Way back in 1962, this play written in the Malvani dialect had absolutely no takers. Yet, over five decades later - VASTRAHARAN staged its 5000th show! Playwright Gangaram Gavankar relates the backstage stories of this phenomenally popular farce that has been staged internationally too.
In 1962, I was a first year fool in the JJ School of Arts and Prof Damu Kenkre was my class teacher. Kenkre was famous for his prize winning one-act plays in the Inter collegiate circles. I was completely in awe of him, but when I checked myself against my good looking classmates, I thought I would be better off writing a play instead of becoming an actor.
Back in my village, I had grown up on a staple diet of 'Dashavtari' folk theatre (featuring mythological stories and characters) that our village folks staged for religious festivals like Hanuman Jayanti, Ram Navami, etc. I remember how our local actors would end up adding unintended humour to the proceedings. Consider this: Narad Muni delivers a long dialogue without a hitch and immediately, his co-star in the role of Lord Vishnu nods his head in appreciation saying, '' Wow, Bhagya (real name of the actor playing Narad) you have learnt your lines so well!'' To which Narad Muni replies in Malvani, ''Easier said than done. Do you know I have sent my wife and kids packing off to her maika (maternal home) so that I could learn my lines with full concentration.'' Following this personal interlude, the actors resumed their divine roles yet again!
I would like to make another case in point here: in a bid to give a realistic feel to the play, our villagers chose live props - for the 'Shravan Vadh' scene in the Ramayana, they uprooted a whole banyan tree with its dangling aerial shoots and placed it on stage. King Dashrath, played by our heavy weight Sarpanch, weighing nearly a ton sat atop the tree waiting to shoot at Shravan carrying his parents on his shoulders. And thud! Suddenly King Dashrath fell flat on his face and Shravan came rushing to his aid, ''Dadanu are you alright?'' To which the Sarpanch replied with elan, ''I fell down but I haven't let my bow and arrow fall down. Go back and make the gurgling noise so that I can shoot you down with my arrow. Look at this son of a bitch, busy smoking beedi instead of holding the shidi (ladder in Marathi).'' And the play resumed without a glitch.
I recalled all those dramatic instances and thought of writing a short little play with this local flavor of humour. Thus within two days, I wrote about 20 pages of AAJ KAAY NATAK HOVACHA NAAY. It was written in the JJ College canteen on a tin-topped table. When I read it out to my friends, they simply rolled with laughter, beating the tin-topped tables noisily. Prof Shantaram Pawar got the wind of this table-beating comedy and he summoned me. When he heard the play, he said, ''This is simply out of the world, read it out to Damu,'' he urged me.
Before reading it out to Kenkre Sir, I thought it wise to run it by Dinanath Lad, the director who had given me a break as an actor. My play had historical characters of Shivaji Maharaj, Bajiprabhu Deshpande and Tanaji. Dinanath Lad felt that the audience would be intolerant about any form of mockery or farce on these heroic characters. Change the characters, he suggested.
I got thinking... I always found Draupadi's 'Vastraharan' right before five of her husbands very objectionable, and so apologizing to Maharishi Vyas, the eulogised writer of the Mahabharata - I got down to penning VASTRAHARAN. The scene opens with Dusshasan gone missing as his wife has threatened him. Now who would rip off Draupadi's saree?
The actor playing Arjun, high in spirits, asks the Sarpanch, ''Let me do it.''
Sarpanch: ''Do what?''
Sarpanch: ''Whose vastraharan?''
Arjun: ''That woman's.''
Sarpanch: ''You crazy son of a bitch, how can Arjun do the vastraharan?''
Arjun: ''So what? She is my wife, isn't she?''
While writing a farce, one must always choose characters that the audience is familiar with. Our Konkani audience is naive but very sharp in appreciating humour. So I changed the whole set-up and rewrote the play. I took it to Kenkre Sir and he was curious to know what his student had written. He read through 5-6 pages and smiled saying, ''Good going, let's put it up in the competition this year.'' He put away the hand-written script in his drawer.
