Two plays currently running on the Mumbai stage revisit old hits, and it is interesting to see how the condition of women has changed over the decades.
In 1990, Prashant Dalvi’s Marathi play, Charchaughi, directed by Chandrakant Kulkarni, was staged. It may be a broad generalisation, but subjects in modern Marathi theatre have been more progressive in their attitude towards women, but even so, this play was considered revolutionary for the times and has become a landmark. The four female parts were played by actresses, who went on to become stars and stage legends — Deepa Shreeram, Vandana Gupte, Asawari Joshi, Pratiksha Lonkar.
It was about a woman who has three daughters out of wedlock; the father is a presence in their lives, but stays on with his first and legal family. The mother’s decision to defy society impacts the lives of the daughters in good ways and bad. They grow up to be independent, but their relationships get complicated. Back then, it must have been difficult if not unthinkable for a woman to take such a step, and get away without ugly social repercussions. Divorce was difficult and frowned upon so severely, that women were trapped in bad marriages for want of a better option.
The new production, with an equally high-powered cast comprising Rohini Hattangady, Mukta Barve, Kadambari Kadam and Parna Pethe, does not update the period — so though Aai’s Pune apartment is well-appointed, there are obviously no cell phones and computers. There is a landline with an extension, significant because a powerful monologue delivered in the form of a phone call between a wife and her estranged husband is interrupted by Aai on the extension.
Today, single women are heads of the family, but having kids without a husband in the picture is still not so common. The oldest daughter, Vidya, discovers that her husband is having an affair and leaves her marital home to return to her mother’s, where she is welcomed without question. She cares about and misses her daughter immensely, but does something unusual — she demands shared custody for the child, six months with her and six with the father. Today, joint custody is routinely granted, but three decades ago, the judge disapproves of a mother not wanting to take full custody of her child, the implication being that she is already looking for a new husband; the man who is responsible for breaking up a marriage due to his infidelity, gets away without any social or legal censure. Thankfully, now at least in the big cities, divorce is not so skewed against the woman.
The second daughter, Vaiju, is exasperated because her husband cannot hold down a job; she is tired being the sole breadwinner as well as looking after the home, while the husband makes his grand schemes, which never amount to anything. To top it all, he demands that she have a child, more as a mark of his manhood than any great desire to be a father. Vaiju’s problem and her solution of reluctant compromise is the path taken by most women.
The youngest daughter, Vini, affected by the unstable relationships around her, cannot make up her mind between two of her close male friends — one a serious academic sort, and the other wealthy and fun-loving. She comes up with the idea of living with both of them, which was unlikely to be accepted 30 years ago, and a tough sell even now. Living in with a partner is no longer taboo, but even in a we-mind-our-business city like Mumbai, a young woman and two men would probably find it difficult to rent a flat.
The playwright thought up scenarios and characters 30 years ago which seem more plausible now, but are still not considered normal even in contemporary urban society. Still, Kulkarni’s empathetic direction leads audiences to relate to them, and there are audible ‘hmmms’ in the theatre whenever a line about inequality or injustice is spoken. In spite of the heavy-duty emotional complexities, Charchaughi is not a depressing play — there is humour, courage, hope conveyed through the text and performances. The takeaway from the play is that if a woman refuses to bow to convention, nobody can break her. Charchaughi was way ahead of its time when it was originally staged, and society is starting to catch up, but there’s a long way to go for unconditional gender equality.
The origins of the other play, The Graduate, go back even more. The highly acclaimed 1967 film, directed by Mike Nichols from a novel by Charles Webb, which was converted to a stage production by Terry Johnson, much later. In Mumbai, Trishla Patel has directed a play, starring Tejaswini Kolhapure, Shashank Vishnu Dutt and Garima Yajnik, with a plot that would have been improbable half a century ago, and would still be so in any society, however advanced.
The character of 21-year-old recent graduate Ben (played by Dustin Hoffman in his breakthrough role) is at a loose end during the summer holidays, and embarks on a secret affair with a beautiful older woman, Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft), who has a first name, Judith, but is always called Mrs Robinson to brand her the property of her husband. She is in a loveless marriage with a man she was forced to marry because she got pregnant and there was no escape. The affair by itself would have been atypical, but Ben falls in love with his lover’s daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross).
Now, there are terms for older women in affairs with younger men — cougar being one of the less offensive ones. In 1967, the writer or director did not explain if this was Mrs Robinson’s first seduction of a younger man, or why she chose Ben, who was not particularly charming. The difference between then and now is the way Mrs Robinson is perceived — half a century ago, she was a sad but wicked woman who ensnared Ben. Seeing the film from Ben’s point of view, he was seen as an angsty rebel who does not fit into his parents’ bourgeois suburban existence. His affair with Mrs Robinson was just a rite of passage for him, but she deserved to be punished. When the film completed 50 years and was looked at again, Mrs Robinson was treated with much more respect and sympathy, and Ben perceived as what he really was, an “insufferable creep” (to quote Roger Ebert who did an about turn on his earlier review, as did some other critics).
Patel has ignored all the moral dilemmas of the plot, and turned it into a raunchy comedy. All the lines spoken in all seriousness in the film made today’s audiences burst into laughter. We live in an age when risqué content is easily available on phones and computers. Any permutations and combinations of temporary coupling evoke little shock or moral outrage. Less judgmental urban audiences would have no trouble rooting for the sexy and adventurous-in-bed Mrs Robinson over her vapid daughter. If Ben decides to end up with Elaine, he is an idiot, heading for just the kind of bland life from which Mrs Robinson briefly rescued him. As for Mrs Robinson, now Ben is a rite of passage for a woman who seeks and gets what she desires. The lyrics of the Simon & Garfunkel song, Mrs Robinson have the lines:
We'd like to know a little bit about you for our files
We'd like to help you learn to help yourself
Look around you, all you see are sympathetic eyes
Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home
Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author