One of India’s most prominent economists and jurists was Nanabhoy ‘Nani’ Ardeshir Palkhivala. On his centenary birth anniversary (January 16), the Dummies Drama troupe inaugurated its new play, ‘Dharaniyin Perumai’ (translates to “The pride of the world”), a docu-drama of Nani Palkhivala (their second docu-drama play after ‘Vaayu’). The two-hour play, staged at Mylapore Fine Arts, covers several important aspects in Nani’s life, from his childhood till his seventies.
First, we are introduced to Nani’s family — his parents, brother and sister. Right from his childhood, Nani is shown to be a voracious reader of books. By the time he has become a young adult, Nani has earned a Master’s degree in English literature, and in the process, overcomes his stammer. Despite his initial aversion to law, Nani eventually enrols at the Government Law College in Bombay and becomes an excellent barrister, with his remarkable presentation skills and memory. He also authors The Law and Practice of Income Tax , which has since become a primary reference for the Indian Tax Code.
From the late 1950s, Nani becomes famous for his budget speeches and also for being a strong defender and protector of the Indian Constitution (including the famous 1973 case, when the Supreme Court of India ruled that Article 368 of the Constitution “does not enable Parliament to alter the basic structure or framework of the Constitution”). The play ends with Nani being conferred Padma Vibhushan.
With nearly 40 actors portraying different characters — including most of Dummies regulars — this is the largest crew the troupe has put together for a play. Lead actor Sridhar — who also supervised the set design — was all praise for the backstage crew. He also said that while Sreevathson gave instructions on acting, he did allow them freedom to use their own mannerisms and creativity. This is also the first time different actors have played the same character — Srijith, Prasanna and Sridhar portray Nani at various stages of his life. Although most of Dummies’ plays employ simple household settings, now and then they manage to impress the audience with extraordinary set pieces (as they did in ‘Hanuman’ and ‘Vaayu’). ‘Dharaniyin Perumai’ is yet another example where elaborate sets are used.
The most challenging task in making a biopic or a docu-drama, according to this writer, is to decide what to present and in how much detail. Director Sreevathson has done a commendable job in depicting the life of Nani while covering most of the important events in his professional career, as well as giving enough time for key incidents in his personal life, especially the “rivalry” he had with Indira Gandhi (a sublime performance by Prema Sadasivam). Look out for some biting exchanges as the two face off in a battle of wits. Prema, who played Indira Gandhi, found it relatively easy to adjust to the role because she has portrayed the same character in ‘Vaayu’ as well, and being a lawyer by profession enabled her to be comfortable with all the technicalities. She also credited Sreevathson for giving her enough freedom to experiment with the body language and also for the way he maintained the right balance between sticking to the facts while also using imagination to make the tale exciting.
Sreevathson also maintains the right balance between sticking to the facts while also using creativity to make the tale exciting. The dialogue is a strength — with a touch of humour and occasional punchlines, which one would find in most of Dummies’ plays. Nani’s “Law must win, not lawyers” and “We're not an underdeveloped country; we're ruled by underdeveloped minds” would be two of my favourite quotes.
In an aside, Sreevathson said that he worked for nine months on the script, doing intense research. Being a fan of Nani after listening to his budget speeches in the mid-1980s, Sreevathson’s main aim was to inspire and create an awareness of this great personality among today’s generation through his play. “I hope that those who watch the play get intrigued enough to read about Nani on their own,” he said. He plans to make the play entirely in English and take it across India in the future.
‘Dharaniyin Perumai’ is certainly one of Dummies’ more ambitious projects, but the packed audience and their support indicate that it has paid off well. With an engaging script and brilliant performances by Prasanna and Sridhar, the play serves as a good source of entertainment while also being highly informative.