Strangers on a train

Maiden effort: The Unexpected Man  

This week, a freshly minted theatre outfit will embark on its journey with a mature romance set on a Paris to Frankfurt express. It’s a trip that usually takes four hours, costing about €39, which is ostensibly time and money enough for a whirlwind romance. But Yasmina Reza’s The Unexpected Man (French: L’homme du hasard) holds back at first, tantalisingly savouring the distance between two strangers on the train. Long into its running time, the play occupies itself with the transmitting of its characters’ rapidly interweaving inner thoughts that are never actually spoken – almost a telepathic tête-à-tête if ever. An Indian production, based on the English translation by Christopher Hampton, premieres this evening. The two-hander features Padma Damodaran and Naved Aslam, and marks the maiden effort by Red Earth Stories, the banner floated by Sadiya Siddiqui and Damodaran, who doubles as the play’s director. The two gifted artistes worked together in a short-lived production of Ramu Ramanathan’s Ambu and Rajalakshmi, where they hit it off famously and hatched a plan to become collaborators in a partnership. “We are interested in stories about organic emotions, about people who are real,” says Siddiqui of their label’s raison d’etre.

Universal themes

It’s a play with its own peculiar atmospherics, lending itself to an off-beat interpretation more suited to intimate venues, although Damodaran feels the universal cadences of a love story, however atypical, might draw in crossover audiences. The elegant if spartan set design by Marathi theatre regular Prasad Walavalkar consists of the chassis of a train compartment, with two seats becoming the primary sites of performance for the actors. Inventively overlaid light and sound evoke the journey’s rhythms and delicate languor. As one might expect, The Unexpected Man isn’t a hyper-real experience — the actors speak their thoughts out loud, and often break away from the train setting into other realms.

The train is a metaphor for Aslam’s character, the high-brow novelist Paul Parsky. “He’s a man in constant motion; the journey is as restless as his words,” explains Damodaran, whose quietly retiring Martha is a life-long fan of Parsky’s writing. Martha spends much of her time in the play contemplating the other. This, in turn, helped Damodaran in acting in a play she was herself helming. In her previous outing as an actor, Manav Kaul’s Chuhal, she had observed how Kaul juggled both his roles as director and protagonist. The key lay not in business-like multitasking but in letting go and allowing the intuitive actor within to thrive. “Watching the other performer as just another character in his midst helped me to focus on both our parts,” says Damodaran, on the challenges of mounting the production.

Working it out

Staging an international production at a time when intellectual property is zealously guarded, and rightly so, came with its own constraints. “We could change practically nothing,” rues Damodaran, who felt the play could’ve been even more meaningful to local audiences if certain cultural contexts were adjusted. For instance, a Jewish character making a wry reference to Auschwitz might not carry a similar weight of irony for Indian audiences. Although both actors are a generation removed from their quinquagenarian protagonists, Damodaran feels it is an age-appropriate casting that was hard to come by in an industry with a marked skew towards young actors, with Siddiqui poised to take up Martha’s part in a later run. “The parts require life experience. They are people of passion, but it is a lot more difficult for an older person to connect romantically with another individual,” she explains. Certainly, the leap of faith one might need for a romantic liaison to blossom makes for a more uncertain conflict than say, an affair between twenty-somethings with its bouts of fitful whimsy. “It is more about making a human connection, than just physical desire. It is about what stops us from communicating,” signs off Damodaran.

The Unexpected man stages this evening and on October 11 at Experimental Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point at 7.30 p.m.; more details at

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 9:09:51 PM |

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