The Taming of the Shrew : aggressive Maharashtrian women you are likely to spot in Mumbai’s local trains, and who look like they will give you a laafa (a slap) at the slightest provocation.
Love’s Labours Lost: Two lovers looking away from each other.
Othello: An inconspicuous, ordinary man smoking a cigarette.
These are playwright and director Ramu Ramanathan’s mini prototypes of William Shakespeare’s characters in Mumbai, the city that has inspired most of his works.
A slide from the play; Ahlam Khan (right)
The characters are real Mumbaikars, whom Ramanathan’s students—from two theatre workshops that he conducted—captured on camera at street corners. The montage that was finally created forms a backdrop of moving images inside a psychiatrist’s cabin in Ramanathan’s new play Shakespeare and She. On the shrink’s couch, confessing her story, is Insomnia, the protagonist.
Played by actor Ahlam Khan, Insomnia epitomizes what the city stands for—restlessness, lack of sleep, and constant motion. She says at her acerbic best: “Marriage? For what? I have my cigarettes and ashtray and liquids and soups and two lap dogs for companionship. What more does a woman want?” She is an animation artist—a conscious choice on Ramanathan’s part because he feels that professional women have always been stereotyped as either journalists or teachers in Indian cinema and theatre.
Insomnia’s counselling session is the heart of the play, and the rest of it—her friendships and heartbreaks—is played out in flashback.
“Identifying with Insomnia was easy, she is completely independent like I am. It was the task of separating her from my own self, giving her an identity of her own, that was challenging,” says Khan, a Mumbai-based actor.
Shakespeare and She originated when Ramanathan was asked to direct a play for the Hamara Shakespeare Festival in Chennai last month. The idea evolved from a workshop where Ramanathan worked with students from the Industrial Design Centre at the Indian Institute of Technology, and the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture and Environmental Studies. Says Ramanathan, “The streets of Mumbai are spaces where differences disappear and experiences melt. Although it is typically a Mumbai thing, it is also ultimately a universal thing because, despite race and religion, people bond at a human level in the city.”
Ramanathn grew up reading the Bard’s plays. “Shakespeare belongs to the world; and like the Mahabharat and the Ramayan, his plays are mythologies that can be told and retold in many different ways,” he says.
Shakespeare and She is a playful take on the Bard’s plays, where the themes and characters from the original works recede in the background—providing a foil to the four female characters’ narratives, which make up the emotional core of this drama. In one scene, Insomnia has an online chat with Shakespeare using Internet emoticons.
It’s in keeping with Ramanathan’s strong views on the need to bring the youth back to theatre. “Young people are the future of theatre. Many of them have realized that Vishal Bharadwaj and Atul Dodiya are cool. Let’s face it, at the moment, Indian theatre is very uncool—and it’s a matter of serious concern.”
At the Goethe-Institut, Max Mueller Bhavan, Kala Ghoda, Mumbai; from 13 to 16 March. Entry is free on a first come, first serve basis. Limited seating