When I went back to him 4 days later, the script had gone missing. Back then, we never had the provision of photocopying - I had to re-write the play from memory. From 1962 to 1974, the script was lost thrice and I re-wrote it as many times. Finally, I changed the negative title of AAJ KAAY NATAK HOVACHA NAAY to VASTRAHARAN and the jinx was broken. My Gujarati friend, Chhabil Wasani produced the play and we put up two shows on 6th and 8th November 1975 at Ravindra Natya Mandir. It starred Malvani super star Raja Mayekar, comedian par excellence, Madhu Apte and laavniqueen Sanjivani Bidkar. But the shows went crashing as the audience could not grasp the essence of the farce.
But in 1977, VASTRAHARAN bagged the first prize in the all Maharashtra competitions - 'Antar Girni' 'Natyaspradha' and 'Kamgar Kalyan Natyaspardha' - both were adjudged by famous litterateurs and critics of that time.
Although Machhindra Kambli was nowhere in the picture so far, he was very keen that VASTRAHARAN be staged on the professional level. We both were tired of hearing derogatory remarks like 'that Malvani cacophony' about VASTRAHARAN. As luck would have it Vinayak Chaskar of Doordarshan decided to telecast VASTRAHARAN with Raja Mayekar and Sanjivani Bidkar. Although it was filmed in Black and White, the play was appreciated by many, including Maharashtra's sweetheart writer-actor P L Deshpande and legendary filmmaker V Shantaram. On their request, the play was re-run on DD. Yet there were no takers for it and that is when Machhindra Kambli lost his cool. He took over as Tatya Sarpanch and like Sindabad, led the ship of VASTRAHARAN to Konkan. Unfortunately, our Konkani audience took offence to the show as they felt we were making a mockery of Dashavtari, their folk theatre. Narnedra Nare, the secretary of the Rashtriya Mill Majdoor Sangh was persuaded by actors to back Vastraharan as a producer. He wanted to see a trial show starring only mill workers; it was hard to convince him that we could make the play work with our set of actors. Machhindra was fired up with enthusiasm and finally Nare watched the trial show. He sat through the show without a trace of emotion. After the show he took a cab back and signaled me to sit in. There was no conversation in the cab. We reached a bar where after a couple of drinks - he took out a wad of notes and thrust it in my hands, ''Here this is your advance payment for 12 shows.'' He had given me Rs 600, each show in 50 rupees. Not bad, we thought and set off happily.
Under the banner of Om Natyagandha, we started rehearsing for our first professional show. Machhindra Kambli as Tatya, the Sarpanch, Dilip Kambli as Gopya and Ramesh Randive as the Master, the three main characters from my village - we were on our way to our 'Shubharambhacha Prayog' (opening show) on 16th February, 1980 at 4.30 pm in Shivaji Mandir. We even floated advertisements of the opening show. Short of two days of the opening show, our manager Mama Penekar realised that on the show day there was to be a solar eclipse, by all means an inauspicious day! He insisted that we prepone the show to 15th February. Just then Machhindra whispered in my ears, ''How can we have a show on the 15th? I am in Pune doing MAHASAGAR that day!'' Machhindra had to go; there was no replacement actor for him in MAHASAGAR. What to do now? Everybody - the producer, director and all the Kauravas and the Pandavas in the play closed in on me and urged me, ''Gavankar only you can do it.'' I knew all the lines by heart but boy, was I nervous!
On the opening day, I had butterflies in my stomach and I almost went into a coma when I saw celebrated actor Satish Dubhashi sitting there in the first row! After 2-3 lines, I saw Dubhashi laughing out loud and like magic I was nervous no longer. The first show concluded with a bang with the blessings of Dubhashi. On the following day, on the day of the Solar eclipse, our second show was staged with Machhindra in full Malvani splendour. Dubhashi was back in the audience watching his student, Machhindra, from Pinge's classes. He hugged Machhindra tight after the show. But after 60 shows, we were still running losses of Rs 60,000. Nare decided to shut down the play. But even the closure had to be grand and we got a booking for our last show in Tilak Smarak Mandir in Pune. ''Damn!'' said Machhindra, ''it's an uphill task to make that (uptight) audience laugh.'' It was a night show and we saw P L Deshpande (Pu La as he was fondly known) accompanied by his wife Sunitabai and singing sensation Vasant Deshpande walk into the theatre. We didn't know how to cope with the situation. The man, who made the entire Maharashtra laugh till our sides ached, was before us. It was indeed our trial by fire.
