It was some 18 years ago that Quasar Thakore Padamsee and his friends came together to float Thespo, a platform for youth theatre in India. In December 2016, they held the 18th edition of their festival where I was one of the four juries. The other three were Niloufer Sagar, Gopal Datt and Kalyani Hiwale, all senior, trained and practicing theatre professionals. For me it was a completely different experience. Though, till today, I have seen and reviewed over 200-odd non-Marathi plays in Marathi, judging a national festival of this type presented a different challenge.
By now Thespo has become a household name for the theatre-lovers of Mumbai and all metros and mini-metros of India. This time the Thespo team had visited some 22 cities and screened the entries. There were five entries that made it to the festival. The rules and regulations of Thespo are designed to truly encourage theatre by the youth. Two important rules are followed ruthlessly: the play must be of minimum 60 minutes duration and the team should not be above 25 years of age [Remember Daniel Cohn-Bendit, popularly known as Danny the Read, of Paris Uprising May 1968? He had famously said then âdo not trust anybody above 30â. How true].
With these ground rules, five plays made it to the final round which began on the night of Tuesday, 13th December. The festival opened with the theatre adaptation of Ismat Chughtaiâs famous and controversial story âLihaafâ. This story was published in 1942 in the Urdu literary journal. LIHAAF is a Tricycle Productions, written and directed by Kartavya Anthwaal Sharma, Radhika Chopra and Rohit Mehra. It was indeed a challenge to adapt this story to stage. Though the groupâs attempts were commendable, its effect did not impress the jury. There were too many loose nuts and bolts which should have been tightened.
The second performance was by Theatron Entertainment and is written and directed by Virajas Kulkarni and Shivraj Waichul. Their Hindi play BHANVAR is the story of Bhanvar Singh, a quirky night watchman who has migrated to the city. Bhanvar Singh shares his frustrations and dreams. This is a one-person performance essayed by Shivraj Waichul who walked away with all the glory and the best actor award too. It would not be an exaggeration to say that BHANVAR dominated Thespo 18.
The third was a Marathi play titled TE KAY ASTA? [What is that?], based on the theme of sex education to be provided to children in school. It was presented by G H Raisoni College of Engineering and Management, Wagholi. It has been written and directed by Rohit Devidas Salunke. Thanks to a new directive from the State Government, the teachers now have to teach sex education to the adolescent students of the 9th and 10th standards. This creates a hilarious situation that later leads to some serious thinking on the part of a teacher who has a daughter in the same age group.
Then there was THE SHOW in English/Kannada from Bangalore. It is written and directed by Ms. Ranjitha Sakleshpur. Like BHANVAR, this too is a one-person show and narrates the story of a young and lonely girl who has too many questions running in her head. While the script is quite powerful, the play per se did not make a great impact. In fact the use of property on the stage left much to be desired as too many things were spread on the stage which led to nowhere.
The fifth and the final performance was SYAAHI in Hindi and English and was from Vayam- the theatre society of Shivaji College. It is written and directed by Aakash Bharadwaj. He has attempted to intertwine Vijay Tendulkarâs plays GIDAHE, KUTTE and SAKHARAM BINDER. Through this intermingling of plots, Bharadwaj tries to tell the story of a novelist struggling with his fate.
These five performances showcase perhaps the best in Indiaâs youth theatre according to the Thespo selection team. The selection process is rigorous and runs for months on end. Unfortunately the performances were of uneven quality. While BHANVAR was very good, SYAAHI did not even touch the bar, forget about crossing it. All these groups performed at Prithvi, which means they got a level-playing field in terms of stage space, lighting and property. But the way BHANVAR used the limited space available at Prithvi, was quite brilliant. On the other hand THE SHOW misused the same space by spreading many unwanted materials on the stage that made it unnecessarily crowded.
The Thespo teamâs Ensemble award, introduced at Thespo 17, was bagged by the group that presented TE KAAY ASATE? When the play was over and all those involved came on to the stage to take the curtain call, the audience got to know at that time that the cast consisted of over 3 dozen people!
THE SHOW got the award for the best writing as the play has many-layered themes and is powerfully written. Though the announcement said that it was an English/Kannada play, most of it is in Kannada with very little English. Even the dialogue delivery was slightly faster than required. The attempt made in SYAAHI did not create the desired impact. All one got to see was some snippets from Tendulkarâs plays, which did not journey in any particular direction.
A few more words for BHANVAR. It was an outstanding show by all standards. The acting was par excellence. The ease with which Shivraj Waichul was moving on the stage has to be seen to be believed. The property, in particular, the gigantic factory wheels moving in the background, show the enormity of the situation and helplessness of an ordinary person like Bhavar Singh. It reminded many of us of a shot from Charlie Chaplinâs famous movie âModern Times.â
Using some elementary statistics, one can mention that out of the five presentations, two were based on established classics like Tendulkar and Ismat Chughtai while three were original pieces. This shows that the gen-next is trying to balance the classics with the new, which is a good sign.
M S Sathyu was felicitated at the award function for his lifetime contribution to the world of theatre. The Thespo team decided to institute the âLifetime Achievement Awardâ in the year 2000. Some of the earlier awardees include big names like Zora Sehgal. This year it was rightly given to M S Sathyu. Alyque Padamsee got him talking and what followed was a pleasurable trip down memory lane. Sathyu, an old warhorse, has been part of the Mumbai theatre scene for the last 60-odd years and has always been âbeen- there- and- done- thatâ type. His sharing of memories was the icing on the cake. Somebody should take the trouble to document this treasure trove.
The whole experience was so good that we all look forward to Thespo 19!
The list of the awardees:
Outstanding Supporting Male Actor: Virajas Kulkarni (as voice, in BHANVAR)
Outstanding Ensemble: TE KAY ASTA
Outstanding New Writing: Ranjitha Sakleshpur for THE SHOW
Derryck Jeffereis Award for Outstanding Production Design: BHANVAR
Outstanding Director: Shivraj Waichal and Virajas Kulkarni for BHANVAR
Outstanding Male Actor: Shivraj Waichal (in and as âBhanvarâ)
Pearl Padamsee Award for Outstanding Female Actor: Ranjitha Sakleshpur (THE SHOW)
Sultan Padamsee Award for Outstanding Play: BHANVAR
*Avinash Kolhe is a Professor of Political Science and is based in Mumbai. His second love is parallel theatre. He has watched and reviewed over 200 odd shows of non-Marathi plays for Marathi speaking audiences. The reviews have been collectively published in his recent book titled âRangdevtache Aanglaroopâ.