He moves briskly from one corner to the other of an empty hall in Ahmedabad, trying to get under the skin of an imaginary audience. Playwright Saumya Joshi halts only to shout out to his actors, signalling them to stop as he reworks the sequence which, as an actor says, would be well over the 50th time now. Joshi doesn’t believe in 40-day productions, the norm in Gujarati theatre.
Gujarati language theatre, which has seen a dearth of original plays compared to regional theatre in neighbouring Maharashtra, had two plays receive box-office success in Mumbai last year. Welcome Zindagi and 102 Not Out, both by Joshi, are now being adapted into Marathi, a reversal of the trend all these years.
Trendsetter: Playwright Saumya Joshi. By Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
So far, Gujarati plays have been associated with slapstick humour. “It’s a first,” says Joshi, 37, who quit his job as a professor of English literature at the HK Arts College in Ahmedabad this September to pursue theatre full-time.
“I am not clever. But I am ready to slog,” says Joshi. He took nine months to write Welcome Zindagi and rehearsed for four months before going on the floor. The play, about a strained father-son relationship, has been a runaway success in Mumbai, a large base for Gujarati audiences. They have performed over 200 shows so far, with those like actor Paresh Rawal claiming to have seen it five times.
According to Rawal, a popular stage and film actor himself, Welcome Zindagi is a turning point for Gujarati theatre. “Saumya seems to release his inner self through his works, be it theatre or poetry. It is an actor’s dream to speak his language, and see the world the way he sees it.” Rawal has even offered to produce a Gujarati film or a play if Joshi agrees to write for it.
“Gujarat has an audience for theatre. In a place like Bharuch, we have done eight shows, which means 8,000 people from the town with a population of around 1.5 lakh saw our play. There is an audience but they’re tired of mediocre commercial theatre,” says Joshi.
Theatre and art were in the family. His parents, both professors, frequently had literary stalwarts such as Vijay Tendulkar, Ratnakar Matkari and Umashankar Joshi as guests at their home in Ahmedabad. Joshi also has the support of his elder brother Abhijat, who shot to fame co-writing scripts, screenplays and dialogues for films such as 3 Idiots and Lage Raho Munna Bhai. As a student, Joshi says he would offer to run errands for any playwright in town. “I visited Tendulkar at his hotel when I was 13. I told him I would bring him tea and do anything else he wanted me to do.”
Before Welcome Zindagi, his plays (he’s written and directed 18 so far) have been what is termed “parallel theatre” with titles such as Munjaro, Mahatma Bomb, Tu Tu Tu Tu Tu Tara, and Dharo Ke Taame Manji Cho. In almost all his plays the star has been the script, interspersed with witty and hard-hitting dialogues.
Critical acclaim came with Dost Chokkas Ahin Ek Nagar Vaastu Hatu, a musical black comedy on the 2002 Gujarat riots. The protagonist was Nehru Bridge, which connects two glaringly distinct ends of Ahmedabad. This play prompted The Week magazine to name Joshi as one of the 50 rising stars of India in 2003. Soon after, the play Aathma Taaru Nu Aakash became the first play from Gujarat to be selected for the prestigious Prithvi Theatre Festival in Mumbai in 2005. Joshi’s latest, 102 Not Out, which is running full-house in Mumbai after over 90 shows, is about a 102-year-old father who wants to break the world record of a Chinese man who has lived for 120 years.
Joshi says that while Marathi theatre transitioned smoothly from commercial to meaningful because of playwrights like Vasant Kanetkar, this did not happen with Gujarati theatre. “We never had any great Gujarati playwrights, although we had veterans like Jai Shankar Sundari who could act and sing. But a game changer like a Kanetkar, a Tendulkar or a Prashant Dalmi was missing.”
Joshi is currently working on a tragic comedy with live music that will open in January. Like his brother, he sees himself in the film industry in the future, although he had previously written a Gujarati film that didn’t fare well at the box-office. Asked how he would handle this new medium, given that he has little exposure to the technical nuances of cinema, Joshi says he is ready to learn.
“Remember, I can even run errands,” he laughs.
Welcome Zindagi will play on 13 November at the Tejpal Auditorium in Mumbai.
102 Not Out will play on 20 November at Nehru Auditorium in Mumbai.