One would perhaps not have imagined the Bee Gees song ‘Stayin’ Alive’ to be as felicitous to the boulevards of Ballard Estate, as it may have been to surviving in the rough streets of New York in 1977. The disco beats of this very song provides us with a rousing entrée to the Parsi revue Laughter in the House 2 . A lifetime can be akin to a big bad city, the lyrics seem to allude, pointing to the never-say-die tenacity of director Sam Kerawalla and his worthy troupe of mostly octogenarian actors. In 2012, these intrepid veterans from the salad days of Parsi theatre had teamed up for the show’s first iteration, after 25 years away from the arclights, to pay tribute to Parsi theatre pioneer Adi Pherozeshah Marzban, on his 98th birth anniversary. This year they’ve staged an encore, with an ensemble of younger actors thrown into the mix. All of them take the stage to shake a leg to the Bee Gees hit, before they segue into a rendition of the opening number, ‘Haso hahahaha’, a clarion call for an evening of unmitigated fun, and on cue, the audience of mostly Parsi theatre-goers joins in readily.
In the grand tradition of Marzban’s variety shows of yore, Laughter in the House 2 strings together a cornucopia of guilty pleasures. There are comedic set-pieces more than a little reliant on innuendo, live crooning of international chart-busters and even Bollywood-style dancing to Hindi numbers. The master of ceremonies is the good-humoured Jim Vimadalal, who is neither full of himself like compères are wont to be, nor insecure about being upstaged by the main act, although he does preface each ‘item’ with some harmless ribbing at the performer about to gingerly step into the limelight. He starts off with exhorting “all young people below the age of 90” to clap and sing along to Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 hit, ‘Cecilia’; music from a time when the senior actors were perhaps as old as today's millennials, reminding us of the shifting signposts of youth, its cycles and rhythms.
Later, an effete Danesh Khambata, replete with pink shirt and fedora, spins off Karan Johar to deliver ‘Falooda with Farrokh’, a skit full of anachronistic humour that strangely doesn’t feel out of place in an evening that straddles generations in which political correctness can be thrown to the wind, but only just. In the most pedestrian moments, it is as if too much has been made out of punchlines that are merely comme ci, comme ça. But sometimes, the gags have bite like Bharat Dhabolkar’s skit ‘Cricket With Parsi Women’, featuring a wonderful Ruby Patel who cuts a figure that’s both refined and irreverent, mixing up cricketing terms with references associated with the Parsi zeitgeist, to raucous laughter in the ranks. The crests and troughs come with the territory of a revue that is expected to flow with a certain pace, reining in the audience one moment, cutting them loose the next. The audience is certainly indiscriminate with its applause, but never compulsively so. It’s the magic pull of a common tongue (Gujarati) and a shared culture that is so seductive. The uninitiated may recognise the resonances only by proxy, reacting to the reactions, and still be caught up in the sway.
There is a beautiful moment post-interval when Hormudz Ragina induces the audience to sing along to Elvis Presley’s ‘Can't Help Falling in Love’, and everyone joins in. In the auditorium, it is intriguingly the female voices that brim to the surface. The women are perhaps all mezzo-sopranos in the making, and occasional refrains from men pierce through the soft cadences that swathe the hall. It is certainly an accidental testament to a community’s egalitarianism, and the place its women have, and the pop ballad’s themes of kinship and relatedness come alive to the touch.
This is indeed a collective experience that is filled with uplift as well as self-deprecation — jokes about the dwindling population of Parsis pepper the evening. The 2011 census had pegged the Parsi population to 57,264. One of the ads of the government’s Jiyo Parsi campaign read, “Isn't it time you broke up with your mum?” To a community famous for laughing at itself these are salvos that are not quite offensive. When Pharrell William’s soul anthem, ‘Happy’, gets re-invented as ‘I am Parsi’, and sali boti and dhansak are used to complete rhymes, there is a sense that this is what community pride should feel like despite the law of diminishing returns that seemingly besets its citizenry. During an interaction, someone in the audience wins a copy of Laughter in The House: 20th-Century Parsi Theatre , the 2011 book by Meher Marfatia with photographer Sooni Taraporevala, that gave the show its name.
