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Khoob Milayi Jodi: A laugh-a-minute Hindi  play from Saakaar wows Atlanta


Photo by Umesh Rathie

The non profit theater group Saakaar, has consistently come up with stellar presentations and after the who dunnit, the Agatha Christie mystery, “The Mouse Trap”, in English, the group presented a hilarious Hindi adaptation of a century old play, “Charlie’s Aunt” across Atlanta in five shows held at various venues from April end till 7th May.

The play begins with two friends Raju and Manu in love with two cousins Usha and Nisha Singh. To lure them into a meeting so they could confess their love to the girls, Raju and Manu hatch a plot. They invite the girls to lunch to meet Manu’s rich and famous aunt Lady Angela Butterworth who is about to land from South Africa.

To keep the aunt entertained they convince a good friend Babloo, a struggling actor about to leave for play rehearsals (where he is enacting the role of a mother) to hang around.

The aunt gets delayed and Babloo who has just come out in a woman’s garb to get an opinion on how he looks, is cajoled into masquerading as the missing Lady Butterworth.

The girls take a strong liking to the fake lady Angela, and so does the bumbling, widowed father of Nisha, Rai Bahadur Haridayal Singh. Raju’s uncle Colonel Inder Manchanda, who is facing a financial crunch has also been told by Raju to try and ensnare the rich widow to get over his financial travails. But that was before the aunts got switched, and Colonel Manchanda doesn’t know that!

The mayhem that follows is hilarious, especially when the real Lady Angela turns up along with the NRI girl, Babloo had helped during an accident and fallen in love with. The two had lost touch but hadn’t forgotten each other.

Lady Angela meets Babloo and plays along calling herself Mrs. Anjali Shah, Babloo is in a trance as he sets eyes on Shilpa, while the bumbling Rai sahib, is in a trance mesmerized by Babloo’s’s feminine charms. He even gives his blessing to the marriage between the two girls and their paramours after his initial reservations, upon being promised that Babloo will marry him.

Finally the truth is revealed and alls well that ends well.

A very interesting commentary about theater and why plays like this work from Professor James P. Clone who directed the same play in English goes-.

“In his book of critical theory, The Decline of Pleasure, Walter Kerr advocated a return to theater-going just for the fun of it. Somewhere after World War I, it became fashionable to extol things Russian, say Stanislavski or Maxim Gorgy. Art seemed to exclude the notion of entertainment. You went to the theater to learn what the world was really like. At the same time, the bread and butter farces that attracted large audiences and paid production costs were denigrated with the condescending title, Commercial. 

Charlie’s Aunt is one of those plays you will never find in a University anthology. It makes no sense in the classroom and only comes to life on a stage before an audience. Its reason for existence is to make audiences laugh. A play, of course, is not strictly speaking a work of literature. It might better be called a blueprint that needs a construction team to bring it to life. You wouldn’t , for example, hand a symphony score to a music lover and say read it and enjoy. If a playwright meant his script to be a work of literature, he needn’t worry about entrance and exit symbols, always being concerned about the time it will take an actor to change his costume before his next entrance. It is in short, a craft, which is pointed out in the spelling of the word playwright. 

”Charlie’s Aunt” was first performed in the 1880’s in London, and it has been produced continually throughout the English-speaking theatrical world since it first saw stage light. And that is the important thing to remember when you watch the play; it is only alive on the playhouse stage. It is a sunny picture of College life, youthful exuberance, flirtation in familiar and pastoral surroundings. There isn’t any theme or subtext to be ferreted out by the enterprising doctoral student. What you see, is what you get. Mistaken identity, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, and everybody lives happily ever after. 

Walter Kerr, I think, would approve of Charlie’s Aunt. To give you pleasure is the whole point of the evening. So , in our own small way, we are arresting the decline, if indeed there be one, of fun in playhouse fare. We are only asking that you let us entertain you, which, from a performance point of view, may not be as easy as it looks.”

Indeed humor is tough business-one misstep, one badly written dialogue, one bad piece of acting and it can throw everything off. The coolest thing about this play was that it managed to avoid all that and Anuraag Misraraj came up with a stellar script.

The dialogues were sharp and crisp. Sunny Sachdeva, as Raj Manchanda and Gaurav Bakshi as Manu were the perfect buffer for each other. Their dialogue delivery, the timber of their voices complemented each other’s character to perfection, as did the combination of Anita Gupta and Darshan Kaur as Usha Singh and Nisha Singh.

