Bharatanatyam Blues

I caught the 177th performance of Mahesh Dattani’s highly acclaimed living room drama, Dance Like A Man, at TAS Bangsar and enjoyed a glorious celebratory feast afterwards at Bangles, courtesy of the Indian High Commissioner. Primetime Theatre’s production of this intelligently crafted play has played in Edinburgh and New York, among other cities around the world. Obviously, the universality of its theme and the quality of Dattani’s script (in English) has made it something of a cultural flagship for contemporary Indian theatre.

It’s a tightly woven, richly layered tale of two generations, caught up in a conflict of desires and perspectives. Vijay Crishna and Lillette Dubey (who also directed) play Jairaj and Ratna, “two Bharatanatyam dancers past their prime,” whose beautiful daughter Lata is a rising star in the Bharatanatyam firmament. Suchitra Pillai switches fluidly between the roles of Lata and her mother as a young and ambitious dancer; while Joy Sengupta plays Lata’s easygoing fiancé Viswas, as well as the young Jairaj. Veteran actor Vijay Crishna doubles as his own father, Amritlal, a self-made tycoon and politician with a powerful patriarch’s imprint who vigorously disapproves of his son’s career choice and the “disreputable” company he keeps.

Mahesh Dattani has whipped up a piquant curry of emotions, held in check with incisive psychological insight and seasoned with effortless wit. Give four strong actors a meaty script and you can’t go far wrong. Lillette Dubey chose to direct this production as one would a made-for-TV movie: slick and fast-paced, no lingering longer than necessary in dark ambiguous places.

Lynne Fernandez’s lighting was sanguine, creating a cosy intimacy that subtly enhanced the characters’ humanity and made their shortcomings easily forgiven. Magenta predominated, giving the overall look a surreal warmth reminiscent of 1960s Hindustani movies (partly in glorious Eastmancolor). It also lent the set a somewhat sepia overtone, evoking a sense of nostalgic transition between worlds.

What impressed me immediately was the self-assurance of the text. India obtained independence from British rule in 1948, nine years ahead of Malaya. I’m sure they went through a protracted period of linguistic confusion and cultural cringe, undecided whether to revert to the vernacular or continue to develop Anglophonic literature and theatre, but with a different focus. In Malaysia, it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that local accents became incorporated into stage productions and, even so, not without a degree of self-consciousness. We can learn much from India’s example about how to deal with a colonial hangover.

Another striking feature of the production was the physical attractiveness of the cast. Lillette Dubey is, in fact, also a popular screen actress (Monsoon Wedding, Zubeida) and I’d be surprised if Vijay Crishna hasn’t at least occasionally been on TV (although he apparently leads a double life as M.D. of a retail giant). Joy Sengupta is a stage actor who broke into the movies with Govind Nihalani’s Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa; and Suchitra Pillai is perhaps another Bollywood sensation in the making, following her appearance in movies like Dil Chahta Hai and Bas ltna Sa Khwab Hai. It was a real pleasure to watch four charismatic actors in beautiful, coordinated action.

No one burst into song in this instance, but the delectable Ms Pillai was required to do a spot of dancing (I’m told she did a crash course in Bharatanatyam for the role of Lata) – and she was a picture of divine radiance as she performed the first steps of a thillana to the melodious strains of the exquisite music by O.S. Arun.


First Published: 05.08.2002 on Kakiseni

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