Ila Arun & KK Raina
Ila Arun and KK Raina have been managing their theatre group Surnai for almost 40 years. Over this time, they have faced many obstacles, but none as difficult as the COVID pandemic, which resulted in a lockdown and the shutting down of theatres all over the country (and the world).

 By Deepa Gahlot

When a partial unlocking was announced in Maharashtra, Surnai had committed to a three-play festival. One of the plays, HARDIT KAUR GILL, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's HEDDA GABLER had been staged before as part of Surnai's annual Ibsen Festival in collaboration with the Norwegian Embassy; two new plays were readied for the Festival at two venues-Prithvi and G5A. YEH RAASTE HAIN PYAAR KE was written by Ila Arun, and MIRACLE ON MATUNGA STREET, adapted by her from a Tom Dudzick original.

The successful run of the Festival leads to the two to declare that it's like they have completed a Maha Kumbh pilgrimage.

Raina says, "We never imagined it would be like this-everything closed down, we couldn't go out. We were going nuts. We are not tech savvy, but kya karein, majboori thi, we had to find a way to keep doing something to prevent ourselves from rusting creatively. We started doing Zoom performances. Then Ilaji wrote YEH RAASTE HAIN PYAAR KE which we read on Zoom. The response was so good that we thought we should do it on stage.

"The play is about two old people-these days elders are left alone anyway as the kids go out to work and the lockdown made it worse, because everybody was scared to go out of the house, so communication reduced even further and it impacted elders much more. It was a strange experience and the play is set in the small window when the lockdown was lifted for a few weeks. What it says is that communication is very important. The two characters in the play had lost all hope and were just waiting for death; they find meaning in life when they meet and talk to each other."

Ila adds, "I kept writing this one, really, to keep myself from depression. But through these two characters, we are talking of the problems faced by many families. The man is a lonely divorcee, the woman is a widow, who is drowned in her memories. They find a way to live when they meet each other. We have brought out various issues through small vignettes and I didn't imagine it would come out so well. There are so many layers to the story. There is also the character of a watchman, who is a farmer in his village, but had to migrate to the city to make a living. So we have touched upon his life and the farmer issue and the migrant crisis during that period-how they coped with these circumstances. It is not a sad story at all, but one that is full of the positivity of life. If you close yourself up because you are old, how will you get on?"

"They become friends," says KK, "and they realise they need to do something about people their age. So they set up a Covid facility and go to villages to interact with people. They understand that this is the best way to live-help each other, help the community. The meaning of love is larger than the connection between two people. YEH RAASTE HAIN PYAAR KE says that ultimately love shows the way."

The pandemic effect really hit when they wanted to revive HARDIT KAUR GILL, because three of the male actors were tied up with shoots, and suddenly unavailable. KK says, "They all said, we are with you, but after months of inactivity, when they started getting work on TV and OTT series, how could I tell them to drop it? I understood their problem. Ilaji and I have turned down film and web offers for our theatre work, but how could I tell them to do that? I know how tough it is to live in Mumbai and how difficult it is to survive just with theatre work. Getting new actors, rehearsing during lockdown – it was a big headache, but we had announced it, and had to do the play. Ira (Dubey,who plays the eponymous part) was totally committed, and a big help. The new actors were also very enthusiastic and supportive, and they adjusted even when they were busy with shooting."

Then, they decided to get "ambitious" as KK puts it, and do a new play. "We were returning to the stage after so long we had to present something fresh. In 2019, we had already purchased the rights of Tom Dudzick's MIRACLE ON SOUTH DIVISION STREET-we had adapted his play GREETINGS as NAMASTE earlier. Ilaji adapted it during the corona period as MIRACLE ON MATUNGA STREET. It has just four characters, par naya play to naya play hota hai and it requires more time and effort. We did readings on Zoom, and then hired a rehearsal space in Andheri."

The heavy expenses were offset by an invitation to perform YEH RAASTE HAIN PYAAR KE at the Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Festival in Hyderabad. "We had no sponsor then, so that money was put into the rehearsal. Later Suhana Masala came on board and it was a relief. But we had to take the plunge. Leave aside making any money with 50 percent houses permitted, even if we had to take a financial hit, we were willing. We were dying to get back on stage."

The two talk of long days of rehearsals, starting at Ila's home early in the morning, with her double-masked husband, Arun, confined to his room ("he was like a rock of support") followed by 12 hours at the rehearsal hall and getting back at midnight. "We were both tired and excited by the end of it," says KK. "The experience gave us a lot of energy. If we had just sat idle at home, we would have gotten sick with depression. Some theatre friends called and said are you mad? Why are you doing this? We were also doing it for the audience and we are happy they are coming back to the theatre. A man came with his daughter from Pune to see our play and there were no tickets. Since they had come all the way, we managed to get them into the theatre. The daughter expressed the wish to get into theatre, and at that point, I did not have the heart to caution her about the problems. Anyway, we did the festival, now how we will go forward, how we will manage, that is the question."

On one Sunday, Ila Arun, who is in all three plays, performed three shows. "There was immense pressure, but immense satisfaction too," she says.

They are now mulling over the 40th anniversary celebrations in June next year. "What is really wonderful is how so many have stayed with Surnai and become a family."

*Jahnavi Pal is a journalist, writer and theatre buff

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