The Madras Players’ version of Tara was neat, but the play itself seemed like a patchwork of emotions, a ninety-minute tear-jerker

Ninety minutes of emotional wrangling. A stretched-out tear-jerker is a dangerous thing to attempt. Unless you get it just right, the audience ends up feeling manipulated. And, eventually, apathetic. After all, even real life tragedies aren’t composed of solely high drama. And no one stands outside their house at night, gazing tearily at the stars, murmuring platitudes like “Those who desire freedom crash. I no longer desire that freedom. I just move though space.”

Even more so when it’s juxtaposed with earnest lessons on morality, on a subject that nobody really disagrees on anymore: The plight of the girl child. Yes. Women are discriminated against. Yes. Female infanticide happens. Yes. Boys get more privileges than their sisters. But these are exceptions. They’re not the norm. (Thank goodness!) Especially not in the circles this play reaches out to. Which really means they’re preaching to the choir. Perhaps circumstances were different two decades ago, when Mahesh Dattani first wrote Tara. Today, the story isn’t exceptionally relevant, or shocking, to the English-speaking urban audience it draws. And since the play is structured in a fairly conventional way, once you minus the force of the message, it has far less impact.

Cleverly designed sets

That said, The Madras Players’ latest version of ‘Tara,’ staged at Museum Theatre, was neat and precise. Cleverly constructed sets (by Victor Paulraj and team) managed to simultaneously tell — and unite — three stories set in three different locations, and time zones. There was the living room, wrapped in comforting everyday domesticity with its cane sofas, music system and kick-knack laden shelves, where Tara (Shaan Katari Libby) and her brother Chandan (Abhinav Suresh) grow up under the watchful eyes of their doting parents, the eternally harassed mother Bharthi (Weena Pradan) and tough but tender father, Patel (Vinod Anand) . On the left, a cosy, raised space bristling with books and paintings encapsulates Dan (Yog Japee), playing grown up Chandan, a writer living in London. And overlooking it all is the third space, a dark box, containing the infamous Dr. Thakker (Shankar Sundaram), cloaked in blustering-self importance, and a barely discernable sense of guilt.

Director Tehzeeb Katari deftly weaves three stories together, adding new dimensions to the sets by using crafty lighting and gossipy Rupa (Nandini Krishnan) who constantly runs across the auditorium, extending the boundaries of the stage. The play’s sole source of sunshine, she’s terrified of ‘Oglers’ (“You mean ogres? Well. They look like they’re ogling”) and is unexpectedly charming, despite her ‘mean girl’ role. Although she’s a supporting actor, some of her scenes are the play’s most moving, perhaps because they’re performed with such airy blitheness. Especially her dramatic confrontation with Tara, which ends with her spray painting ‘freaks’ across the sets. There’s no cruelty quite like that of children. Abhinav and Shaan, as the beleaguered ‘Siamese’ twins move capably from tough to vulnerable, till they’re gradually broken down by the incessant blows of life.

However, it’s all unrelentingly depressing. To a point where it feels almost self-indulgent. The Patel twins are born conjoined. They grow into feisty teenagers, listening to Brahms’ first concerto and laughing at the prejudices of the world. Till their mother has a nervous guilt-fuelled breakdown. Leading to the big reveal: they were born with three legs. Who would get the extra leg? Well, it wasn’t exactly Sophie’s Choice. Medically speaking, it belonged to the girl. In a massive conspiracy, the doctor and mother decide to give it to the boy instead. He loses it in three days. The parents live with the guilt.

Dark and depressing

And so it goes on. And on. Ninety minutes later, the loose ends are finally tied up. Plunging us deeper into darkness. The mother dies. Tara dies. Chandan is bitter, and refuses to return home. (Fortunately Yog plays him with quiet dignity. Histrionics would have been too much to bear.) The story ends quietly enough, saving it from crossing over into melodrama. “Go away. Lights go off. Just give me a moment and the pain will subside.”

On the whole, Tara was emotional patchwork. Some strong scenes, some wearingly long-drawn out drama. The intentions were good. Unfortunately, the existentialism was exhausting.