Through The Looking Glass:
It is pleasantly surprising to see a young director pick up a difficult play, like GP Deshpande’s Udhwastha Dharmashala (Marathi), and attract a full house for the opening show; that there are actors willing to put in the effort to work on the text at a time when everybody is too busy to rehearse, and audiences are choosing to watch it, when there are easier and more entertaining plays being staged.
Deshpande’s play has been translated into various languages and performed all over the country. A Hindi adaptation was the first play to be staged at Prithvi Theatre (in 1978). It was soon after the Emergency, when audiences who had lived through the dark days of the suspension of democracy, could appreciate what the playwright was saying.
Udhwastha Dharmashala was first read at a Theatre Academy workshop in Pune organised by Satyadev Dubey in 1973, and later staged by Dr. Shreeram Lagoo, who also played the protagonist. The playwright’s son Sudhanva Deshpande wrote in www.thoughtnaction.co.in, “Rajinder Nath then produced it in Delhi, with a young Om Puri, freshly out of the NSD, in the lead. When Om Puri moved to Bombay, he produced it with himself, Naseeruddin Shah and Neelam Mansingh Chowdhury. Shyamanand Jalan directed it in Calcutta with himself and Chetana Jalan in central roles. Many other productions followed all over the country. You could say that GPD pioneered the political play of ideas and discussion in India.” He also quotes communist leader B.T. Ranadive telling his father, “I think you are doing something that no one else has done. You are talking of politics, of ideologies, of ideas, in an entirely new way. Nothing in Marathi writing is like what you have written. And I think you have an astonishing grasp of and ability with the Marathi language. Your Marathi is simultaneously historical and modern. I can’t think of any other writer who writes the language as you do.”
Back then, it was prescient about the times to come; today it would have been read, performed and watched as just another play about political persecution, if some current events did not mirror what takes place on stage.
A leftist university professor, Shridhar Kulkarni (Sushil Inamdar), is summoned to appear before a committee, that comprises an MLA, PY (Sunil Jadhav), Vice Chancellor Jambhekar (Vikrant Kolape), Professor Kshirsagar (Yogesh Khandekar) and Registrar Velankar (Yashodhan Mavalankar). Soon the pretense of having a civil chat over cups of tea is dropped, and claws are unsheathed. Everything Kulkarni said and wrote in the past is dredged out for him to explain or justify.
Kulkarni is not an unvarnished hero or martyr to the cause—as scenes with his uncles, wife and lover show—there is nevertheless a price to be paid for ideology, he is warned by the politician.
Sushil Inamdar gives a fine performance as Shridhar Kulkarni, his mood and body language gradually shifting from defiance to exhaustion. The production is well cast—the members of the interrogation committee do not look threatening—the registrar’s ignorance is played for comic effect—because they appear so ordinary. It is, however, the innocuous-looking colleague, friend or neighbour who often twists the knife.
The set with books carelessly strewn in the background, could convey the feeling that ideas are headed for the trash heap. The furniture and props are simple, but with small changes utilized for multiple scenes. It is a brave attempt by Vipul Mahagaonkar, who understands that the words and language are more important here, and does not spoon feed the audience by simplifying anything.
(This piece first appearedin mumbaitheatreguide.com)