The ‘green’ man of theatre

In 36 years of theatre, Bimal Desai has been around the park several times. I refer to Cubbon Park, to save which Desai has battled over the years. “I have achieved very little and lost quite a bit”, he says. But it is thanks to him that gates came up, entry banned for traffic in the mornings, shooting of films stopped, political and other sundry public rallys were banned totally inside the park.

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In one of life’s coincidences, I was at Cubbon Park one Sunday morning to watch a young colleague and her friends perform ‘A midsummer night’s dream’. The same night I went to Lavina and Bimal Desai’s utterly gorgeous home to celebrate the 36 fun years he has spent in theatre. Just a few days earlier, he had directed ‘Twice around the park’ at a theatre festival.

The characteristic that strikes you most about Desai is his down-to-earth attitude. For him theatre is entertainment, and he lays it out there, plain and simple. Not for him the exploration of angst or complexities of interpretations.

His theatre company Theatre Lab has done 40 plays so far, notable among them being ‘God’ by Woody Allen, ‘Plaza Suite’ by Neil Simon, ‘Catch me if you can’, an adaptation of Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert’s work and ‘Rough Crossing’ by Tom Stoppard.

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Ashok Mandanna heads the list of his favourite actors, who include Judith Roby, Tuffy (Darius) Taraporevala, Coco, Brian Nobbay and Prakash Belawadi. “My most memorable moment was acting for the first time opposite Ashok Mandanna. It was a dream come true”, he confesses in fanboy candour.

“It was during college in MES that my interest in theatre came alive. I was the pioneer in starting inter class English plays in college. I was a member of BLT in 1980’s. It was very difficult to get a break as an actor. Both Mahesh Dattani and I used to do production work. The frustration of not getting a break motivated me to ask Mahesh to direct his first play for Theatre Lab. That’s how it was born.”

From acting, Desai moved on to set design and direction, taking a course in this specialisation at North Western University of Chicago. “It has always been my aim to make an audience laugh, have a good time and send them home happy! Entertainment, entertainment, entertainment is what I believe in!”

His forte might be laugh a minute but he is a very successful businessperson. Apart from a variety of  other family businesses, he and his brother run Mothers Recipe, an ethnic food company whose range of popular pickles and preserves are present in 40 countries. He also owns the Four Points by Sheraton, a hotel in Whitefield. “During the day I spend my time by working and I dedicate my evenings to theatre”, he says.

Apart from the laughs, Bengaluru owes him big for saving what is left of an important lung space in the city centre. Desai is the original green crusader, who hired a lawyer and filed public interest litigations which found favour with Justice Michael Saldanha who passed bold orders to protect the Cubbon Park from further decimation. From 300 acres, the park has been whittled down to 190 acres with several chunks parcelled out to various buildings. Some heartening moves such as stopping traffic movement through the park on weekends have been long in the coming, and Desai feels that some of the people in the vanguard of ‘developing’ the park could have different agendas.

Do read Allen Mendonca’s lyrical prose here about the man who put on war paint to save Cubbon Park: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/Possessed-by-the-spirit-of-Beantown/articleshow/70444840.cms

Desai’s green battle is also detailed here: http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/mp/2003/01/20/stories/2003012001410200.htm

The sunny Sunday morning that began with a Shakespeare play in Cubbon Park ended fittingly over dinner with the theatreperson who saved the park. Wonder what the Bard would have made of this.

 

Guru -a Hijra family

This is a photo of two hijras (eunuchs) who appeared during a puja in our family recently.

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I have travelled a long while since the time that I was in a cab in Bombay. At a traffic signal, a hijra leaned in through the window and much to my chagrin, grabbed my dark glasses and demanded money. When I gave her some, she pressed my head with her hands in blessing. I was a bit upset and angered.

Over the years, I have begun to sympathise with them. I am neither put off or frightened by them. Eunuchs typically land up in groups at weddings, housewarmings and such happy occasions and demand money. When people around me express their irritation, I ask them to think if any of them would employ a hijra. They beg because they have no choice – think of how tough it is for them to get out and face life every day, knowing they are alien.

Today as I watched ‘Guru’ a film about a hijra family by Laurie Colson & Axelle Le Dauphin, I felt that it could have only been made by eyes that could see the raw pain and yes, beauty in the life of the mocked and reviled hijras (eunuchs) in India.

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The 1.15 hour documentary travels with Guru, a eunuch in Coimbatore and the 10 women under her care.

Within the closed doors of their home, life seems the same routine of any large Indian family. But out of this cocoon, they traverse a varied path.

From begging for alms to working as sex workers, they lead a hard life. There is a rare acceptability and honour in Lakshmi Amma, the hijras’ Guru’s achievement as a sought after cook at weddings and temple events.

The camera is unobtrusive and all pervasive, as it captures the dreams and the laughter, the yearning and the travails of this community.

