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Business News/ Lounge / Art And Culture/  ‘Letters of Suresh’: A play that celebrates handwritten letters
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‘Letters of Suresh’: A play that celebrates handwritten letters

With ‘Letters of Suresh’, theatre director and playwright Feroz Abbas Khan returns with an intimate performance after a series of grand productions

Vir Hirani, who essays the titular character of Suresh, reads out excerpts from a set of lettersPremium
Vir Hirani, who essays the titular character of Suresh, reads out excerpts from a set of letters

Aram Nagar in Mumbai’s Andheri neighbourhood is home to many rehearsal spaces and studios. Within one such space, theatre director and playwright Feroz Abbas Khan—known for productions such as Tumhari Amrita and Mughal-e-Azam—is rehearsing for his new play, Letters of Suresh. And as the title suggests, actor Vir Hirani can be seen reading out excerpts from a set of letters.

The play is not set too far back in the past; rather, it deals with the post-pandemic reality. Based on the text by American playwright Rajiv Joseph, who has in the past written plays like Guards at the Taj and Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Abbas Khan’s play focuses on communication between young Suresh and a senior Japanese priest, Father Hashimoto. They don’t know each other but their letters speak of everything, from education to relationships and religion.

Hashimoto, essayed by Harssh Singh, first spotted Suresh, a prolific artist, at an origami conference in Nagasaki, Japan. Even though they didn’t speak at the time, the priest found an exquisite bird, folded by the artist, and felt a yearning to communicate with him. Even though they exchange ideas on paper, in this age of digital communication, the story doesn’t seem strange or abrupt. Rather, this need for slow, thoughtful communication seems oddly relatable. Save for one FaceTime conversation, the characters never meet or speak in person. You witness two sides of the same story through the letters.

The characters have been well-etched out. As the play unfolds, you learn of Hashimoto’s stroke of luck to have escaped the dropping of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki. Suresh gradually reveals his fascination for older women. Two other characters are integral to the story: Melody, a Seattle-based teacher, who is Hashimoto’s niece, and Amelia, who is romantically involved with Suresh.

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Hirani, armed with a degree from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, is not new to the world of performing arts. He has grown up watching his father, director-producer—Rajkumar Hirani—at work. However, he finds Abbas Khan’s manner of creating emotional graphs for the characters very different. “We would talk about the characters and their relationships with each other. Then, we would break away and perform the solo pieces," he says. The character of Suresh felt like a challenge—he is supposed to be a genius, a quality that Hirani couldn’t relate with initially. He thought of taking up origami to get into the skin of the character, but decided against it as the character never folds paper on stage.

A shift in scale

The last two productions Abbas Khan directed were Mughal-E-Azam, based on the 1960 film by K Asif, and The Great Indian Musical, a big-budget extravaganza that marked the opening of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre. Both had large cast, intricate choreography, and the grandiosity of Broadway productions.

“This is what I like the most," he says about returning to an intimate performance. “After doing big productions, a certain exhaustion has set in. They take a lot out of you. As a theatre maker, your primary work is to engage with the text and the actors. Letters of Suresh felt like coming back home."

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Feroz Abbas Khan is known for productions such as 'Tumhari Amrita' and 'Mughal-e-Azam'
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Feroz Abbas Khan is known for productions such as 'Tumhari Amrita' and 'Mughal-e-Azam'

Abbas Khan chanced upon this idea ahead of a meeting with playwright Rajiv Joseph. He found the play extremely modern and complex, and simply wanted to share it with the audience. The cast came together organically, with several actors reaching out to him once the play had been locked.

“In the beginning, I didn’t know how to make this play. We workshopped for a week or two and then things started coming together," he says. “If that hadn’t happened, I would have resigned to the fact that the play reads better than it performs."

The thing with letters

Call it serendipity or a co-incidence, but Abbas Khan’s landmark productions have been based on letters. His acclaimed play, Tumhari Amrita, starring Farooque Sheikh and Shabaza Azmi, which opened in 1992, was an Indian adaptation of AR Gurney’s Love Letters. The director maintains that though he doesn’t go looking for letters to base a performance on, this idea of slow communication holds a special place for him. “The act of reflecting and putting pen to paper is so beautiful. It’s the difference between what happens on a TV channel and what you read in print," he explains. “There’s so much contemplation. You reveal so much of your inner self. It’s private and mysterious," he adds.

In Letters of Suresh, Abbas Khan lets the text do the talking. Hirani speaks and reads with the occasional discomfort of a young boy confronted with deep conversations about life. “Almost like a non-performance," says Abbas Khan. “It’s Rajiv Joseph’s creation and he is the star. It is his writing that makes the actors do what they do. I am just a mediator. My job is to make the writing and the actors shine."

‘Letters of Suresh’ will be staged between 9-12 May at Studio Theatre, the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre, Mumbai.

Prachi Sibal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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Published: 08 May 2024, 05:00 PM IST
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