Short, sharp, sweet, sad, snappy, The F Word, written and directed by Akarsh Khurana, is a profoundly entertaining depiction of a dysfunctional family. The F here stands for family but you could choose to let it mean otherwise. And this is what you can do throughout the play--add layers to what you see and interpret it in your own way.
Staged as part of Aadyam’s festival of theatre, an Aditya Birla Group initiative, The F Word, is an intimate, character-driven play, sans the regular spectacle and grandeur of Aadyam plays. There is just one set, imaginatively designed by Tiya Tejpal to include a pretty café, its washroom, an automobile and the baggage-collecting area of an airport. (The venue for the performance, Jamshed Bhabha Box, Mumbai, is, however, most inappropriate. With the audience and stage at the same level, you have to strain your neck even from the fourth row to catch the action.)
The opening scene has actor Akash Khurana, playing an ageing man, Kamal, shuffling around with a pillow while his son Chetan, played by Siddharth Kumar, waits for his bag at the airport. Kamal leaves the stage and Chetan proceeds to the waiting car that has his sister Unnati at the wheel. Instead of expressing overwhelming sibling love, the two begin squabbling as soon as they meet. Chetan taunts his sister, played by Malaika Choudhury, for saving on parking fees by waiting outside the airport premises. She snaps at him for taking unduly long coming; and snaps even more on hearing he had checked in his bag. A case of too much baggage?
This sets the tone for the 75-minute drama that has family members attacking each other, with sadistic pleasure. Chetan, a high-school teacher, and Unnati, a psychologist, are meeting to sort out their parents’ problems. Picking up their unsuspecting father from his home, they take him to his favourite cafe, to grill him about the way he treats his bed-ridden wife, because of reports by Laxmi, their mother’s caregiver.
Laxmi has been tattling to Chetan and Unnati about their father’s violent outbursts. For some time the old man plays along, countering their officious behaviour with banter and snarky comments. “She hasn’t been able to diagnose herself. She must be a shitty therapist,” he says about dour-faced Unnati, half joking, half serious. Referring to Chetan, he asks innocently, “Has he got funnier since his divorce?” though he is not supposed to know that Chetan’s wife has dumped him.
Kamal continues in this manner for a while without losing his cool; not even when his children rebuke him angrily for his affair with his one-time office secretary Farzana whose daughter Farah runs the cafe. The blithe-spirited Farah, essayed delightfully by Garima Yajnik, and the cynical old Kamal share a warm familiarity which Kamal’s children resent. Oblivious of the undercurrents, Farah chirps, “Kamal is as good as my father.” To which Kamal deliberately adds, poker-faced, “Farah is the daughter I never had though I slept with her mother.”
But when his children get too close for comfort, he gives up the banter, and lets them have a dose of their own medicine. “I am no expert on failed marriages,” he retorts, acerbically, when Chetan says as a father he should know if everything is okay between Unnati and her husband.
That hits home; however his children won’t back off. Instead they blame him, tracing their failings to childhood trauma. But Kamal will not be button-holed by their cocky theories. So, when the opinionated Unnati tells him she wishes she was less like him, having ruined her marriage by cheating on her husband, he retaliates bluntly, “Infidelity is a choice you make, not something you inherit.” Brevity often being the soul of wit in this play, crisp one-liners like these impart a humorous slant to a poignant story, keeping you engrossed throughout.
“You have been breaking dishes,” attacks Chetan. “No. I have been dropping them,” replies the father. “You have always had a violent streak,” persists Chetan. “You are an overthinking mess,” retorts the old man, dismissing his son’s allegations with plain speaking.
“This talk is about you and Mom,” continues Chetan, relentlessly.
“Your mother and I have a relationship that is private,” answers Kamal firmly. “But what about the two of you? Do you know what is going on in each other’s life?”
As the skeletons keep tumbling out, questions arise about Chetan and Unnati’s moral authority to remote-control their parents’ lives or reprimand their father. Do they have any idea of what it entails to take care of a chronically ailing wife; cope with her mood swings, her reluctance to take her medicines and her daily pleas to be released from her misery?
It is a heart-breaking scene when Kamal finally drops his jovial exterior and tells his judgemental children, “Whoever told you, life is meant to be easy? Life is hard because at the end of the day it kills you. You do your time and what’s your reward? They burn you. Or they cover you in mud and worms eat you. And on the way to that point, there’s money, and politics, and traffic, and jobs, and aches and pains, and acid reflux…so life is meant to be hard. But you can choose not to make it harder, right?”
Writer-director Akarsh Khurana, who is inspired by writers like Neil Simon, Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet when writing wickedly comic dialogues, shares why he wrote this disturbing play: “I have always been fascinated by dysfunctional families; which is pretty much most families though a lot won’t admit it... The F Word is a deeply personal and prolonged conversation about parents, children marriage, ageing, resentment, nostalgia, and the importance, or lack of, conversation. It is darkly comic and surprisingly relatable, or so we hope.” And brutally honest.
To Khurana’s immense credit, the play doesn’t sag at any point. There is non-stop chatter, without any relief, but the four characters keep you engaged with their sharp barbs and counter barbs. All the actors play their roles with such conviction that while you sympathise with the father and love Farah for her bubbly nature, Malaika’s set mouth and unhappy demeanour are so convincing you applaud when her father tells her unpalatable truths. Siddharth’s Chetan elicits both sympathy and contempt because he is not man enough to take responsibility for his failures.
This is one play where everyone will find someone to identify with…because no family is perfect.