Rage Productions' poster for the play

From Judging… to Understanding

If you are called upon to decide on a matter of grave import, especially one in the public domain, how do you ensure you are judging well rather than being judgmental?

A scene from the 1957 Hollywood version of 12 Angry MenThis compelling thought lies at the heart of the all-time classic 12 Angry Men. Penned by Reginald Rose in 1954, the play has been adapted into several formats and languages across the world, and continues to do so 60 years on. I myself have seen a Hollywood movie (the legendary Sidney Lumet’s 1957 version, starring luminaries such as Henry Fonda and Lee Cobb), a Bollywood film (1986’s Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, featuring a who’s-who of theatre and cinema stalwarts – Pankaj Kapur, Annu Kapoor, KK Raina – and directed by another great, Basu Chatterjee), a school play (performed by Standard XII students), and most recently, a contemporised version (by as-if-presciently-named-for-this-play Rage Productions of Mumbai). ‘Contemporised’ because, conscious of the need to be inclusive, the play is now named 12 Angry Jurors and features an almost equal number of women (five) in the cast.

The story though remains the same. An 18-year boy (technically, some would say a man) is accused of murdering his abusive father. The court proceedings over, the 12-member jury (the 12 in the title) now moves to the inner room to decide – and if needed, deliberate – on the boy’s fate. However, there seems to be no need for deliberation, as 11 have decided ‘Guilty’. But wait, as one has decided ‘Not Guilty’, there seems to be need for some discussion. The 11 though are flummoxed: how can one person not believe the boy is guilty when all evidence, witnesses, and as damningly, an overwhelming majority of them are saying so? What starts off as a tiny spark ignited by Juror 8 (the one believing the boy is innocent) leads slowly but surely toward an incendiary climax, as not just thoughts and arguments but accusations and threats are exchanged (the anger in the title). So, do the jurors remain enraged till the end, or do they become placative and reach a unanimous decision one way or the other (the requirement of the court)? In case you haven’t seen the play or any of its avatars, will leave you to discover the denouement for yourself.

An angered Lee Cobb in the 1957 Hollywood version of 12 Angry MenWhat is worth deliberating on however are the themes the play / movie explores. The tendency to evaluate something or someone only through one’s own (coloured) lenses. Juror 10 is unrelenting: the boy is guilty and needs to hang simply because he’s from the slums and “those people” are always like that. Prejudices, it is clear, run deep. And it appears, so do bad experiences, especially if they are close to home. Juror 3 wages the toughest, and roughest, battle against Juror 8. The reason? Juror 3 has had a strained relationship with his son, and having failed to resolve matters with his own kid, wants the accused kid to suffer in a vicious, vicarious form of retribution. And one juror, No. 7, has the flimsiest, whimsiest reason for sticking to his stance: he has tickets for a game and so wants the discussion to wind up asap, especially as all but one of them hold the boy guilty.

Bias, negativity, slapdash judgment… All themes as relevant in today’s social media-fuelled times, when people are quick to ascribe fault and guilt to a situation or a person without bothering to get to the truth. Because that takes time, effort and intellect. All of which seem to be in short supply these days.

A poster for the 1957 Hollywood version of 12 Angry Men, showing a lone white silhouette on one balance and 11 black silhouettes on the otherIt’s not all despairing though. The play urges you to stand up for what you believe is right, even when the world stands against you. Juror 8 fights alone for the longest time. When asked if the boy could really be innocent when the evidence, witness statements, and presently, most jurors are disfavoured to him, his constant response is a simple “It’s possible.” He merely wants to explore the possibility that the boy is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Surely, that’s not too much to ask for, given that his life is at stake? The play also holds that it’s alright to waver, to not be sure. Juror 12 does what looks like a flip-flop in the eyes of the others: now she believes he’s guilty, now she believes he’s not. It’s ok, the play seems to say, to change your viewpoint as you receive more information. After all, it shows you are willing to be flexible, and more importantly, to think.

Not surprisingly, six decades on, 12 Angry Men (Jurors) remains a telling commentary on the way most people think and believe when it comes to others. And the way they truly ought to.

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Cover pic for this post with the calling card of the play and my comment

Irficionado | Play | ‘Amrapali’

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The Theatre Nisha logoIt seems Theatre Nisha read my review of their last staged play, Gallantly Fought the Queen, based on the life of Rani Lakshmibai. For they seem to have incorporated the suggestions I made there into one of their latest staged plays, Amrapali. Well, technically, Amrapali has been on for some time. But it was finally satisfying to watch a rather rich production (content-wise) from Theatre Nisha, after two somewhat let-down productions (Gallantly and, before that, Flowers).

