Madras Players’ Serious Men, adapted from Manu Joseph’s novel, with its strong theme was a play one could identify with

Ayyan Mani, a Dalit who lives in a Mumbai chawl works in a renowned institute of research where the scientists are Brahmins. He is personal assistant to Arvind Acharya, the director of the institute. Acharya, a brilliant astronomer is passionately engaged in searching for alien life. The thought of centuries of deprivation, prejudice and denied opportunities fill Ayyan with smouldering anger and he decides to take matters into his own hands. Ayyan executes a wily scheme to get the better of a system that condemns some to the lowest rung of society while it confers automatic privileges and opportunities to others.

Serious Men is a satire on society, science, class and caste written with remarkable perception and perfect detailing. The novel by Manu Joseph that won The Hindu Literary Prize 2010 has been adapted for the stage by Nikhila Kesavan. The play, also directed by Nikhila, was presented by the Madras Players at the Museum Theatre. As the unscrupulous but likeable Ayyan attempts to outwit the status quo and win for himself, his beloved wife Oja and young son Aditya more than a place in the sun — fame as a science “genius”, no less — the audience is drawn into the minds and lives of the characters and the problems they grapple with. Along with issues of ingrained prejudice are those of intellectual one-upmanship, gender imbalance, petty jealousies and thwarted love. Brahmins and non-Brahmins, clerks and scientists, educated women and simple ones, inhabit this world. Nikila’s adaptation gave readers of the book the feel of the complete novel. She had selected the points in the graph of the play’s plot unerringly and connected the points skilfully. Almost all the little touches were there for those who had read the book and enjoyed it. The only touch missing was that of the scientists counting their money with total concentration.

Perfectly cast, V. Sarvesh Sridhar was the winner outpacing everyone. His Ayyan was all that you expected him to be —shrewd, intelligent, unscrupulous, always one step ahead in the game, his expression spot on even while posing with a smirk for the press photograph. P.C. Ramakrishna gained in stature as the scientist Acharya as the play progressed, being dignified and endearing even while caught in the coils of an illicit affair or after being brought down from his pedestal. His scenes with his wife came alive with pathos and humour. He delivered his lines with unfailing impact whether in the scathing “I have been inside your mind, it was a short journey” to the bureaucrat, or the pathetic “You are still my email password” to the wife he has betrayed. M. Kaushik as Aditya was delightful, and lived up to his brilliant reputation as a prodigy in the play. The little actor was a real find. Radhika Prasidhha (Oja), whether engrossed in her Tamil serial or tremulous with apprehension and delight at her son’s prowess got it right. The nun gently and persistently trying to win followers to her faith was played appealingly by Indrani Krishanier. But the actor who played the key role of the young scientist Oparna who has an affair with Acharya was not able to fully live up to the demands of the role. Shankar Sundaram as Acharya’s rival Namboodri filled the bill. He was ably supported by T.T. Srinath as his colleague Jal who exposes the game of Ayyan and his “genius” of a son.

The continuous entrances and exits, especially initially, were distracting for the audience and gave a feeling of characters in fast forward. Though the technique might have helped set the action on diverse fronts, it made for a lack of smoothness and fluidity. The first half of the play had too much focus on Ayyan and Aditya and too little on the institute of science. The play was a bit too long.

The sets were simple and meagre. But here the simple often did not evoke. The bare tables hardly helped summon up the atmosphere of the institute though they aided different levels of action. The lighting (Victor Paulraj, Studio 7) did its job perfectly as did the sound (Charles) and sound recording (Pushpakanth Panchal, Kalpana Arts Recording Centre). Costumes by Nanda Devanesen and Kamala Krish (who played Lavanya Acharya, the wife of the scientist) were appropriate.

The Madras Players through its choice of theme brought before us once again a play we could identify with. A theme — strong, contemporary and yet timeless — of a society where caste often inevitably and inexorably defines who we are, what we are, who we become and how we are viewed, while also taking swipes at religion, politics and the bureaucracy.

And the director once again succeeded in adapting a novel with understanding and sensitivity to the stage.