"Mammoth journey, fragmented dramatics" publicado no "The Hindu" por Vikram Phukan, 13/07/2017
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"Gajab Kahani is an ambitious retelling of a tale about the transformative power of a road trip"
"The Pune-based director Mohit Takalkar takes another stab at a stage adaptation of José Saramago’s The Elephant’s Journey with his new play. ‘Gajab Kahani’ is an Aadyam production in association with Takalkar’s Aasakta group, which had mounted a Marathi version earlier. Saramago’s novel is based on a real-life pan-European journey undertaken by an Indian elephant, Solomon, bestowed on Archduke Maximilian of Habsburg by King Joao III of Portugal circa 1551. It is a shimmering human document with an epic sweep, full of stirring elemental rhythms, so it isn’t difficult to understand why Takalkar has returned to it.
Takalkar has roped in Amitosh Nagpal, a writer with a flair for verse and dry wit, as evinced in ‘Piya Behrupiya,’ his Twelfth Night adaptation. Perhaps due to the impact of that play, ‘Gajab Kahani’s’ prologue, where actors initially took the stage as themselves, felt instantly derivative. The theatrical meta elements were laid out with a coerced interactive quality that could appeal only to the most suggestible of theatre-goers. It would take several scenes for the after-taste to subside. As in ‘Piya Behrupiya,’ Nagpal foregrounds the writer as prime mover, but he is never ever called Shakespeare or Saramago.
Nagpal has certainly grasped the book’s tongue-in-cheek character as well as its profundities, and actors like Ajeet Singh Palawat (as Subhro the mahout) and Geetanjali Kulkarni (as Solomon) are able to own the language. Chaste Hindi is alternated with more hybridised Hinglish, and this is complemented by a chorus ensemble who speak in unscripted ‘gibberish,’ consisting of words in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. In this multitude of languages jostling for space, it is significant that the elephant is powerfully allowed a voice with vital cadences of its own, a suspension of disbelief the book did not offer.
In Saramago’s book, everyone spoke one language, the clash was of conditioned cultural sensibilities — that of the Indian Subhro and by extension, his elephant, vis-a-vis the Portuguese emissaries who accompany them.
The play embraces a dissonance of tongues to underline cultural differences. This is most unsatisfactorily foisted upon actor Nakul Bhalla (as the Commander of the entourage), who is given to speaking Hindi with a foreign accent, a lazy stereotype of the ‘other’ that garners easy laughs but little else. During a pivotal monologue, he appears to miraculously lose the stiltedness, as he repeats every second line as if processing some new insight.
Much of the heavy lifting is left to Palawat, whose Subhro bears a veneer of obsequiousness that cannot obscure the man of enterprise he really is. Yet, his wisdom takes on a strangely nationalistic allure. There is a false nostalgia for Indian values, a premium attached to ‘desi’ ways. This is counter-productive to the play’s no-no to ‘them and us’ partisanship. Subhro faces cultural high-handedness at every step, but he is also cast in the mould of someone equally intransigent. Palawat, of course, cuts through this, and brings us closer to the refreshingly unaffected Subhro of the book.
On her part, Kulkarni brings a characteristic gravitas to Solomon. Yet she’s never as omniscient as one might imagine. Her grander moments, punctuated with music, are eclipsed by quick fade-outs, never really registering. It’s almost with good reason that Takalkar doesn’t linger on; it keeps Solomon in the realm of the mythical. The performance took place all around an enclosed audience who sat on swivel seats that could swing along with the action, but it also allowed us to train our line of sight resolutely on Solomon, possibly the only benefit to be had from such a staging gimmick.
‘Gajab Kahani’ is a fragmented experience that reaches its coda early when the Commander takes his leave. The remainder of the journey feels like a dramatic afterthought, but this alludes to how momentous journeys almost end in anticlimactic ways. At the Italian city of Padua, a huge crowd gathers to witness Solomon. Later, there is an arduous trudge along a mountain pass in the Alps. The ensemble is always at hand, sometimes inspired (Shalva Kinjavadekar stands out), sometimes jaded, the banality of life writ large on their faces. The indelicacy of delivery can be corrected, but what of the deeper ideas that seem frittered away to a strange bombast? The benefit of hindsight restores the primacy of the story, but this is something Takalkar may have hoped to achieve during the play’s running time because ‘Gajab Kahani’ is certainly a tale that deserves to be imprinted in our minds quite inviolably.
‘Gajab Kahani’ will be staged at Prithvi Theatre, on July 14 (6 p.m.), July 15 (6 p.m. and 9 p.m.) and July 16 (5 p.m. and 8 p.m.) at Prithvi Theatre, Juhu; more details at bookmyshow.com"