One of Indian theatre's seminal Hindi plays, Mahesh Elkunchwar’s Holi depicts an evening of angst-fueled revelry at a boys' hostel due to the holiday for the festival being cancelled, and things go horribly wrong in the end when an inmate is subjected to homophobic ragging that leads to his suicide. A new adaptation of the classic play by Two Spoons Entertainment premiered recently at Prithvi Theatre. Here we discuss our first impressions of the play. This is not intended as a critique, it's an actual conversation captured almost verbatim.
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY KARTIK CHAUDHRY & ANMOL AHUJA
Gaurav Agarwal plays the pacifist Lalu in Holi
VIKRAM: Just back from a really good performance of Holi—quite surprisingly for me because I hadn’t imagined it would be this good. I have my quibbles, of course, but to give credit where it’s due, it may not be the most polished production but it has an urgency that is real. The actors are very spirited, they’ve got into their characters well. Everyone in the ensemble have their moments. In fact, it’s actually very enjoyable, with the slurs and the swagger, and maybe that’s the reason why the emotional register of the climatic scene dips a little.
VIVEK: For you the emotional register dipped a little. Well, there was one scene where I almost had tears in my eyes, because it was something I could very much identify with, but I’m forgetting which scene…
There is only one scene which should evoke that…
It wasn’t the bullying scene.
Did it have anything to do with the character of Lalu (Gaurav Agarwal)? He's almost like the voice of reason, albeit in a very morose way, because he doesn’t really understand the madness that’s happening around him, it’s too much for him to digest. There is an emotional weight to his performance.
Not him. I think it was the scene where they boo off the guest speaker at the college function that’s being held in lieu of the Holi festivities they have been denied. It was genuinely moving for me, because I have seen and done similar things in college. I really liked the play, there was a lot of rawness to it. Good rawness. It felt like how a good play performed by the youth should feel. It does need a little more polish, because it’s not as if rawness for the sake of rawness is necessarily a good thing.
I think, one of the things to be concerned about, is for the actors to remain in character. If you have 7-8 people on stage, and not everyone has lines at the same time, it’s easy for an actor to somewhat lose focus and not know how to react like he's still a very valid part of the narrative. I noticed that about the alpha-male character, Ranjit (Vishal Dahiya), while the character Gopal (Abhishek Bharadwaj) remained focused, a loose cannon throughout. What do you think?
I think Ranjit was perfectly played. At one point, a certain accent came on when he was angry and it was very believable. The actor was good.
I must say I found him very impassive when there were no lines for him to say.
(from left) Vishal Dahiya, Mayur More, Abhishek Bharadwaj and Dilip Merela
I thought that his character was supposed to be impassive, an intense sort. Like you said, listening is a very difficult thing and he might be in focus, and for all you know, within himself he might be listening, but for the audience that may seem very blank. When you have eight characters on stage, and one person is beating up another what do the other six characters do?
They mostly did well in that department, though. Maybe just one element was missing. When the sari drops down from the lighting bars… I noticed it a good whole minute or two before that character’s suicide is discovered by the boys. Some of us may be aware about what’s going to happen, because this is a very famous play. Maybe because of that anticipation, the emotional impact of that scene may already be muted. The bullying scene is still horrific but maybe not as disturbing as it should have been.
A lot of people noticed the sari. I think the guy was brilliant in that part of Anand (Anuj Rawra). His laugh, his behavior was subtle. He got the character right. He is also the director of the play. I loved his performance. I think this could be one of the best performances of a gay man.
But that’s the thing… this play is more about perceived homosexuality. Yes there is some innuendo about his relationship with Shrivastav (Nikhil Pandey), who is a bit of a charming cad, but the gay angle is used as a slur, to disparage him, to degrade a person. Especially after it is discovered that he has snitched on the others. So I think, with that kind of ‘coding’ going on, his character is rather more complex. He did it really well.
Anuj Rawra and Nikhil Pandey enact a friendship with exploitative undercurrents.
The characters had a kind of political leaning that I feel may not have translated well to these times. The characters seem to be bogged down by a kind of angst that was very 80s.
