Four decades, and still going strong

old favourites: Jaat Hi Poochho Sadhu Ki, one of the two plays being staged, is an adaptation of Vijay Tendulkar’s Marathi play Pahije Jateeche. —

old favourites: Jaat Hi Poochho Sadhu Ki, one of the two plays being staged, is an adaptation of Vijay Tendulkar’s Marathi play Pahije Jateeche. —  

To celebrate a landmark anniversary, Ank — one of India’s oldest Hindi theatre groups — will stage two gems this weekend

In the Bombay of the late 1970s, Hindi theatre was an unknown entity. The city only knew over-the-top bawdy Gujarati plays, unpretentious Marathi dramas and classic English plays that were staged at a handful of theatres in South Bombay and around Dadar. The late Dinesh Thakur, who had found success in films like Rajnigandha (1974), decided to fill the gap with Ank Theatre Group in 1976.

This October, Ank celebrates four decades of being at the forefront of Hindi theatre in the city. “Ank’s first performance was in a Durga Puja Mandal, about two years before Prithvi Theatre was launched,” recalls Preeta Thakur, who took over the reins of the group after Dinesh’s untimely death in 2012. “IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) was the big brother of the Hindi theatre groups in the city. They were the voice of the communist movement. Nadiraji (Babbar of Ekjute) came after Ank and then came Yatri.”

To mark the occasion, in a memorial festival with the Dr. Shankar Shesh Foundation, Ank is reviving two gems from its repertoire. The first is Jaat Hi Poochho Sadhu Ki, the Hindi adaptation of Vijay Tendulkar’s Marathi drama Pahije Jateeche. The production discusses everyday casteism and critiques the failures of our education system through Mahipat Babruvahan, a young professor in a less-known college. “He quickly realises that the lowliness of his caste would be a hindrance in his new job,” says Preeta, when we recently met at her Lokhandwala home. “He thinks he can beat the system, but ends up being manipulated.”

Jaat Hi Poochho Sadhu Ki was among many Vijay Tendulkar plays that Dinesh directed. “Dineshji had a very good relationship with Tendulkar,” says Preeta. “[Tendulkar] was one of his favourite authors to adapt to Hindi. Many of his plays are still so relevant today, even though they were written in the ’80s.” Over the years, Ank has staged works of Chekov, GB Shaw, Neil Simon, Ayn Rand, Girish Karnad, Mohan Rakesh, Shankar Shesh and Mahesh Elkunchwar.

Ank’s second offering is the longest-running play in the history of Hindi theatre, Hai Mera Dil. “We’ve had 1,125 shows of the play, of which Dineshji was a part of 1,000,” says Preeta. Unlike Ank’s other long-running plays, Hai Mera Dil doesn’t come with a strong ‘message’. “It’s a simple comedy about a hypochondriac businessman who misunderstands his doctor’s phone conversation and thinks he is going to die. He starts preparing for death by finding a spouse for his wife, planning his burial and writing his will. The wife gets suspicious and thinks he is having an affair.”

It is adapted from the Broadway play Send Me No Flowers, which was also made into a film starring Rock Hudson and Doris Day in 1964. Hai Mera Dil gave Prithvi Theatre its first ‘house-full’ show. “Apparently, they didn’t have a board that said house-full at the ticket counter so someone quickly scribbled it on a piece of paper and stuck it at the counter,” Preeta recounts. There are many anecdotes about Hai Mera Dil that have become an intrinsic part of Mumbai’s theatre history. Another tale says that Dara Singh laughed so hard while watching a show at Prithvi, that he fell out of his seat. And after another staging, a pregnant woman was rushed to the hospital immediately and she delivered a son. Decades later he returned to watch the play with his wife at Prithvi.

Since its inception, Ank has staged over 7,000 shows of 82 productions. Preeta has an emotional reason for deciding to perform the selected productions. “Jaat… was the last play directed by Dineshji. The play opened on September 1, 2012, at Prithvi. We had two shows, but he passed away two weeks later. Also, in a repertory, you want to do new plays, but you also don’t want to let go of the old ones.”

Preeta has been an integral part of Ank for almost 30 years. She gradually eased into handling the group’s production in the last four before Dinesh’s death. She is very candid about trying to balance being an actor and managing Ank. “An hour before I have to go one stage, I tell everyone to not talk to me about accounts or production. I have to switch on the performer mode.”

She has heard stories from Dinesh about standing at traffic signals to sell tickets in the early days of Ank. When Preeta joined the group, Prithvi and the NCPA were homes of Hindi theatre in the city. Things have changed in the years that followed and unfortunately, not for the better. “When Ank started, there weren’t enough places to perform,” says Preeta. “Today, we have the same problem. The number of theatre groups might have increased, but theatres haven’t. Also, rentals are higher than what we normally make in ticket sales. We need many more spaces like Prithvi; smaller spaces with lower rentals and overheads.”

Ank’s plans for the future include a play written by Preeta. “I am adapting one narrative from Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold. I think that book has about four or five different plays. I’ve been in touch with Kiran, and have read part of what I have written to him. I am hoping to be done by the end of year and to have a premiere next year.”

The author is a freelance writer

Jaat Hi Poocho Sadhu Ki kicks off Ank’s anniversary celebrations at 7 p.m. today at Godrej Dance Theatre, NCPA. Tickets are priced at Rs. 400. Hai Mera Dil will be performed at 7 p.m. on Sunday at Godrej Dance Theatre, NCPA. Tickets are priced at Rs. 400.

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Printable version | May 27, 2020 9:06:47 AM |

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