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The Gender Gap

Wednesday, October 10, 2018
By Deepa Gahlot

Dr Shankar Shesh (1933-1981) was one of the foremost playwrights in Hindi, who wrote on subjects of social relevance, which is why his plays (he wrote 22) are still being performed somewhere or the other in the country.

His son, Sanjay Shesh, started a theatre festival in his memory two years ago, and this year, 15 of Dr Shesh’s plays are being staged in 11 cities in India. A new production of Are! Mayavi Sarovar, directed by Salim Arif, with a cast of newcomers opened last week in Mumbai.

The content of the play, written in 1974, is startlingly contemporary-- though the original story is from one of the many tributaries of the Mahabharat — Devdutt Pattanaik wrote a book, The Pregnant King, based on this story, much later.  The play is set in the time of the rule of Raja Ilavalu (Paras Gandhi) and Rani Sujata (Simran Tandon) — he is bored because his ministers take care of governing; she is busy with her kitty parties and hundred (!) children. They plan a trip to the shrine of Shabri Narayan, and pass through an enchanted “upside down” forest with talking animals. The queen feels uneasy, with premonitions of something terrible about to happen, but Ilavalu goes for a swim and emerges as a woman.

Sujata is forced to return to the kingdom and rule instead of Ilavalu. The king in his female incarnation (Harshad), falls in love with a Rishi (Aditya Kothari — given a bizarre, shiny pirate costume) and has his child. Now she is completely happy in the role of wife and mother, with no desire to go back and rule. When Sujata comes to visit, she is shocked to see the transformation of her husband, and eventually there is a squabble over who will be the legitimate heir to the throne — Sujata’s child or the female Ilavalu’s.

A play called Ila (Pooja Sarup-Sheena Khalid), a devised piece with brilliant choreography used this story as a base and linked it to the lives of women today. So Salim Arif’s production, with garish costumes and lights, seems old-fashioned. The updating is at a superficial level — cell phones, selfies, a loud TV host — and seems incongruous in a period setting. The play had enough humour in it, so there was really no need to scrounge so hard for laughs.

The young actors perform with tremendous energy--  Harshad and Sunil Upadhyay as the sutradhar--are the pick of the lot.  Over time, the production will settle into the right groove, what is important is that the message of gender parity is conveyed.

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