Amrapali, also in contrast to the previous two plays I had watched, was staged free. (And no, that isn’t the reason I liked it. In fact, because it was good, I felt they should have charged a nominal fee out of respect for the effort put in.) Also, watching the third straight monologue play from Theatre Nisha, I was able to possibly get the group’s strategy. I think they come out with these monologues as experiments, and the ones that click (Flowers and this one seem to have done well so far), they keep adding to, embellishing and enriching. The first shows seem less slick (I think Gallantly was in the initial stages of, well, being staged, but Flowers and Amrapali have had good runs by the time I caught them), and therefore a bit disappointing, but if the group feels they’re onto something, they don’t let go and keep chipping away until they get at least half a gem.

A calling card for Theatre Nisha's play, Amrapali

Anyway, enough theorizing and back to Amrapali. So, Amrapali seems to have woven in the suggestion I made of the one actor playing all the different characters. Janani Narasimhan, who played the courtesan, did so, and with aplomb, modulating her voice very effectively and perceptibly for the multiple characters, right down to the body language. Janani also moved around the four-sided venue, calibrating her movements, so that no one part of the audience felt tuned out. (Though I did catch one guy on the opposite side nodding off for the first part of the play, but that could be because he was done with his weekend. The venue, Spaces, is right next to the immensely popular and populated Besant Nagar Beach, or more fondly, Bessie, which has tons of eateries, hang-outs, activities, or in short, distractions.)

Actor Janani Narasimhan in and as AmrapaliJanani was also a very stoic performer, acting her solo part through the heat and sweat. I saw first sweat-beads form and then turn into rivulets and stream down her face, but she battled through them. (I’m guessing also the make-up was smudge-proof.) Compare this with most folk in the audience making fans out of anything they could get their hands on: the play flyer, newspapers, face towels, their hands; plus, the prescient had got actual hand-fans.

On the flip side, Janani did get some of her pronunciations wrong, and I also thought she was a bit of a miscast, as Amrapali – according to the writer of the play itself, V Balakrishnan, the director and force behind Nisha – was supposed to be a woman of extraordinary beauty. Which is why she was designated the courtesan in the republic of Vaishali. Nevertheless, matching the looks to the role is more of a movie necessity; in theatre, talent reigns supreme. So, nothing really to take away from Janani.

V Balakrishnan, founder and director of Theatre NishaBut even better than Janani’s performance, and which is why I loved the play so much, was the writing. Bala has invested a lot into the script; it’s easy to see that he wrote it with love and care and kept perfecting with each staging. I especially loved the piece on how an apsara’s breasts are useless, “mere ornaments, for decoration”, as they are not able to produce milk, and therefore any kid they beget, they can’t nurture. Amrapali, in fact, is one such child.

The skillful writing also shows in the symmetry of the play, though this could very well be the same in most accounts of the courtesan’s life: Amrapali, toward the end of her life, on relinquishing her erstwhile duties and taking to the teaching and principles of the Buddha, takes up habitat just where her earthly father had found her – under the mango tree. (That’s why she’s given her name, the sprouts of a mango tree.) The symmetry is sealed with Janani / Amrapali reciting the same Sanskrit lines at the end of the play as at the beginning; only, at the end, it’s with their meaning.

Kudos to Janani, Bala and everyone at Theatre Nisha for this fine endeavour. Would have loved it even more if the heat wasn’t such a sapper and as someone for the previous play had suggested, “there had been an AC at the (open) venue”. But then, as a member of Nisha had responded, “Spaces wouldn’t be the same that way”.

Chandramandapa at Spaces, where the play was staged

Chandramandapa at Spaces, where the play was staged

You can find out more about Theatre Nisha on their website: Theatre Nisha

Composite image featuring the poster and actor of Theatre Nisha's one-person play, 'Gallantly Fought the Queen'

Irficionado | Play Review | ‘Gallantly Fought the Queen’

Logo for Irficionado seriesThis was the second Theatre Nisha play I attended this year, and as it turned out, both had the same format. Both were around an hour long, both were monologues, both had two artistes accompanying, one a singer, the other an instrumentalist. To continue the similarity, both were conducted in small spaces (the first one in a yoga studio, yes, and this one in the Alliance Francaise auditorium) and both had similarly priced tickets. Just that the first one, ‘Flowers’, about a married Hindu priest from ancient times succumbing to the charms of a newly-arrived courtesan, proved to be better than this one.

