2017: The year that was for cinema

2018 may bring newer groups and newer voices and newer trends in theatre

Making waves: Yuki Ellias in Elephant in the Room.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Over the last few years it has become something of a tradition for me to conduct an informal year-end poll with regards to what plays people really liked in the 12 months that have transpired. It started as a wide sample, and slowly became a moderately sized sample of people from the theatre itself, because they tend to be the hardest to please. So, if they’re vouching for something, it must be worth its salt.

Ruling the roost

When Naseeruddin Shah does 60 odd shows on the trot — almost every day for two months — it automatically qualifies as a theatre event to reckon with. Add to that the high production quality that Motley is good at, a touching and disturbing script about an old man’s mental illness by French playwright Florian Zeller, and the unparalleled performances of the Shah himself, and his wife Ratna Pathak Shah (who also notched up one of the best performances in Indian cinema earlier this year), and there’s no surprise that The Father sits pretty at the top of the list with the highest number of votes.

I watched the play close to the end of its run, and was moved by both the content and the craft. And one big round of applause for the sheer gumption to attempt such a long run, perhaps a first in the country. Let’s hope it paves the way for more.

A confident runner-up to this was Dhumrapaan produced by D for Drama, featuring stalwarts like Kumud Mishra and Shubhrajyoti Barat, and a bunch of young theatre turks. Set in the corporate world, part comedy and part thriller, the play won the award for best original script (by Adhir Bhat) at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) in March.

I do believe that the success of this production, which has done close to 30 successful shows since it opened across Bareilly, Bhopal, Delhi, Kolkata, Lucknow and Mumbai is because it is an uncommonly contemporary Hindi play.

Set in an office of today, with a natural spoken voice as opposed to any purist take on the language, it has proven to be immensely relatable across the board. But the all-male cast of Dhumrapaan cannot take away from the fact that 2017 has been the Year of the Woman in all fields. Besides Ratna Pathak Shah ruling the roost, the third, fourth, and fifth positions are strong representations.

Elephant in the Room directed and performed by Yuki Ellias made waves at META and then went on to perform for a month at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Written by Sneh Sapru and produced by Niloufer Sagar, this one-woman show is a modern reinterpretation of the tale of Lord Ganesha.

In fourth place, Shikhandi tells the tale of the ‘in betweens’, and is another reinterpretation, this time of the story from the Mahabharata of one of the first trans characters in mythology. Directed by Faezeh Jalali, who earlier directed 07/07/07 about the ordeal of an Iranian woman persecuted for killing a man who attempted to rape her, Shikhandi also boasts of the stellar use of choreography and movement to tell a pertinent tale of gender.

And rounding off the list, Shernaz Patel’s bravura performance as a woman serving a life sentence whose daughter visits her for the first time in Rona Munro’s Iron firmly secured the fifth highest number of votes.

It was the first time in a couple of years that Indian Ensemble’s Kaumudi and The Patchwork Ensemble’s Ila didn’t feature near the top of the list. This is not necessarily bad. Change means that new work is getting prominence, and the old guard needs to stay on their toes.

Indian Ensemble came out with Muktidhaam this year, about the conflict between Buddhism and Hinduism in the 8th century, which got a mixed response, while The Patchwork Ensemble premiered Fly By Night, which got some love, but maybe not enough shows yet. Akvarious’ Stand Up, which offers a backstage peek at the trials and tribulations of a group of stand-up comedians, and NCPA’s Mughal-e-Azam, the big sold-out spectacle based on the classic movie, also featured among the votes.

Reasons to cheer

The third season of Aadyam had seven plays instead of the usual five, but didn’t gather as many votes as the plays from the previous editions. Perhaps the plays this time were pointedly less populist, which was something I was personally thrilled about (I mean, two of the large-scale productions were by Brecht), but audience sizes for theatre in general were lower than usual this year.

Maybe the trend of neighbourhood theatres with a lot more low-profile experimental work has divided the audience, or GST is a bigger deterrent than we had imagined, or traffic is getting worse by the day and getting home takes long enough to not want to get out, or Netflix is the enemy of the theatre.

These are conjectures we end the year on, coupled with the optimism of newer groups and newer voices and newer trends emerging rapidly. All in all, the stage is set (pun intended) for 2018.

Akarsh Khurana is a theatre producer and director and hence often broke. To cope, he writes and directs films and web series and occasionally acts, albeit reluctantly.

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