“The Magical Adventures of Ranji” to be staged on January 16, will enable city kids to discover Ruskin Bond

Used to the racy urban din and the brash razzmatazz of technocentric amusements, can the children of today be drawn to mountainscapes and small town lanes, to the lyrical flow and quiet humour of India's most unassuming writer — Ruskin Bond?

Akarsh Khurana, theatre director, scriptwriter and proprietor of Akvarious Productions says, “We have shown just how hard it is for the spoilt city-bred Ranji to adjust to a simpler lifestyle in ‘The Magical Adventures of Ranji.'”

But wariness melts into bonding (pun unintended!) as the boy finds himself riveted by the new characters he meets — an old railway station guard teaches him all about leopards. A playful ghost becomes his friend. Grandfather's pet monkey grabs his attention. First love dawns… for a fellow visitor from abroad. In this process of perspective shifts and adjustments, the audience is drawn into a magical space of unknown joys and unexpected fun.

Universal theme

Ranji's life-changing experiences are spun by Khurana and co-writer Poorva Naresh from several stories in the Bond collection. They create a storyline with incidents from old favourites such as “The Night Train at Deoli”, “Time Stops at Shamli” and “Our Trees Still Grow in Dehra”. Ranji has encounters with the strange and the mysterious when he is forced to visit his grandfather in a remote pastoral haunt. As he makes new friends in the human and animal worlds, he discovers new truths in the world around him and within him. This universal theme is infused with a compelling contemporary relevance by the cast, led by thespian Benjamin Gilani playing the grandfather.

Brought to Chennai by Kidscafe & Swift@insights, on January 16, 6 p.m. at The Music Academy, “The Magical Adventures of Ranji” is an amalgam of “A Special Bond”, premiered in two parts (2007-08), at Mumbai's Prithvi Theatre's Summerfest for Children. A huge success — 40 shows in many centres — “A Special Bond” had writer Ruskin Bond in the audience at Dehra Dun. “And guess what, after that, Bond gave us an unpublished story for the sequel,” Khurana exults.

Khurana, a screenplay writer (“Krrish”, “U Me aur Hum” and “Kites”), began his stage life as child actor and award-winning director in inter-collegiate fests. His directorial mettle was shown in “Afsaneh Bai Se Bioscope Tak”, “Blackbird” and the short “Aabodana”. “Rafta Rafta” is the new Akvarious play to be premiered in January 2011.

But how did Khurana come up with a children's play at all? “Watching Makarand Deshpande's play about young people's obsession with cricket, I laughed as much as the kid sitting next to me! This taught me that a children's play need not be childish. It can be family entertainment, with humour and substance for all age groups. Young people are intelligent, highly imaginative. No need to talk down to them or over simplify.” Khurana did not want to adapt a western work, and Ruskin Bond offered perfect material to work on.

Do children's plays demand a different directorial approach? “You've got to lose your inhibitions a lot more,” he laughs, and adds, “You need more stagecraft and skills.” Audiences for English theatre in India are generally aware of a wide spectrum of styles and genres — dark, comic, absurd, reflective, realistic — willing to let the play unravel strands leading into unfamiliar tracks. But children cannot give such patient latitude. Though the most rewarding and giving audience, they are also the toughest. They can switch off at any moment. Khurana sums up, “You have to hook them from the start, maintain unflagging energy and power-packed tempo throughout. A real challenge!”