“This was my first play with Saakaar and its been an honor to work with Anuraag Misraraj and Swoop Nyshadham,” says Sunny Sachedva. Under their direction, the undeniably funny script of Khoob Milai Jodi got transformed into a rip roaring comedy that actually works- a comedy that is beautiful in its own sweet way. It was exciting to work with an amazingly talented cast, especially Gaurav Bakshi, Anurag Goel and Anita Gupta and we all got along like a house on fire.”

For Anita Gupta who has been involved in acting and theater since she was a model in Bombay, before marriage brought her to USA in the 90s, it felt like home coming. “It’s been such a fantastic experience to work with a great team of KMJ. Although it was very tiring, time consuming and taxing since we are full time professionals and some of us with families and small children, Its been extremely satisfying and a great stress reliever. All the creative juices that flow though the brain while you are engaged in the performing arts rejuvenates the mind and body. It gave me energy for the mundane chores that I have to do in everyday life. It was wonderful coming back to acting after my Bombay days specially when I had such wonderful co-actors and directors to work with. The whole team worked tirelessly and selflessly to make this production a success and I thank each one of them.”

Darshan Kaur adds, “ In order to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd" - Miguel de Cervantes’ quote aptly describes the journey I went through in order to appease the actress in me. The task of playing Nisha Singh, a ditzy, rich and spoiled heiress, whose only ambition in life is to get married to Manu, was a daunting one for me especially since I consider myself to be an intellectual and also happen to be a confirmed bachelorette in real life. But with help from my able directors, Anuraag and Swaroop Ji, I was able to overcome my inhibitions and let myself go and actually had a lot of fun doing this role. It was great to have Anita as a sister and Amitabh Ji as a father, because he is a father-figure to me in real life as well. Anurag Goel, Vijay and I share a bond from ’Ek Tha Gadha’ times and we kept each other entertained during rehearsals. All the cast members are very talented and even more so, they are great human beings and fun to be with. I am all the more glad that Gaurav and I were able to get past our differences (of opinion - on just about everything ) and play a lovey-dovey couple on stage.”

The show stealers along with Sunny Sachdeva were Anurag Goel as Babloo/Angela Butterworth and Amitabh Sharma as the bumbling Raibahadur Hardayal Singh. Amitabh a veteran at the game always brings his own little touches and enhances the character. “I did my first play when I was 8 years old, have staged in excess of 150 small and full length plays, ran/managed a theatre company in India and produced/staged 3 plays each has been a passion all my life,” says Amitabh Sharma and adds,” but Saakaar is my own baby having co-founded it with Swaroop Nyshadham and Anuraag Misraraaj. I am proud of the stature it is beginning to acquire. It has been a nostalgic journey... full of life, vigor and fun. . I would not trade this for any better pursuit. Kudos to the team that continues to grow seeing the selfless dedication of everyone involved.

Khoob Milayi Jodi is culmination of a dream to put forth a play that would ever remain etched in people’s memories for a long long time ..what a stupendous endeavor bringing to life 2.5 hours of unadulterated laughter. And finally as for my role as Rai is entirely contradictory to my persona - mix of authoritative and cajoling- but therein lay the unique challenge to bring the character to fruition, “

Sanjay Mannan seems to have perfected the military look, as he has played an army man in two plays in a row from Saakaar. He says “I thoroughly enjoyed the development as well as the performance aspects of Saakaar’s Hindi play "Khoob Milayi Jodi". Personally for me, the camaraderie of working with such talented and beautiful people to create something graceful for the world to see was exhilarating. The experience of watching people with extremely busy lives come together for one common purpose without any other agenda but to play whatever part is given to them to create a whole that is much bigger was captivating. When individuals come together without focusing just on themselves, the final symphony is a thing of beauty. The other thing I discovered is that I have a lot to learn specially in the world of theatre. “ 

Rita Kapahi and Sapna Khakaria as Lady Angela Butterworth and Shilpa, Babloo’s love interest, looked quite comfortable and at ease for new comers. Rita Kapahi says, “It was fun...especially after 25 years away from the stage. Being able to work with such a wonderful group was not only an excellent experience but also a welcome change from my daily routine. This play was well-worth the effort and time everyone put into it!...”

