Pure, unabashed comedies are as rare these days as the proverbial dodo’s eggs, be it in books or in cinemas or on stage and the Idiot Box. That’s why we old-timers rely nostalgically on a repeat dose of the eternal Wodehouse now and then when sick of the garish and loud sexcapades that are passed off for true humour.
It’d be trite to assert that P G Wodehouse was a true representative of the now-almost defunct genre: a simple, sincere comical story without sex, without psychedelic effects, and without any pretence towards something sublime or arty-fartily highfaluting. The thing that struck me most while watching ”Fool’s Paradise”, a play inspired by Wodehouse’s novel ”Bachelors Anonymous” was the utmost earnestness with which it was written, produced, and staged. The entire team not only caught the essence/spirit (”atma”?) of the nonagenarian novelist’s humour correctly, but also kept the sap flowing for the entire duration of the play without awkwardness or without any loss of the momentum. The performance was full of vim, brio, and a sort of joie-de-vivre that is a rare commodity these days. A tip of my hat to the writer-director duo and to all the artists who brought that special Wodehouse moment alive on the stage that day — that same moment which makes our face glow with a sense of quaint happiness whenever we open and re-re-re-read a well-thumbed Wodehouse book for the umpteenth time.
But let me begin at the beginning. P G Wodehouse lived up to the ripe old age of 93 and wrote more than 100 humorous books that included novels, short stories, essays, poems, and plays. Almost all of his books are widely-acclaimed and still read throughout the world (in original English or in translation). There is a serene gentleness in his words, a soul-soothing music that is in-built, and a universal benevolence towards All Creatures Big And Small. He relied mostly on word play rather than going in for direct, fast action. His themes were a eulogy for love and happiness. It’s a direct escape route for all those who want to avoid the harsh and often awful realities of this world. A panacea for our maladies, a heart- balm, as it were.
To choose one novel from the stables of such a Master and to adapt it to our own culture, to give these foreign words ”a local habitation and a name” (as Mr Shakespeare says), to drape them in our colours, to create a perfectly desi (native) ambiance, and suffuse it with a liberal sprinkling of contemporary lingo, making the whole a convincing offering, is no mean a task by any standards. Both Ms Ankita Athawale who gave the final product a shape as its Author and Mr Vikash Khurana who poured life in its body as Director have done a tremendous job and successfully brought forth a delectable Wodehousean comedy for the entertainment of Indian audiences. It is a refreshing treat, something that was long overdue and something that should whet a connoisseur’s appetite making him (or her) clamour for more.
The appreciation of humour is a fundamental, though mysterious, part of human cognition. What makes one thing funnier than another? According to some theories that studied humour, in everything that is to excite a lively convulsive laugh there must be something absurd (Kant). Also, the ludicrous requires a contrast between representation of perception and abstract representations (Schopenhauer). In my opinion, in Wodehouse we can see the perfect manifestation of these ideas; and in ”Fool’s Paradise” also we come across them on stage in the form of an hour-and-half-long nonstop verbal give and take between the characters who successfully bring to life the fourteen consecutive scenes through their comical actions, gestures, body language, and true-to-life portrayals without any overacting or without letting the story degenerate into farce.
As I said, this is not an exact translation of the original Wodehouse theme. It is a free adaptation and the main success of the play is the way in which the central idea has been clothed in our routine, day-to-day, familiar attires. We can easily identify with the characters, none of whom sound or look alien or outré. We meet a journalist who falls in love with a playwright. There is a veteran film producer who is also a veteran of several marriages, all broken one after another. This has soured his outlook and he now avoids women like flies. He is afraid of himself because he cannot help proposing to any girl who catches his eye. Taking a cue from the famous AA or ”Alcoholics Anonymous”, three friends who have vowed to remain single form an organisation called the Bachelors Anonymous. They keep talking each other off from becoming a victim of female pulchritude and walking up the wedding aisle. Then there is a rather strong-willed globe-trotter whose comeuppance comes when he has to eat a humble crow. (I’m mixing my metaphors here.) The crowning absurdity is a very unlikely inheritance from a rabid anti-tobacco crusader. The whole caboodle (or ”kadbole” – cud’bolé -, as no doubt, the very typical Marathi (Maharashtriyan) Plain Jane of the play Ms Saraswati Pandharpurkar would term it) is nothing short of a big barrelful of explosive guffaws, loud laughs, and rib-tickling mirth.
