The very first presentation from the freshly minted National Centre for the Performing Arts’ (NCPA’s) Classics banner is a new play from the Akvarious Productions stable. Directed by Akash Khurana, A Friend’s Story is a staging of Gowri Ramnarayan’s 2001 translation of Vijay Tendulkar’s Marathi play Mitrachi Goshta.

Staged earlier this month in Mumbai, the play is now heading for a run of 11 shows at Bengaluru’s Jagriti Theatre. Contemporary audiences come with their own expectations so it will be interesting to see how they respond to Khurana’s faithfully representative, rather than interpretative, production of what would have been a difficult theme in its time.

The iconic part of Sumitra (or simply Mitra, as she is called in the play) was first enacted by Rohini Hattangadi during the Marathi play’s initial run. Written in 1974, it was first performed on 15 August 1981 at the Gadkar Rangayatan in Thane. Hattangadi’s star was on the rise then: She had just completed work on Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, which released a year later. These early triumphs remain her best work. Fittingly, then, she was a special guest at the opening at the NCPA’s Experimental Theatre. Adding to this sense of history, the mise en scène, and the costumes worn by the three young leads—Pune-based actors Abhay Mahajan, Sayalee Phatak and Parna Pethe—faintly evoked the 1940s’ university milieu in which the play is set.

In this love tangle, Bapu is smitten by the seemingly self-possessed Mitra (Phatak), who is sexually attracted to Pethe’s Nama, who reciprocates her feelings. Same-sex desire was little understood in those times and a conflicted Mitra soon launches into a self-destructive trajectory. While she is unwilling to sacrifice her innate desires, she inevitably ends up as an archetypal victim.

Khurana employs a no-frills approach that doesn’t sensationalize the material at hand. The understatement allows certain scenes to radiate a quiet warmth. A love-making sequence featuring Phatak and Pethe evokes an unabashed if awkward ardour between two women to good effect, without devolving into the shameful fumbling that usually characterizes depictions of intimacy on the Indian stage.

An earlier scene in which the flames of passion are first ignited—when the two women play paramours on stage (with Mitra taking on the male part of Krishna)—seems burlesque in comparison, perhaps to match the tone of a college play. Homosexuality continues to be outlawed in the country, so even these innocuously depicted episodes can be considered wilful transgressions, whether seen in the context of the play’s universe or extrapolated to today’s times.

The English tenor that appears in place of the more dexterous Marathi of the original, lends the three young protagonists an air of simple-minded sincerity. They seem unmindful of the deeper questions thrown up by the goings-on, although Tendulkar certainly had a keen eye on the implications of their choices.

However, the staccato nature of the unfolding narrative in the latest staging—scenes that don’t seem to dovetail into each other, introspective moments too quickly frittered away, points of emotion that seem strangely stopgap—leaves the character of Phatak’s Mitra battling the risk of coming across as a dour cautionary tale.

The part of an unrepentant lesbian was certainly path-breaking in 1981. In recent years, portrayals of queer women, though still rare, have increasingly begun to crop up in films and on stage—Khurana’s own Pedro Almodóvar adaptation, All About My Mother, Kunaal Roy Kapur’s The President Is Coming, and Naseeruddin Shah’s staging of Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf (incidentally set in the same decade as A Friend’s Story) come to mind.

He was intended as a surrogate for the audience, and perhaps this kind of hand-holding was a prerequisite at a time when such topics were taboo. Now, although Mahajan stays gamely with the material, Bapu’s diffidence seems tame, almost anachronistic. Mitra’s interior world could perhaps have been conjured up better by a more emotionally intuitive handling of the subject.

A Friend’s Story will be staged from 18-27 September (no show on Monday), at Jagriti Theatre, Whitefield, Bengaluru. Timings vary. Tickets, 400. To book, visit in.bookmyshow.com

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