I think it’s more that these people are rebels without a cause. They have, what you would call in Hindi, a keeda. They’re just kids. It’s just because that day they didn’t get a holiday for Holi, or whatever, it spiraled into what we saw. It could have been anything. It is like a general rebellion against establishment. That’s been there and it’ll always be there. Even now, it’s expressed in very similar ways. Not as much as it was then, and not as universally, but it’s still there. It’s also a class thing. You may see it more in certain classes, and less in others.
That’s very interesting. I loved how it still resonates with me, even if I feel the boys seem to have a point of view about things, which I don’t believe the younger lot these days, who’re all about me-me-me, have in general. There’s also the bit about language—English and Marathi being disparaged…
That’s very real. It’s very much still there, even more so, in my opinion.
The question I’d like to ask if English still carries that stigma of being ‘elitist’. I would like to believe it has been stripped of that baggage. The translation of the play into our times should have addressed the changes that have come about. I mean, mobile phones have crept into the narrative so seamlessly so why not changing cultural notions?
Well, this is what is so different about how both of us watch plays. You look at things like the theme a lot. These are theme-related issues and I’m very okay with it. I don’t care if these things are not addressed. You don’t have to try to and then mess it up. Which is what mostly happens when you try to make things relevant to these times.
But maybe that’s why the piece isn’t as impactful as it could have been? It’s a very well-performed piece but it may not stay with me as a complete triumph. You can say it’s because of the very young group, and the rawness, but I would like to find the missing piece of the puzzle.
I think what’s missing is the listening—that I talked about. The lighting was off for me too.
So, only some technical issues.
Yes, not the text. The funny thing when I saw this play, I thought of Shaitan. I felt that film captured a very real part of young people today. That false bravado, the general restlessness. When you have nothing to do, you show off. That’s a lot of what being young is about. As you grow older, you sober down. Shaitan captured it, but I think Holi captured it much better. Both capture it in drastically different classes.
I think this play was much more real and identifiable than Shaitan. The language for one. Shaitan seemed out of context for me, more imagined. There is that angst, and sometimes you can get into a drug-addled frenzy that people find edgy, but in that film, all they did was get into a silly accident and then go on the run. It wasn’t even a real rampage. In Holi, the circumstances are much more damning. They are real perpetrators.
I’d like to say it’s the best thing that I’ve seen come out of Thespo from what I've seen. Whatever the quality of the other plays we see usually, the reality that this play addresses is in the script, no-one can remove it, however disconnected the youth these days may be from this kind of material.
The framing device, where they had someone recount the story to the musician (Arjun) who who was belting out those semi-rock ballads, made the disconnect even more obvious. I didn’t think that kind of music fit in with the texture of this play, with this set of characters. The guy who was telling the story (Kartik Chaudhry) may be required for the transitions on stage. But it felt ‘outside’ the play. Those are the characters who were probably in that Shaitan movie.
Kartik Chaudhry as the Sutradhar
Well the framing device did what it had to. I liked the music, I would buy the CD of those songs. Now that you’re saying it, logically it did not fit in. What I thought was, ‘Hell, sutradhar has come here as well.’ That character of a sutradhar, I’m sorry to say, it’s what we do in theatre. Everyone uses it. About the music, I’d say, in an interesting way it connects the Shaitan world with the Holi world.
Can this group better this play? There are no scripts lying around like this one.
This group is probably a one-off group for Thespo, they’re young people who collaborate with each other in various facilities. They do various other things as well and I don’t think they’re that keen to follow it up with another play. This is the play they’ve done and it’s a great play. That’s the end of the group. More or less. That's the tragedy. In most probability they’re all more interested in doing ads, film, or television. Very few young people can do theatre and only theatre.
Last bit, how much would you have paid for the performance?
I would have gladly paid Rs 150.
I’ll double that. A great round of applause all around. ✑
The climatic moment sets up the play...
With VIVEK. Vivek is a young theatre enthusiast who is open to feedback at VENKAT.VIVEK AT GMAIL.COM