Direction : Manish Gandhi
Writer : Vikram Phukan
Cast : Daniel Dsouza, Manish Gandhi, Jim Sarbh, Priyanka Charan, Serena Walia, Manasvi Mamgai, Sahil Khattar, Shivam Sharma, Nivvy Randhawa, Anubha Rastogi, Tarun Mahilani, Pratik Joshi

LIMBO Play Review

Devina Dutt

 LIMBO Review
No upcoming shows.

The adolescent experience has rarely attracted the attention of contemporary playwrights working in any language in India. And yet those years of transition and deep confusion alternating with brief flashes of an overly bright, untenable clarity can offer intriguing possibilities for a closely observed realistic play.

LIMBOLIMBO, a new play written by Vikram Phukan and directed by Manish Gandhi with an ensemble cast of young actors in their 20s attempts to do just that. It comes with large doses of what is coming to be known as "movement based theatre". There is a clear autobiographical, even compulsively confessional feel to the play set in a leading co-ed school in Delhi in the late 1980s to the early 1990s. Scenes are set in the playground, in classrooms, at the water cooler, in the sick room, the principal's office, on the sports field and in the hostel. All these scenes and the characters who inhabit them are able to convince us of the completeness of this particular universe which functions with its own set of rules.

In addition, the students and their interactions with others give us a sense of the school as an inclusive pan Indian melting pot despite the fact that the context of the play is rooted in North India. The nature of life in a hostel and the sense of an enforced intimacy that it encourages, allows themes of identity, aggression and the nature of friendship to emerge. There is a harsh warden, teachers who deliver indifferent lessons, and a slightly precious English teacher who stands out of the clutter.

The students are about 16 to 18 years at a time when the country is breaking out of its old structures. In this decade of change after years of stasis, there is a sense of the beginnings of a brand new consciousness in the idle chatter of these adolescents, still miles away from the full blown consumerism that awaits them. For the moment they are content to dream of the Narula burger and of Baba Sehgal's music.

There are other dynamics hinted at such as the one between the day scholars and boarders, the full paying students and the ones on scholarships as well as the ones from small towns versus others. They emphasise the many sides that define living in India and some of the better moments of the play occur when we are shown how adolescents have their own ways of making sense of these diversities; a process which is accurately though fitfully depicted.

Naturally there is some dirty talk too. But for all that suggestive frankness there is something furtive about it too. The skill needed to construct scenes, characters and dialogues which can bear the themes of an emerging sexuality along with an exploration of the vulnerability of the teenage mind, is missing. Although the loose talk is in keeping with the idea of self-discovery and sexuality (thankfully we don't go the moon eyed Bollywood way) more rather than less confidence and boldness was needed. The material of the play follows the messy business of ragging, bad teachers, bad food and first love but the subtleties that can create dramatic possibilities are perhaps too fine and resist easy dramatisation. The purpose behind a scene is sometimes not realised even though it is hinted at. This tends to make parts of the play so evanescent as to not register and the tendency to break into a Flash dance type movement when faced with a moment in the text that defies interpretation or a change of mood, does not help.

The whole play is performed as a set of scenes which tries to follow the rhythms of life in a boarding school and its three main protagonists, Aseem, Zubair and Neale have desultory faux adult conversations with each other. Aseem played by Manish Gandhi attempts to make sense of his life at school and his story comes across as the main theme of the play. He seems to be on the cusp of many experiences and alternates between touching hesitation and a slightly overblown, mannered sulkiness. Bight eyed, ailing and intuitive Neale (Daniel D'Souza) who is from a dysfunctional family spends time in the infirmary and has plenty of time for self analysis. Zubair (Jim Sarbh), who is a Kashmiri carries the aura of being the "other" in the eyes of his fellow students, and has another level of alienation to deal with although at times he is as nondescript as anyone else in the hostel.

Refreshingly these teenagers are unaware of the politically correct filters or argued positions that a more adult mind would adopt and their conversations with each other are naive and direct. Aseem says to Zubair, "See, I don't have a gang. I'm not in the jaat gang, or the north-east clique. No one touches their boys. You're Kashmiri, so you are a protected species anyway...everybody leaves you alone. I wish I was in some minority group. Then I wouldn't be copying Chemistry notebooks."

Zubair is given lines which express how beautiful a hijab makes a woman look. Is he endorsing the veil by saying so? Should his words be read as an expected view from someone who has been conditioned and is this a clue to a future of full blown misogyny? Or could it be a simple opinion expressed by someone only hazily aware of the politics of the veil, an attempt by a teenager to say something different and stand out in the school playground?

Their experiences steer the play towards a quest for a wider understanding of the world they live in. At times the conversations and characters also shed light on the wider world they are a part of. When Princess Diana visits the school, the teachers scramble to be on stage and boys from small towns are dying to get on too. But it is the convent educated girls who speak English well who are chosen to do the honours. One of them, a confident young woman who has previously seduced Aseem remarks that she can speak like Sabira Merchant on TV.

In general though the girl students are thinly sketched and indifferently performed. The ultra short skirts they wear means that the burden of representing sexuality in this play is rather unfairly outsourced to them and this is a problem. It is at times like this that the gap between the teenagers who are the subject of the play and the professionals in their 20s who write and perform, is revealed.

Inchoate and frequently awkward the play is weirdly appealing and has unrealised potential. It has the unbounded freewheeling feel of an exploration rather than the compelling force of an idea driven experiment.

*Devina Dutt is a Mumbai based arts writer who writes regularly for The Hindu.

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