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A welcome change

From the play, "Ellai Illatha Illaram''...absorbing show.

THE MAHALAKSHMI Ladies Drama Group has come out with yet another production, "Ellai Illatha Illaram." This is the 13th play of director-playwright Bombay Gnanam, the founder of this all-women troupe. Quite a remarkable feat considering that women playwrights are almost non-existent in the city.

There are just two male characters in the play. This makes it easy for those viewers who find it difficult to watch women enact all the male roles in the troupe's productions. A surprisingly modern and unusual theme as well as a tight script make "Ellai Illatha Illaram" a pleasant change from the clichéd fare one is generally subjected to in mainstream Tamil theatre.

The play begins with her U.S. based aunt, Nandini, bringing the past to the heroine Mardhini (Preshi for "Precious"!) in the form of Viswa. Both of them have apparently come to congratulate Preshi, a single woman, who has just become vice president of a leading company. But then, the past unwinds and we learn of Preshi's journey to these heights.

Doting parents. Brilliant but obstinate daughter. Down-to-earth and intelligent grandmother. These are the personae we meet in Preshi's rich home. The heroine is so individualistic that she chooses an unconventional way of life. Spurning the idea of marriage because of the responsibilities and bonds it entails, Preshi and Viswa (the young man she loves), decide to have a live-in-relationship. They feel marriage as an institution is no longer relevant or necessary in contemporary society. Where does this unconventional choice lead the couple?

Gnanam depicts the ego clashes and the lack of commitment that can sour a relationship. She underscores the importance of marriage as an institution. In the process Gnanam has managed to steer clear of melodrama that is generally overemphasised in her plays. Like Ariadne Oliver, Agatha Christie's apple-munching detective fiction writer, the playwright's problem is she always thinks of not just one idea but a dozen, and tries to put them all across. Here, she steadily pursues a single one effectively. The arguments and counter-arguments for the establishment and the opposing viewpoint are put forward fairly and clearly. One is absorbed in the proceedings and the writer's mastery over her particular milieu is obvious in every scene.

Just as you are poised to applaud a really well made work, you freeze. The last scene tips the balance so completely in favour of convention and patriarchy that you feel let down. Obviously, Gnanam's conditioning is so deep she sees marriage as vital to a woman's life and women as homemakers first.

Are single women who achieve to be considered unfulfilled individuals? Is loneliness only the fate of single women? Are not many married women lonely when they are caged within unhappy relationships? Instead of enrolling men's cooperation in lessening the working women's household burden, should they be glorified as superwomen to take on more and more?

Still, the theme and the manner of telling it made "Ellai Illatha Illaram" a cut above the rest on the sabha circuit. The director was assisted by a good cast. Mathangi as Preshi carried off her role well and the costumes too were suitably chosen. Malathi Narayanan was convincing as the sensible grandmother who believes in plain talk. Soundarya Mahesh as Viswa, though weighed down by her wig, played the part with understanding and so did Padmini Natarajan as her mother. Gnanam's cameo was neatly done and Girija Subramanian as Preshi's father fitted the role.

Though the delivery of lines poses no problem to the cast, body language is quite another matter. The troupe, like many other amateur groups on the sabha circuit, needs to go in for wholesale training in body movement - jerky gestures of the hands alone do not make for theatre. Except for the sermon at the end, "Ellai Illatha Illaram" presented at the Rani Seethai hall by the Brahma Gana Sabha does credit to Gnanam reiterating as it does her talent as well as her commitment to mainstream Tamil theatre.

Young people, presumably the target viewers for a play like this that lays stress on the importance of the institution of marriage, were hardly to be seen at the hall. The audience consisted almost entirely of the fifty plus, mostly couples who had obviously grown grey, happily or otherwise, in each other's company.


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