Poster of Theatre Nisha's 'Gallantly Fought the Queen'This one, ‘Gallantly Fought the Queen’, was about a historical person again, but this time a real one, Rani of Jhansi, Laxmibai. It was based on Hindi poet, Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s eulogy to the queen, ‘Khoob Ladi Mardaani’. The play’s title was a very astute translation of the poem’s title. Unfortunately, the goodness ends there. Ok, credit too to Meera Sitaraman, who played the queen. She put in a lot of zeal and effort, effortlessly switching from the Hindi stanzas of the poem to the English narration. Yes, the monologue was basically a narration of the events in the rani’s life from when the British begin laying siege to Jhansi to her eventual death. Interspersed with that, as just mentioned, was the recitation of parts of the poem, I’m guessing, in the order they are written.

Poster of Theatre Nisha's one-person play, 'Flowers'Watching this unfold, I felt either of two things. That this was an experimental play, like a test run before a bigger, more lavish mounting (and by god, would this subject look grand on a grander scale – the rani in her majestic attire, thundering her lines, tearing through the enemy; any wonder then Bollywood has been toying with making a movie on her for the longest time, and I’m already picturing Alia Bhatt or Kareena Kapoor). Alternatively, this was repeating the formula from the earlier ‘Flowers’. When something has worked, why tinker? (Though ‘Flowers’ itself was modest at best. Also, ‘Flowers’ had a more riveting tale.) In both cases, the reason seemed the desire to keep the budget low, or rather, work within the low budget. For ‘Flowers’, the only thing on stage was a big lingam; here, it was six black boxes (the same lingam dismantled?) stacked like a pyramid, perhaps to resemble stones or a fortress.

Meera Sitaraman in the titular role of Theatre Nisha's 'Gallantly Fought the Queen'

Meera Sitaraman in and as Rani Laxmibai in the play

If budget was really the issue, I have a suggestion (like I always do when I feel something has a decent premise, but seems to lack something in the final execution). This may also solve the problem of finding it boring to watch one person, that too just narrate a timeline of events. (I found many others, along with myself, trying hard to suppress many a yawn, during the 60-odd-minute runtime.) Perhaps the actor could have switched roles from time to time, with a modification of attire during each switch if possible. So, she could have been Tantia Tope when chastising his ineffectuality, about Lord Dalhousie when sneering at his haughtiness, or even her subjects when empathizing with their collective fears and mobilized courage. Like one actor playing multiple roles, as has been seen in some films too (Bollywood’s most famous example being Sanjeev Kumar’s ‘Nayi Din, Nayi Raat’). Would have definitely made for more interesting viewing, would have pushed the eager actor more, and most importantly, if they decided to do away with the accompanying artistes, would have made the most of the budget. In short, Creatively Should Have Thought the Team. Lacking which, the only thing gallant here proved to be the decision to produce a play within a seemingly small budget.

 

Promo pic of play 'One on One Part Two' featuring some characters/actors

Irficionado | Play Review | ‘One on One Part 2’

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Theatre writer and director, Rahul DaCunhaBefore this, Rahul DaCunha has directed three other monologues-based plays: ‘Going Solo’, ‘Going Solo 2 – Living on the Edge’, and ‘One on One’. (‘The Wisest Fool on Earth’ was a monologue featuring a single actor, not an ensemble.) And they’ve all been tremendous. (I haven’t seen ‘Going Solo’, but have the other two, and they’ve been brilliant in all the departments: writing, acting, directing, social comment.) So, when you see a dialogue piece in the ironically named ‘One on One Part 2’ (OOOT), the irony hits home further, and you feel a tremendous sense of dismay: What’s it doing here? Unfortunately, that isn’t the only thing dismaying about OOOT.

Rajit Kapur, Shernaz Patel and Rahul DaCunha of Rage ProductionsStraight up, the material is very pedestrian. Apart from two or three pieces (one of which was adapted), you get the feeling you’ve seen these life-slices before: the harassed homemaker, the unsure bride-to-be (blame this squarely on Imtiaz Ali, who’s made an industry out of inner-conflicted lovers), a Gujju NRI hankering after money, family and friends fighting to get the body of a beloved one (‘Saaraansh’ Two)… It feels like Rage Productions (Rahul’s theatre group along with Rajit Kapur and Shernaz Patel) was at a loss for inspiration, or worse, they did the second part of ‘One on One’ to milk the success of the original. Rage could have pushed either the stories further (to get more out of them) or itself further (to get better stories).