Two things in particular struck me: the eunuchs call the castration they embrace ‘nirvanam’ (nirvana).

The second thing that forcibly struck me were the words of one of the eunuchs who says that she ‘longs to be free’ but that isn’t to be; eunuchs are taught from a young age to listen to their elders, to tread the safe path that the family has drawn and to always travel in a group. Substitute hijra with woman, and isn’t it the same that we were told and that we repeat?

Neerja – the bravery of youth

Had she lived, she would have been just a year older than me. At 22, I don’t think I absorbed the tragedy of the Pan Am hijack, but watching the film last night was an immensely moving experience that brought home the play of destiny in our lives.

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Perhaps it was director Ram Madhvani’s deft professionalism, honed over years in the ad business that makes this film move at a slick though unforced pace. In making a film where everyone knows how it ends, the challenge is in showing how it happens. The action is perfectly executed, leaving the viewer on-the-edge of the chair for what happens next.

Hijack is a violent crime, but Madhvani’s film does not have gratuitous physical violence. There’s just enough to build up fear, and it relies much on the psychological build up.

Sonam Kapoor is a perfect match for the 23 year old Neerja, a brave and intelligent underside to the bubbly yet fragile girl. Destiny hands out strange cards, and it was Neerja’s destiny to overcome a personal setback and relaunch her life as a Purser on Pan Am, only to have it cut short. The short life was not lived in vain; she died saving hundreds of fellow passengers, as the several testimonials and awards proclaim. Thanks to her astonishing  efforts, most of the passengers survived the attempted hijack of the Pan Am flight at Karachi on September 5 1986 by the Palestinians of the Abu Nidal Organisation .

Shabana Azmi has essayed a heartbreaking performance as Rama, Neerja’s mother, and it broke my heart. For a couple of minutes, I had to close my eyes, it hurt so bad to see the pain, evoking memories of aching loss. Harish, the father (Yogendra Tiku), raising his daughter to be fearless, was too close to home.

Rama says,”I didn’t raise my daughter brave- I raised to lower her eyes, to watch out for her personal safety.  We turn to men for protection, not women. How did this girl become so brave and help others?” At the end of the movie, tears will flow, but so will a sense of warmth and renewed hope in humanity. There could be many Neerjas out there.

It will also make you less restless about the numerous security checks while flying, and well, just about everywhere.

Romancing the text

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we’d moved from flirting

to sexting

in a few fluid texts

the crossing was fraught

with real promises and

imagined reciprocations

now, as i wait with waning hope

for the third day in a row for an alert,

i read of 20 year olds

who complain that dating apps

make it ‘too easy’

of a ‘hit-it-and-quit-it’ attitude,

of ‘coldness & rudeness’

i smile because my problems

are so youthful

Super sized egos vs winsome service

In an era where waning ethics are juxtaposed with super-sized egos, winsome service with a smile rocked my day. And it happened in the most ordinary of settings, with people whose lives would surely be harder than ours.

What does it take to make one happy? Success, riches, luxe goodies, fast cars, bubbly. While I wouldn’t say no to any and all of these, in an era where waning ethics are juxtaposed with super-sized egos, winsome service with a smile rocked my day. And it happened in the most ordinary of settings, with people who would have more to crib than most of us, whose lives would surely be harder than ours.

After months of trying to get someone to dye a shirt for me (sentimentally attached to imageit as it is a gift purchased by my architect nephew from his first pay cheque which had unfortunately acquired the colour of the wrapping it came in), I lucked out. Rows of clotheslines had fabrics of various hues drying out; hearing my hesitant voice, Shabaz turned around in amazement, “How did you find this place”?

He smiled, appreciating my tenacity in tracking him down to the top of non-descript huddle of nameless buildings. “Give me a call and come by when you visit Commercial Street next, I’ll do my best,” he said.

Next stop was Shalimar stores on Ibrahim Sahib Street. My quest is for fabric to reduce the glare from the skylights at home. I was hesitant to ask for the bundle that was at the bottom of the stack. But young Inayath declared with aplomb, “I will turn the shop upside down, don’t worry about it. Making my customers happy is important to me”.

Last stop, corner of Kamaraj Road. Corn-on-the-cob, freshly roasted on a charcoal fire by Mary, perched under an umbrella. “Show me my photo”, she said, “I didn’t smile because I have only one tooth – I am nearly 80, and my teeth have fallen off”. Some young louts piss her off, asking her for water after eating the corn. She comments to me, “When I go out, I carry my water”; the cobs are Rs. 20 apiece, a steal if you compute her costs for the cart, raw corn, charcoal, lime, salt and chilli powder, the mamool and her personalized service.

These three are radiant with a cheerful attitude to their work and goodwill to fellow humans; not only did they make my day, they made me introspect upon my attitude.