Rajesh Gopie on the power of humour
“K anhaiya Nandlala, Murliwala, Kaise Bajai Murli… Nana Riding Bicycle, Nani Ringing Bell… Kaise Bajai Murli.” Clad in a grey tee and khaki, South African playwright and actor Rajesh Gopie was tapping the table and humming the song as we waited for coffee at The American Diner, India Habitat Centre. The odd wordings set to an Indian folksy tune made me curious. He looked at me and smiled. “It is chukhni — very popular among Indian communities in South Africa, who have Bhojpuri roots. Originally, it is a song of marriage with a few English and Zulu words thrown in,” explained Rajesh who was touring India with his play Out of Bounds – one that so impressed Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer that she recommended it to Nelson Mandela, who then asked for a private performance. “He laughed and giggled throughout. When it got over he hugged me and said, ‘You are a very funny man',” said Rajesh reminiscing the pat on the back.
Originally, Out of Bounds wasn't conceived as a play. Three unrelated short stories penned by Rajesh were turned into a play at the suggestion of friends. It premiered at Johannesburg's famous Market Theatre by coincidence. “To get honest reactions, I performed it in front of a select few in a library in January 1999. The associate director of Market Theatre was present there. He called up later asking me to fill up a 5-week slot in March as some group had cancelled booking,” he recalled.
Rajesh calls his plays ‘political in the personal' and rightly so. He has woven vignettes of his personal experience in a pluralist society into the warp of apartheid politics to create a colourful tapestry. Growing up as the son of a poor truck driver in a working class Indian neighbourhood (he is the first in his family to get a college education) and studying in an Indian school, Rajesh has experienced poverty, discrimination under apartheid and tribulations during the Inanda revolution, first hand. As a performer with a Protest Theatre group in his late teens, he has seen social abuse and distress from close quarters. Thus, the sense of loss and displacement and humanity's struggle for a good life became the staple of his plays. While the ‘Coolie Odessey', commissioned by prestigious National Art Festival of South Africa, revolves around the struggle and aspirations of indentured labourers, his latest offering ‘Tamasha on Hope Street' is set in the Indian township of Chatsworth against the backdrop of poverty and social abuse in the face of new freedom.
But trust Rajesh to make the intense plays enjoyable leaving you in splits. “I don't want to make my plays overtly political, or intense; so I lace it with sharp humour. Even laughter can bring tears in eyes,” he shrugged. Sharing how he got into theatre, he joked “Theatre chose me.” On a serious note he added, “Every time I watched or acted in a play I experienced a rare emotional satisfaction. Inside a theatre, I felt the outside world didn't matter. I was studying to become a teacher and as a free student was supposed to teach for 5 years, but I paid the university back after getting the degree to become an actor.”
Now, Rajesh is planning to shoot a docu-drama next year to re-trace the trip from South Africa to the Bhojpuri belt of Bihar and UP. No, it is not in search of his roots but because recently he tumbled upon a Bhojpuri channel and was pleasantly surprised to see “Indians back home have similar expressions, style of talking and music.”ANINDITA CHATTOPADHYAY