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More than Mango Souffle

NOT OFTEN do you meet such a soft-spoken, refined man like Mahesh Dattani; at least in today's Delhi. But then, he is not a Delhiite. A Bangalorean since childhood, even as a veteran name in the world of Indian theatre in English, Mahesh is not that usual stamp of a forceful, arty persona with carefully-managed tousled hair, signalling at you very evidently `I am, you know who.'

So, looking for unassuming Mahesh among lunchtime customers at The American Diner in Delhi's India Habitat Centre is not an easy operation. He looks a tad different too in course of time. With almost a tonsured look now, a little loss of weight perhaps after the award-wining Mango Souffle, his maiden film as director in 2003, Mahesh makes it worse by sitting at the very last corner of the restaurant.

Over pasta and spaghetti

After a bit of looking around, the wanted man is found and the promised chat over food begins. "It is getting late afternoon. Let's order food first," Mahesh settles for a small portion of plain pasta and an even smaller share of spaghetti with a bowl of salad. All for home-cooked food, he, nevertheless, tries out different eateries when in Delhi. "Besides the Diner, The Oriental Octopus at IHC is also quite good. Even I like food at some restaurants in Khan market," he says. In Bangalore too, the lure of eating out is "quite strong" now.

"Bangalore has come up with some amazing joints now. Besides the usual Thai, Italian, Chinese and Mediterranean food joints, we also have now a Japanese restaurant. Understandably, for the Japanese corporate guys around in the city. But that gives all of us a reason nowadays to try out new cuisines," he comments, that feathery look complete with an even softer smile. Allergic to prawns, this Gujarati-Southerner though is keen on river fish. "Something like fish and mustard curry Bengali style, is that tickles my taste," he divulges, the expression says as if he had mentally tasted it that moment.

Where there is a will

Beginning in 1986 with the play, "Where There Is A Will", Mahesh, who has penned, acted directed and even published a book on a wide array of plays over a range of "subjective, personal experiences," is also now taken seriously as a filmmaker. After, of course, the international success of Mango soufflé. A film made so sensitively about homosexuality being a natural phenomenon, it couldn't touch base with mass domestic audience though. "The film picked up quite a few prestigious awards abroad. But I guess, Indian mass movie audience is still not ready to accept a film which does not have a conventionally handsome hero and a good-looking heroine," says this first-ever Sahitya Akademi awarded English playwright. In between morsels of food, he continues, "But I have promised myself. I shall never take a famous hero or heroine for any of my films or plays."

Morning Raaga

A restaurant waiter interrupts, wanting to know if a soft drink is preferred to wash down the food. "No, plain water will do," he cuts him short with that shy smile.

All set to release his second film, Morning Raaga, "hopefully by the end of this year," he has also made up his mind to show the film first to international audience and then at home. "The international success of my first film has made me decide this," he contends. Unlike Mango Souffle, which was based on his play "On a Muggy Day in Mumbai", Morning Raaga is a fresh script written by him keeping big screen in mind. With Shabana Azmi, Perizaad Zorabian and Telugu boy Prakash Rao in the cast, it is the tale of a classical singer. Even Pamela Rooks' film Dance Like A Man is based on Mahesh's play by the same name.

"I wrote it when I was learning Bharatanatyam in my mid-20s," says this 43-year-old Charles Wallace scholarship winner. As a next film topic, adventure is what he is thinking of.

Over with spaghetti, Mahesh takes a measured bite from a piece of chocolate cake for dessert, adding though, "I normally avoid this kind of eating." Having noticed a fellow diner in the nearby table having rice, Mahesh begins, "I too prefer rice over anything. But because of its calorie content, I stop myself. But some people can afford it." Being a Gujarati by birth, he too has that in-born fetish for sweetness in everything. "We lived, though for a short while in Mumbai and then most part in Bangalore. I feel exposure to different places since childhood has helped me in being empathic and tolerant of all cultures, which also includes food," he comments.

Need he tell us this? If not it, what is his work all about then?


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