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DANCING to different tunes

The film based on his play just won a national award, but Mahesh Dattani is already experimenting with something new, writes HEMANGINI GUPTA

Mahesh Dattani: `I was getting too comfortable writing plays.' — Photo: K. Murali Kumar

MAHESH DATTANI'S Dance Like a Man struck gold on stage — the play, directed by Lillette Dubey, has been running to packed houses around the world for over eight years now — and the film, directed by Pamela Rooks starring Shobana and Anoushka Shankar, won the National Award for the best feature film in English. But Dattani, who wrote the screenplay for his play is quick to give all the credit to Pamela Rooks, claiming his only role in the film was helping with locations and casting, "more as a resource person", as he was tied up with the shooting for his own directorial debut Mango Soufflé at the time.

Successful run

The play has been running so long and so successfully that Lillette jokes she will hand it down to her daughter, Neha. Dattani says and laughs that the play will be his legacy bequeathed to the Dubey clan. Lillette first approached Dattani to stage one of his plays in the early '90s but it was only much later, while he was in New York, that she tracked him down to say she was going to be staging Dance Like a Man. It was after one of the play's performances that director Pamela Rooks bought film rights.

Giving his play to be filmed was different from giving it to theatre, says Dattani. "With the film, I just gave it to Pamela and that was it... I was preoccupied with other things, but with the play, I'd sit in on rehearsals with Lillette. With the stage you have the script and the actors perform in front of you, and that's what the audience sees as well, but a film is more technical; only the director has the larger picture... not even the actors."

Dattani can now comment with some authority on the different dynamics of stage and cinema; after Mango Soufflé, he directed Morning Raaga, due for release in October. "Directing definitely has its exciting moments," says Dattani, "and it's creative in a different kind of way from plays." The greatest attraction of directing is that it's all about one person's vision; always the director's, he says.

Dattani is now working on a production with Madhu Natraj's dancers and Amit Heri's music. Rather than the conventional script-based theatre performance, here the dancers are being trained in theatre and the performance will find expression through the movement rather than being pre-decided.

That explains the plunge into film direction and the subsequent challenges. "With a play," Mahesh says, "it's so easy to just write and the couple held hands and walked into the sunset with the gentle patter of raindrops... but with a film," he gesticulates expressively, "you have to think about the rain machine, and the tone and the exact lighting and whether the heroine's dress has got soiled... ". A creative genius running up against the nitty-gritty of technical direction.

But having helped with a K.P. Sashi film, Dattani had some background in filmmaking. "Earlier, I found it overwhelming," he confesses, "but if you take it in the right spirit, you're learning all the time." His comparatively recent entry into the world of film direction didn't stop him casting Shabana Azmi and Perizaad Zorabian in Morning Raaga and using large numbers of local villagers in crowd scenes.

New film

The film tells the story of a young techno-trance musician and a Carnatic singer, with music used as a metaphor for the meeting of both worlds. Shot in 40 days in rural Andhra Pradesh with the Godavari as the backdrop, the film required Shabana Azmi to learn the intricacies of Carnatic music. It's really easy directing Shabana, Dattani says, although he admits there were differences and debates before the characters were thrashed out.

"I was terrified of her in the beginning." But he talks in appreciation about her being a demanding actress, deliberating on the size of her bindi and insisting on putting alta on her feet even if it was just a close shot.

But, as Dattani puts it: "I do want to stretch myself a little bit. I was getting too comfortable writing plays... I think it's important to explore areas you find more challenging, and have a holistic workout for your personal growth. I'm not looking at success per se, but trying out different things and learning a lot more."

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