Theatre

A meeting of great minds

Extraordinary men, ordinary fathers: A scene from the play

Extraordinary men, ordinary fathers: A scene from the play   | Photo Credit: Shivya Kochar

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“Two Fathers” brings the larger than life image of Einstein and Gandhi into our tiny worlds with the thread of domestic challenges that resonate widely

One can only wonder what a meeting between Gandhi and Einstein could have been like. Two of the most influential personalities of the 20th century, they both had immense admiration for each other but never had the opportunity to meet. Exploring this idea, playwright Sundar Sarukkai weaves an alternate universe of compelling rendezvous between the two great men and their children in Two Fathers.

One would easily imagine Gandhi and Einstein in a profound conversation hinged on physics, metaphysics and politics. Instead, the script cobbles together a more challenging, subtle and emotional exchange. The two icons share the pain of parenting that remains largely unarticulated in the overarching narrative of their achievements and contributions to the world. With passing references to world history, the dialogues remain focused on their personal histories as fathers who constantly struggled in the role of a parent. While Gandhi’s troubled relationship with his eldest son Harilal is common knowledge, Einstein never acknowledged Lieserl as his daughter since she was born out of wedlock. The play brings together these four characters in direct conversation that circumvents the obvious and engages in a deeply personal yet powerfully universal theme of parent-child relationships.

Script and stage

Minimalism is used as a potent theatrical trope in the play, yet at points it also lapses into visual monotony. High fidelity to the text props up the script with its nuanced characterisation and clever dialogues, yet it also means diminished stage action. The plot does not have much to look out for, the core remains the expression of emotional lives. The play is pointedly pinned on the textual rather than visual aspects.

For director Srinivas Bhashyam, the choice of frugal stagecraft was pivotal, “I was fascinated by the concept and did not want to artificially infuse action into the play.” An acclaimed film director, Bhashyam returns to theatre with this production after a long time. As opposed to the cinematic spectacle, he found value in putting the spotlight on the core of theatre with very raw, bare sets and simplicity. Focusing on performance and script, he wanted the production to remain true to idea and emotion.

Even though the directorial vision does not offer a visual spectacle, there are moments in the play that make immensely powerful images paired with crisp one-liners. For instance, Einstein attempting to spin the charkha exclaims, “Why do you spin so much when you wear so little!” Another moving moment is Gandhi gazing at his own photograph in Einstein’s study, speculating that “I couldn’t have been Professor Gandhi because I never said anything new.”

The scenography remains unchanged with the stage divided into Gandhi’s ashram (depicted with the charkha) and Einstein’s study (with a desk and blackboard). Similarly, the music (by Rowan Serrao) is used very sparingly, featuring Air- Einstein’s favourite composition of Bach, and Gandhi’s quintessential bhajan- Vaishnava jan to.

The script takes centre-stage, with emotive twists as a curious Einstein attempts to justify Gandhi’s position to his son Harilal, while an empathetic Gandhi tries to assuage Lieserl’s bitterness. Through the two interactions, the play invites the audience to examine their own family relationships, aptly pointing out that this is a story of ‘extraordinary men who were ordinary fathers.’

From icons to men

The Professor and the Mahatma are daunting characters to play. The task became a greater challenge with the lack of English-speaking actors in Goa. Bhashyam recalls several frustrating auditions where a good actor was unable to speak fluent English or refused to shave his head for the role of Gandhi.

Finally Bhashyam himself took on the role, though he says, “I am amused that people think I can act, my physical appearance resembled the role and since there was no other actor I came in, but my ambitions lie in direction.” He adopted the distinct declamatory style to project Gandhi which seems somewhat patchy with the other three actors’ realistic dialogue delivery.

Sheeba Shah shines as the disgruntled daughter of Einstein, whom she never came to know as a father. The narrative and performances build a unique and nuanced relationship between Gandhi and ‘beti’ Lieserl as he identifies his own mistakes as a father while listening to her resentment for Einstein.

Varun Kainth plays Einstein with ease. He talks to the audience as a confidante, sporting a convincing accent and alternating between being amusing and candid. Valentino Dias interprets the character of Harilal with tenderness. He unravels numerous layers, presenting a spectrum of vivid emotions from being the angry black sheep of the family, to secretly aching for his father’s approval.

Posterity and possibility

The unobtrusive lighting by Tarosh Rao highlights the final imaginary meeting between the two great men as they enter an empty spotlight in the final scene. The conversation touches upon everything they possibly could have chatted about— non-violence, the war, the bomb, the moral burden of the disasters of the last century and the nature of truth.

“Two Fathers” may not be an enthralling watch, but it is engaging and makes one think. It brings the larger than life image of Einstein and Gandhi into our tiny worlds with the thread of domestic challenges that resonate widely. The play finally rests upon little truths of everyday life that ‘great minds never see.’

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 11:55:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/a-meeting-of-great-minds/article26150294.ece

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