Vijay Tripathi was a natural in his role as Shambhu kaka. “My experience with theater is an on going lesson about building a strong bond first between the actors on stage and then extend that relationship towards the audience. We not only say things, but we say them in particular ways -- and the "WAY" we say things helps to develop, clarify, and redefine a relationship. Do the action and then the feeling will follow. I enjoyed all of my punch lines on the stage and the affection and cooperation I got from cast and crew. Saakaar is a wonderful medium to express and contribute positively towards society. I am proud to be a part of Saakaar and remember the informal chat to name the group in 2003.My special thanks to Anuraag Misraraj and Swaroopji for their inspiring directions and love to my two little daughters Anushka & Vanshika whom I missed a lot during the weekend rehearsals and my wonderful wife Priti for supporting all my crazy stuff on and off stage.”

Anurag Goel had the toughest role and says,” When I first signed up to act in KMJ, I had no idea what I was getting into. Given an increasingly busy schedule at work, I wanted a small, inconspicuous part that I could have played without too much effort. Of course, that was not what Anuraag had in mind. While I had a suspicion all along that he wanted me to play Babloo, my worst fears were confirmed when he asked me to try it out. I did, and told him promptly that I was extremely uncomfortable playing the part. Anuraag persisted, and used ’emotional blackmail’ to get me to do it - and now I can’t thank him enough for giving me this opportunity. Along with Dr. Swaroop, he helped me lose all my inhibitions to bring out Manu ki Mausi in all her true, hilarious glory. The last four months have been as hectic as they have been fun; I am going to miss spending long hours over the weekends laughing and toiling with the rest of the cast and crew members. To sum it up, acting in KMJ has been an extremely fulfilling experience - something that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”

For Anuraag Misraraj, writing and directing this play was a long time dream come true. “I have loved this play since I was very young and saw an Urdu adaptation of it on Doordarshan and kept looking for its script. I found similar adaptations in some other Indian languages and after a bit of research, found that they all had drawn from Brandon Thomas’s original "Charlie’s Aunt". But it was hard to find a copy of it India, as it was originally published in 1880s and subsequently updated in 1930s!! So I made a mental note to get back to it sometime later in life.

A constraint with Hindi drama over the past few decades has been that except for a few original playwrights like Mohan Rakesh, Mudra Rakshas, Mani Madhukar etc. most of the plays are translations from other regional Indian languages and apart from a few well known comedies other scripts are not widely available. We, at Saakaar, are committed to high quality, family friendly plays and wanted a clean yet hilarious comedy for this venture. Since I had, in past, done adapted works of Moliere, Shakespeare and others, the idea of returning to an English comedy adapted to an Indian setting came back to me. Then, I remembered "Charlie’s aunt", and this time, fortunately, I was able to locate a 1940s script at the GSU Library. I reread it and immediately fell in love with it. 

Obviously, the task of adapting a Victorian play based in Oxford to Indian milieu was daunting. My main challenge was to be able to capture the intricacies of the comical plots and subplots along with the subtle nuances and eccentricities of different characters, and yet retain the farcical spontaneity of the original. Many companies choose to produce "Charlie’s Aunt" as a period play, set in the Victorian era. But I saw the theme of love striking the young and old alike, making them go to ridiculous lengths, as an endearing universal aspect of the play, and therefore, chose to set it in contemporary Mumbai. While Raju and Manu are not today’s typical Indian cell phone-wielding rapping-and-jamming youngsters, they did turn out close enough to a young college student to retain the basic appeal of the play. Besides, I had to keep in mind the Indian sensibilities and traditions to make the play and characters credible. 

It took me over three months of work in terms of conceptualization, character finalization and scripting to arrive at the final version. After that, making copies of the script turned out to be a big challenge, since often times, I find it hard to read my own handwriting !! So I sent the handwritten script to my sister in India, who could read it and had it word processed and emailed back to me to make multiple copies to start rehearsals. 

Another major challenge in casting the play was to get actors who were young or old enough to closely resemble the characters, and could read and speak Hindi fluently. Many of the local Indian theater enthusiasts/professionals fell in between the two generations portrayed in the play!! But we managed to cast the play and you saw the result of four months of hard work in front of our audience. I hope they enjoyed it.”

The fact that Saakaar did five performances this time as compared to two for “The Mousetrap” is an encouraging sign that the group’s efforts are being recognized by a larger, appreciative audience. All the actors, who have full time jobs, took a lot of time from their busy schedules and rehearsed hard to make such well executed performances happen. I hope Atlanta will continue to support the theater group and come out in large numbers at each production.

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