I told Machhindra that if we made it today, our lives would be made. He reassured me confidently, ''Just watch out for us tonight.'' I was floating in the air when Leeladhar Kambli, an actor from the play, told me that he saw Bhai (Pu LA) laughing heartily after every punch line! Bhai came backstage and told me that he wanted to see the play in Malvani next time. He wanted us to stage it as a part of the Akhil Bhartiya Marathi Natya Sammelan at Shivaji Mandir, of which he nominated me the Chairperson and then demanded that we have 'bangda fry' dinner with him in Gomantak restaurant just opposite Shivaji Mandir.
After four days, 19th August 1980, Bhai wrote me a letter. Two lines from it, paved the way for us to go to London and scale grand success. Those lines were, ''Khara sangu? Tumcha natak pahilya var asa watla ki ya natakat aplyala kaam milayala hava hota'' (Shall I tell you the truth? After watching your play I felt I should have got a role in it). We used these two lines in all our advertisements and ticket sales. After Acharya Atre's TO MEE NAVHECH, it was our play that had tickets selling in black! Audiences thronged the play following Pu La's testimony and we didn't realise when we completed 600 shows of it!
Machhindra Kambli launched his banner 'Bhadrakali Productions' and quit VASTRAHARAN. Nare produced 200 more shows with Ramesh Pawar but when he fell sick, he had no option but to shut down the show. That's when we convinced him that he should sell the rights to Machhindra Kambli. Nare would always say, ''I shifted from Lalbag to Dadar because of VASTRAHARAN'', and he parted with it with a heavy heart.
Machhindra called VASTRAHARAN his Reserve Bank. He would put up its shows alongside his other Malvani productions. By the time it came close to 1000 shows, Machhindra had a dream of staging ''our Malvani natak in the land of Shakespeare''. By now we had enjoyed the patronage of the greatest of actors, of these Dr Kashinath Ghanekar deserves a special mention as he would buy a ticket and watch our show every time it was put up in Ravindra Natya Mandir or in Shivaji Mandir. We requested him to play a guest appearance in the play. He agreed immediately and then within no time we had the best of the lot on board: Bhagwan dada (Dhritrashtra), Nana Patekar (Bheem), Sachin (Vidur) and Dr Ghanekar as Dusshasan. Chief Minister Vasant Dada Patil with his Ministry attended the first show of this stellar cast. The Mangeshkars also did us the honour of watching it and when Lata didi said, ''Already they wear such short clothes there, how will you do VASTRAHARAN in London?'' - The entire hall was deluged with laughter.
Finally when we boarded Singapore Airlines to go to London, Machhindra had warned all of us to wear suits, which we had got by begging and borrowing! We looked so ill at ease in our suits. We had heard about the lovely airhostesses serving red wine. We enjoyed getting our seat belts secured by the airhostesses and I noticed many of us furtively undoing the belt and summoning the airhostess yet again! Malvani actors were at their best even in air.
We staged the show in Marathi in London but within 15 minutes into the show, the audience demanded for Malvani, and we were pleasantly surprised to see our Malvani brethren's regard for their dialect. After 4800 shows, Machhindra exited the world and we wondered about the fate of the Bhadrakali banner. His son Prasad who had never ever appeared on the scene this far, took over the reins efficiently and on the grand staging of the 5000th show in Shanmukhanand Hall, we were reminded of K Asif's 'Mughal E Azam' premeire in Maratha Mandir.
I don't know how that little play that I wrote 54 years ago has enjoyed this kind of success, but one thing I know for sure - we owe a big one to Pu La for his recommendation - without which we couldn't have come this far. I hope more plays in local dialects will appear and enjoy the patronage of the discerning Marathi audience as we did!
(Translated by Deepa Karmalkar) from the original Marathi article that appeared in Loksatta on 30th April 2016.
*Deepa Karmalkar is a film and theatre reviewer. She has been an entertainment journalist for over fifteen years.