Neil Bhoopalam as a DJ in a promo shot from the play, 'One on One Part Two'Nevertheless, two pieces (actually three, if you include the one adapted) seem fresh and scintillate. Two pieces representing opposite sides of the India story. A harrowed newbie TC in the boondocks of Bihar going after WT (without ticket) travelers and having to pay the price for his naivete, played to perfection by Ashok Mishra of ‘The Week That Wasn’t’ on IBNLive. DJ Elvis, who rather than modeling himself on the King has done so on his perception of DJs, or to put it better, a Mac boy from Mangalore who’s trying to be a Mac dude from Bandra (the piece doesn’t say this, but that’s the impression you get). Third up is something that’s even more involved (and that’s why you know it’s adapted): a Parsi middle-aged man, with weak eyesight and all, sitting for a pilot’s interview, but from time to time, segueing into thoughts of insecurity. It takes you a while to realise, or just wonder, if the interview too isn’t happening only in his head.

Anu Menon as a harried homemaker in a promo shot from the play, 'One on One Part 2'The second downer is the acting ensemble. Having lukewarm material is liveable if you have talent that can elevate the material or that pushes itself. Unfortunately, the best actors get the best pieces (the delightful Sohrab Ardeshir plays the Parsi guy and Neil Bhoopalam raises his mettle several notches to play the DJ). Anu Menon and Vrajesh Hirjee do their best as the homemaker and Gujju guy, but you’ve seen them play these kind of roles before. So too with Rajit Kapur in both the dead man’s soliloquy and in the soldiers’ tale. The soldiers’ story is the aforementioned oddman dialogue in this series, and co-stars Hussein Dalal, who won hearts as the stuttering stand-up comedian in the Nescafe award-winning TVC, but who seems to be trying to do too much here. Finally, Shikha Talsania as the bride-to-be. Shikha, Ranbir Kapoor’s spunky friend in ‘Wake Up Sid’, has still some way to go when it comes to older roles, it would seem. To make matters worse, the mic was off-centre in her act.

OOOT, along with better material (like the brilliant lamppost act from the first series), needed some of the earlier stars that have featured in Rage’s monologues: Anand Tiwari (of the same lamppost piece) and theatre powerhouses Anahita Oberoi and Zafar Karachiwala. (Zafar’s name was mentioned for one of the acts, but guess he couldn’t make it, and Anahita seems to have gone into thespian hibernation.)

Promo pic of Rage Productions' earlier play, 'The Siddhus of Upper Juhu'With two tepid plays on the trot (‘The Siddhus of Upper Juhu’, starring Rajit and Shernaz, before this one), you begin wondering… Has Rahul DaCunha and/or Rage lost its muse? At a time when people have other equally witty, if not more, forms of live entertainment (stand-up and open mic), it will be interesting to see if, or how, Rage gets back its mojo. Or, and this is the Bombay boy in me speaking, because Rage’s plays are so much about and around the city in which they are born, maybe they are best enjoyed there.

Ad for Ila, play by Patchworks Ensemble

Meview: Ila

As I mentioned in the previous post, as a part of The Hindu Theatre Fest (HTF) 2015 here in Chennai, the day before, I went for what has proved to be my best play of all time. Ila, by Patchworks Ensemble. HTF also has a Citizen Review, whereby readers of the paper and viewers of the play can send in their take on the play in 50-150 words. The best entry wins a dinner for two at The Park, a leading hotel here. Well, below’s my entry. And as it turns out, I won. Yippee. With very few edits. Double yippee.

At the end, find the link to the digital version of the paper’s section where mine and some other reviews appeared. Have also, but of course, posted a couple of pix. And oh, what’s a ‘meview’? Find out here.

Male. Female. Tick a box.

But what if there were more than two boxes? More male; More female; In between… What then of this person, and… stereotypes? Such as ‘Men slap their thighs, women cross theirs’.

Ila dares to examine this gender- and mind-bending question. Through an apt metaphor: the ladies’ compartment of a Mumbai local train, which turns ‘general’ by night – like its protagonist. (Ila draws from the myth of a king who, under a spell, goes between manhood and womanhood with the moon’s waxing and waning.)

It continues pushing the blue/pink envelope: several actors take turns playing the wo/man and, in literally a flicker, swings between Ila’s tragic/magic tale and that of a pregnant train regular. The music yin-yangs too: now actor-like – posing a conundrum, now audience-like – pondering that conundrum. By the end, everyone’s mind is prised open, at least a bit. Ila ticks all the right boxes.

Find mine and other entries here: http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/theatre/ila-challenges-gender-notions/article7561429.ece

My winning Citizen Review in the offline version of the paper My winning Citizen Review in the online version of the paper