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The man behind successful comedies

From Meherzad Patel’s ‘Amar Akbar Akoori’

From Meherzad Patel’s ‘Amar Akbar Akoori’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Meherzad Patel loves to take risks and turn ideas around

Meherzad Patel is a producer, director and actor, but first he is a playwright and the creator of some of the craziest, most original and successful comedies on stage. His formula would not be easy for an aspiring writer to emulate and the magic words are ‘what if?’

What if the Queen of England was a Parsi? (The Buckingham Secret)?; What if the dark-skinned President of the U.S. was a Malayali? (The Devil Wears Bataa); What if a Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Parsi joined the same acting course? (The Class Act?); What if a girl draws up a list of conditions for her suitor (The Relationship Agreement). “I go about with a ‘what if’ bubble in my head. I take an idea and turn it on its head, automatically stories start coming.. You have to allow yourself that fictional moment in your mind. It takes a ‘keeda’ (mania) to write and a wicked thought process. If you are sold on the idea, then the audience enjoys it too. If they are not in a good mood, they might get annoyed too, but I like risky and edgy.”

His output over the last decade has been 10 English and 10 Gujarati plays, and some more that have not been staged. Meherzad started writing when he was in school, and found that it came easily to him. “My school, St. Mary’s, really promoted dramatics, and we took it very seriously. That was the era — between 2000 and 2008 — when spoofs were in, there was MTV Bakra and Bharat Dabholkar’s plays, in which everything was made funny in a slapstick version. I wrote a spoof on Sholay, which was rejected by the teachers, but the idea worked. So I wrote a spoof on Snow White in which the dwarfs were people like David Beckham and Sachin Tendulkar, who were popular then. I felt an affinity towards writing because it came naturally to me. Writing is a discipline, direction and acting are talents — Danesh Irani (part of the group’s core team) can wake up and just perform, and it is difficult for others to match him. I want to give people something that have not seen before. Take out all their political correctness for an hour, and it has worked.”

From ‘The Class Act’

From ‘The Class Act’  

Meherzad started directing, because he could not trust anyone else with his work. “I directed more creatively when I was younger. Being a producer is bad — when I am writing, I am already thinking, reduce the props, reduce the costumes. Then, as a director I am thinking, reduce movement, reduce anything complicated that would be too expensive to execute. After I have written a play, I detach myself from it. I think as a producer and director and cut anything that needs to be removed. I don’t get emotionally attached to a play.”

The productions done in school also helped him put together a team that went on to form a group called SillyPoint Productions; the friends work in an enviably cohesive, ego-free and democratic manner; and though they are all trained for other professional careers — Meherzad studied law — they make a living out of theatre.

“I am lucky I have actors who give me time. I am clear that I want actors who may be 70 per cent talented but will give me 100 per cent. I have a group that trusts me, they don’t even ask for the script, or what character they are playing. They trust my treatment of the play, which is very different from the written play. Twenty years later, if someone reads my script, they will see the difference between my theatrical pieces and my commercial-based work. I have realised that if I need to make money, to live comfortably, I need to find a balance. I want my plays to be funny, because humour is my strength. I can write serious plays too, but today if nobody wants to see them what’s the point in doing them. I am also looking for new ideas always, because I don’t want to work on other people’s scripts.”

His latest play Gender Bender, that aimed at people’s prejudices against the transgender community, had to be dropped just before it was due to open, when there were online protests over the ads. “I wanted to do this play to show that this is also something we are capable of. Like we did Gandhi The Musical (written and directed by Danesh Khambatta, from the team), which was such a well-executed production that respect for the group grew. This is not something you can get from a comedy, though if you tell people to try a comedy, they will realise how difficult it is. Some people say this group is working for money, and I say, yes, so are you, except that you are working individually for money. You get a film and you drop the play. That is not how we work.”

With the success of SillyPoint, Meherzad also realised that he had to take the ‘Parsiness’ out of his plays. “It bothered me when people introduced me as the guy who does Parsi plays. So, in The Relationship Agreement, I haven’t even given names to the characters, they can belong to any community. Similarly, with The Devil Wears Bataa, take away the Parsiness and it immediately gets a universal appeal. Our plays have been performed all over the country and have done brilliantly. Delhi is the only market I have not been able to crack, their mindset is very different.” He says that as he matures as a writer, he does want to appeal to an audience that is not out for just entertainment “Of course, a good script is a good script, regardless of its entertainment value or lack of it. I understand that today’s audience relates to certain things, and also that their communication channels are so vast, I don’t need to educate them. Gender Bender used dark humour to convey some hard-hitting moments. If it doesn’t happen because of these issues (protests), it’s okay. I invested time on it. Who knows, 20 years down the line, somebody will pick it up and do it…it exists. I did not want to do a production riding on negative publicity and make it famous for the wrong reasons. I believe a play needs to work for its content.”

Having said that, he admits that in today’s times, when people take offence at the slightest thing, it is difficult to write a satire. “I make sure I don’t take a dig at anyone personally. In The Devil Wears Bataa, we don’t call anybody by their real names, but people can guess who is who. For non-Indian audiences, there is a very funny Sardarji on stage. I can criticise anybody’s work, as they can criticise mine. But there’s a line of respect that must not be crossed in your humour. I also believe that the title should sell, and If audiences are talking about your play at the dinner table, it has worked,” says Meherzad.

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 8:17:58 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/the-man-behind-successful-comedies/article31049373.ece

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