Far from ageist
It must be said that senior actors on the Indian stage are like pink elephants or blue unicorns, often existing purely in the realm of the apocryphal. Theatre is a decidedly young industry. Many acting ensembles quite frequently feature budding young talent, eager to pay their dues on the hallowed altar of the playhouse before gambolling across to the greener pastures of celluloid where they would ostensibly live out their prime. Yet, there isn’t that much of a lacunae in terms of elderly characters on stage, when it comes to scripted drama.
In Abhishek Majumdar’s recent plays, Kaumudi and Muktidham , fraying protagonists wither and slowly ebb away, ready to pass on the baton to the next generation. Makrand Deshpande’s plays, like Miss Beautiful and Kadodon Mein Ek , pay tender homage to the exquisite degeneration that arrives with age, a preoccupation that finds echoes in Arghya Lahiri’s WildTrack . It is usually younger actors who take on these parts, acquiring instant venerability with frazzled hair or shuffling gait, even if their work is not entirely without gravitas. In fact, quite often, they are able to deliver veritable tour-de-forces, perhaps because of the manifold layers that must be peeled through simply to arrive at the truth of a character who has actually lived through a lifetime. This is why greying parts on stage are so much more coveted by actors of all ages, than in film, where it carries the charge of typecasting or stretches incredulity if the casting isn’t age-appropriate.
In Laughter in the House 2 , when the authentically grey-haired take centre stage, they bring a certain peerless timelessness with them. Patel and her husband, Burjor, are both in their eighties , and had started out with Marzban’s uproarious Gujarati comedies in the heady 1960s, before chalking up illustrious careers in theatre and beyond. Singing star Bomi Dotiwala is now 80, and the irrepressible Moti Antia, 82. Relatively a spring chicken, Dinyar Contractor is just 71, and nimbly shuffles in and out of the show in a wheelchair as if it were a magic carpet. In conversation with Vimadalal, Contractor provides the evening its pièce de résistance turn, a wonderfully rambling rigmalore full of pithy, observational humour.
The personas the actors inhabit are that of habitual complainers, but it is always good-natured and they never come across as insufferable. There is a certain zest to their machinations, a certain humanity to their feigned cantankerousness, and a certain conviction to their beliefs even if they are considered to be set in their ways. Their ageing bodies, that gracefully sidestep any altercations with the stage and its props, remind us of what has been so egregiously made invisible on the Indian stage.
Passing on the baton
It’s not just a sense of history, it is a sense of what they are experiencing ‘in the now’ that is still so rich and textured. During an electrifying Antakshri sequence, it is heartening to watch youngsters like Khambata or Ragina or Shanaya Boyce, being so respectful and protective of the legends in their midst. The baton seems to be passing on to the right hands, but not necessarily in terms of entertainment. Tastes have irrevocably changed, and sometimes nostalgia brings us in touch with a foregone artistry.
Even with all the jokes about the shrinking Parsi populace, the irony of their own personal mortality is something that the actors stare in the face with an almost sanguine stoicism. The playbill lists three stalwarts from the 2012 edition who are no more with us — Marzban regulars Villoo Panthaky Kapadia and Rohinton Mody, and conductor Marazban Mehta. Two days before this performance, one of its prized performers, Dolly Dotiwala, beloved wife of Bomi, also passed on, her vivacious performance during an earlier dress rehearsal standing in as de facto swan song. As the performance winds down, the entire cast joins Bomi in paying tribute to her as he sings one of Marzban’s most soulful numbers, ‘Tehmina’. The adage goes, the show must go on. This certainly rings true loud and clear now more than ever.
This performance of Laughter in the House 2 took place at the NCPA on February 19 this year; another show is scheduled on April 16, at the Tata Theatre, NCPA at 7 p.m.
The author is a playwright and stage critic