The comic timing is just perfect. The comebacks echo with genuine spontaneity. There is nothing contrived about the dialogues, they are pure comic and wittily dynamic. As the story unfolds, we get insightful glimpses of the characters’ mindset: they are unabashedly urban, perfect specimens of a true, contemporary, cosmopolitan, upper-class, jet-set ”Bambaiya” (Mumbaian) milieu. Their interaction with each other reflects their views on love, desire, ambition, and romance. We get involved in them and instantly transported to a world where such zany people abound. The dialogues are indeed zippy; quite cleverly penned by Ms Athawale who has taken care to not letting down the Wodehousean spirit. In fact, we are time and again reminded of his verbal felicities in one-line zingers in this play, such as ”It is possible her mother loved her” or ”An Ethiopian slave tell Cleopatra to go drown in the Nile?” or ”Every time he got up from dinner, he felt like a couple of wild cats were fighting the wildcat world wrestling championships inside him”. I was particularly delighted with this little gem:
<< GIRISH: Drinks and dinner tonight? Half-past seven? Alfredos in Juhu?
JO: Half-past seven, it is. I don’t remember the last time I heard some say half-past-something in real life. You are a vintage piece, in a nice way. >>
It is quite obvious from all such sparkling nifties and other multi-word jokes that Ms Athawale has taken great pains to polish and re-polish her offering to make it just perfect. She has liberally laced the dialogues with contemporary slang without which they would not have become convincing. Words like Yaar, rat’s ass, bitch, fly out with ease and there are a couple of ‘fucks’ too thrown in for good measure. However, it’s all done fluently and there is nary a trace of anything vulgar or undesirable. Every scene slides into the next smoothly and there is no jarring note to be heard throughout the duration of the play. The total effect is spellbinding, every moment as hilarious as the next.
All the actors in this play have done full justice to their respective roles. Amrit Lal (Nitish Chandra) was extremely convincing as the rich movie producer. His bearing was just what it should have been. Ivor (Jumbo) Llewellyn of Wodehouse’s novel is a portly, authoritarian movie magnate. Amrit often reminded me of him and his otherwise bossy but at- heart henpecked nature. His rendition of a few lines from Louis Armstrong’s famous 1967 song “What a wonderful world” was delicious. He sang with great flair but without realising – or caring about – the tune which was bad, just the way Ivor would have done it! Karan Motiyal (Vivek Daga) was really at ease on stage and carried the day with his sterling artistry. His delivery of Kipling’s lines (The toad beneath the harrow knows Exactly where each tooth-point goes. The butterfly upon the road Preaches contentment to the toad) was superb.
Especially his hand gestures. Sonal Trivedi-Malkan as Saraswati Pandharpurkar was absolutely a true- life representation of a pukka Marathi girl of middle- class origins and upbringing. A special mention must be made of Bianca Nazareth-Arya’s portrayal of Devika Sundar, a lady lawyer of some standing. She looked every inch a busy Bombay lawyer with slightly uppish looks and curt demeanour. Her costume matched her stage persona. Other characters equally ably and faultlessly brought to life by the performers were Girish Modi (Raveesh Jaiswal), Jyoita Arya (Arya Diwakar), and Niranjan Soni (Onkar Ghare). All of them worked as a team to pour life in the performance and seeing to it that the cracking pace never slackened.
Finally a word about the man whose love for the theatre and passion for this great art made this possible. Mr Vikash Khurana is no stranger to Nagpur’s English drama lovers. He has been doing a yeoman’s service in this field since last fourteen years or more and this was his 69th gift to us as director-producer. What a fantastic dish he has cooked this time! His special touch was visible in every scene and dialogue delivery. The actors obeyed his commands faithfully. He was able to bring out the best in every one of them. Each actor superbly fitted the role assigned to him or her. One could hear him speaking through them, as it were. I am sure they were not mere puppets dancing to his tune but even while enjoying the liberty to live the role as per their own interpretation, they never exceeded the boundaries set by Mr Khurana and thus helped make the play a perfect, cohesive unity. Khurana’s subtle touches were more than satisfactory. He caught on the nuances in-built in the words and provided just that much extra impetus that makes all the difference. With a minimalistic but very efficient use of property on stage, and a veteran director’s eye for minor details, he skillfully created a world peopled by these eccentric characters. It was a sheer pleasure to enjoy this highly unusual dramatic experience. Beginning with a short monologue the play travelled towards an unexpected finale — rapidly wending its way through a serpentine maze of scenes, all under the careful supervision of the master director. The highlights of the whole exercise were the dialogue delivery and body language of the actors, more than actual action. They spoke in gloriously desi (native) accents, a pleasure to listen to. All in all, it was an evening well spent and as I left the auditorium, a sort of lovely Wodehousean tranquility filled my mind, and the only words I could utter were: l’Encore, l’Encore.
Kudos to everybody involved in this presentation: writer, director, performers, and backstage workers. You have been simply wonderful, guys. As for Vikash Khurana, all I can do is to repeat a very nice phrase people in Wodehouse’s books use to record their appreciation and praise: “Vikash, old man, you are the bee’s roller-skates!” We expect you and your teammates to shower us with many more such charming Wodehousean gifts in future also.
– Harshawardhan Nimkhedkar