Subhash is brilliant as Aai, bent over with the strain of looking after her family, her face careworn; she has aged before her time (as compared to the well-fed Mami), but her courage makes sure she is to be admired, not pitied.
Jayant Pawar’s play blended social realism with family melodrama, but its authenticity and compassion for the travails of the working class—particularly the women—gives it power; Adhantar is quite rightly considered a contemporary classic.
(This piece first appeared on mumbaitheatreguide.com)