The stage is bathed in mellow lighting that imparts a warm ambience to a living room where an elderly man is ensconced in a large, well-padded single-seater sofa. Khushaal Mehndi is glued to a cacophonous programme on TV because he has nothing better to do. When the TV goes on the blink, he is helpless. Like most citizens his age, he is not too adept at handling new gizmos, including the sofa which has a leg rest that juts out suddenly if he inadvertently presses a button on its side. The phone on his table is a black landline with which he manages to get small jobs done. The scene is set for Purane Chawal, a sparkling Indian adaptation of the Neil Simon comedy, Sunshine Boys, produced by D for Drama and directed by Sumeet Vyas for the recently concluded Prithvi Festival in Mumbai.
With the always dependable Kumud Mishra and Shubrajyoti Barat playing the lead roles, Purane Chawal is about two actors past their prime. Once, Mehndi and Vijay Das had reigned supreme as comic actors. Their partnership saw them, unfailingly, bring the house down for 42 years. But suddenly, one not so fine day, Vijay Das (known as VD), called it quits. He had had enough of doing the same play, day in and day out. And he thrust his decision on his co-actor without consulting him. It was a betrayal Mehndi never forgave. “He decided to retire and forced retirement upon me as well. I was not ready for retirement,” he tells Vicky, his nephew-cum-manager, bitterly. Indeed, becoming a couch potato and surviving on bun-maska and chai are not really Mehndi’s cup of tea. Ten years down the line, he is still rearing to go and waits eagerly for the phone to ring, with offers of roles in theatre, cinema or even ads.
Occasionally, due to his manager’s efforts, he does get a few ads but, sadly he is unable to deliver and he forgets even the brand of the product he is modelling for. Deserted mid-stream by VD, Mehndi’s life is reduced to doing nothing. The only spark of excitement comes every Wednesday in the form of Mayapuri, a popular entertainment magazine that Vicky brings for him. With great eagerness, he scans the weekly for news about himself, like in his heyday. But apart from snippets announcing the deaths of his contemporaries there is nothing in the magazine that he can relate to. One day, breaking the monotony of TV, tea and cigarettes comes an offer. A business tycoon has opened a cultural centre where they want to revive his popular show with VD, Purane Chawal. Though thrilled, Mehndi won’t let his excitement show as his old grudge against VD comes in the way.
What follows is a delightful battle of wits between him and his erstwhile co-star. Pretending that he is not really keen to work with VD again, Mehndi lays down several conditions. So does VD. Both put up a front of having done very well without each other and seize every opportunity to run one another down. While VD passes nasty comments about Mehndi’s impoverished condition, living in a one-room -kitchen flat, Mehndi is scathing in his observation that in Alibaug, where VD lives, he has only animals for company, scornfully running down the weekend getaway of Mumbai’s rich and famous.
Not all adaptations work. This one does. Purane Chawal brings on the laughs in an Indian setting, with razor-sharp dialogues in Hindi. Director Sumeet Vyas shares the process of how the play evolved, “What I love about Sunshine Boys is that though it has been done often, its dialogues not only stand the test of time but acquire new connotations each time it is performed. However, to do it in Hindi, we had to tweak the dialogues because not all the jokes and puns of the original play work in another language, in another culture. We roped in Farrukh Seyer, who is very proficient in Hindi and Urdu, to translate the play. Then we edited the jokes that fell flat in Hindi and added dialogues and situations that Indian viewers would find funny. We also fleshed out the relationships of the characters to give them a typically Indian feel. For instance, Vicky, played by Ghanshyam Lalsa, had to do a fine balancing act handling the egos of the two older men because our youth treat their seniors with respect, even when dealing firmly with them. Then, we added angles like Mehndi’s warm rapport with VD’s wife to make the leading men come across as identifiable characters. Little details like these were incorporated to make the story around a Mehndi and Das plausible even though it is largely borrowed from a western bestseller.
“Our opening shows were in Mumbai, where viewers are familiar with artistes of all shades as the city has a vibrant artistic culture. And I wanted to be sure that what viewers took home was high regard for Mehndi and VD as artistes, and not look upon them as mere jokers.” Mehndi and VD are certainly no vacuous funsters. Mehndi may not remember the name of the potato chips he is modelling for, but he is quick to rise to the bait when Vicky or VD dare to call him old or humourless. To prove that his sense of humour is intact, he tells Vicky, poker-faced, “I find everything with the letter K funny, even karela.”And you don’t know if the acerbic Mehndi is making fun of Vicky or production houses that superstitiously name all their films with K. Or both.
VD, too, is quick on the uptake though his poor blood circulation necessitates a walking stick. When Mehndi sadistically asks him how his memory is still so good despite poor circulation, VD retorts, “My legs have poor blood circulation, not my brain. And I think with my brain.” The play entertains not just with their squabbles but with a lot of sharp asides about nurses, tax inspectors, doctors, writers et al. The two don’t spare even the dead. “What was that he wrote?” asks Mehndi about a writer who has died recently. “Main ladki, ho ho ho! Tu ladka, ho ho ho! Hum dono mile,ho ho ho! Gharwale bole, ho ho ho!” And for a change, Mehndi and VD laugh together!
Light and fluffy like old rice, the play keeps you entertained throughout; even as you feel sorry for the once-famous stars now living lives of pretence and penury, away from the limelight, lonely and forgotten.
Alpana Chowdhury is an independent journalist