It’s a relationship that has lasted more than two decades and the chemistry is so evident that the two are often desribed as a married couple when they work together. Sahitya Akademi award-winning playwright Mahesh Dattani and actor and director Lillete Dubey are back in their fourth production as a team. In keeping with their passion for exploring issues that are beyond the familiar and the obvious, Brief Candle, which is being produced by Dubey’s Primetime Theatre Company, addresses not just the joy of life but the pain of dealing with cancer and mortality.
Burning bright: The cast includes Joy Sengupta (in a blue shirt) and Suchitra Pillai (foreground).
“We started with Dance Like a Man in 1995 and the last play we worked on together was 30 Days in September, which was about child sexual abuse,” says Dubey, adding that the adroit play of emotions in Brief Candle lends an immediacy to issues of life and death. “Mahesh gave me two topics to pick from and I chose this one. The form of the play, I found, was very contemporary, yet surreal.”
The play begins with a dying Vikas on a hospital bed, pleading with the ward boy for morphine. Deepika, his doctor, stands at a distance, looking helpless, knowing she cannot do much. The story blends into a rehearsal for a play, written by Vikas, that will be performed by other patients in the hospital, the ward boy and the doctor. This play within the play is a bedroom farce and, through the course of the rehearsal, the actors begin to see startling similarities between themselves and the characters they are playing. A few laugh at their portrayal by the dead playwright, and others struggle when confronted with the truth, and their own demons.
“I don’t think I have delved on the theme of death and love in my previous plays,” says Dattani, who, with his portrayals of India’s urban middle class over the years, has built an oeuvre that is as much a kind of social record of our particular universe as an empathetic exploration of how people treat themselves and those around them. “I guess I am growing older, and having seen both my parents pass on, I have somehow entered a new phase in my life and hence in my writing. I felt unburdened in a way after I wrote it. It seems like it was playing on my mind for almost a couple of years.” Once he had finished writing, Dattani wrote a note to Dubey thanking her for asking him to write the play.
For the director, the play’s selling point is the form in which the story plays out. In spite of a complex plot, the play has a fairly linear narrative. “The duality of the play really appealed to me. It’s a curious mix of humour and tragedy with a heady mix of anger, hurt and other emotions thrown in,” she says. “In addition to that, he has used music in a powerful fashion right through the play, and you feel your emotions peak.”
While Dattani had visualized an elaborate set that would make a constant statement of imminent death, Dubey has leaned towards a positive projection, making the play more about life instead.
In spite of the subject, Dattani insists the play doesn’t even border on tragedy. “Although there is death, I do not want to classify it as a tragedy. In tragedy, you are left with a great sense of loss. It is a comedy in the true sense of the word because it does leave you with a sense that the characters have gained some understanding of their lives,” he says.
Brief Candle features a strong cast, which includes Joy Sengupta, Amar Talwar, Suchitra Pillai and Zafar Karachiwala. The story is that of Vikas, but woven around it are the real anxieties of the other terminally ill patients, the repressed ward boy whose reticence is magnified by the class that he belongs to, the breast cancer patient who discovers her sensuality, and finally, their realization of the fragility of life.
Brief Candle will be performed on 6 September at the Chowdiah Memorial Hall in Bangalore. Tickets can be booked online at www.indianstage.in or www.indiaplaza.in. Tickets are also available at select Café Coffee Day outlets in the city. It will play in New Delhi at the Kamani Auditorium on 24 and 25 October, and will travel to Kolkata in January.