The characteristic middle-of-the-road sensibility of Akvarious Productions has found an outlet in two none-too-typical plays this year. The first, Dekh Behen, is set in a Delhi farmhouse that has been commandeered by an ostentatious Indian wedding, although all the action takes place in the bride’s chamber where her cranky bridesmaids in facsimile Frozen-inspired desi gowns congregate to curse up a storm while smoking and drinking like no woman’s business.
Directed by Prerna Chawla and Shikha Talsania, the all-women venture (taking into account both cast and crew) is written by Dilshad Edibam Khurana and Tahira Nath Krishnan, both of whom feature in the six-strong primary ensemble, a more diverse set than the conservative trappings of an extended nuptials might have us believe. Although they appear to live soap-opera lives — a veritable merry-go-round of romantic skirmishes and petty jealousies — what is striking is the refreshing candor exhibited by the women, if only in a setting that is seemingly tucked away from prying eyes. The conversations are unremarkable in their ordinariness — the women discuss makeup and men, with a few stray Bechdel moments. These are women content to operate within the status quo, none being card-carrying feminists at the least, but inside the structures that constrict them, they all effect tiny rebellions that allow them to cross over and become creatures of an uncertain aspiration. They brandish the chinks in their armor with pride and thus are never reduced to done-to-death perfect archetypes.
The play is one night of revelations that leaves all the characters chastened by the end somewhat predictably, but it must be said that the secret is entirely and completely in the sauce. The writing’s accessible but not dumbed down, and the performances are strong. One shrinking violet in particular, Tanu (Aastha Arora), is the piece’s face of died-in-the-wool convention, harping on about the homilies passed down by her spiritual guru, but letting her heart guide her to more sinful thoughts. An audience surrogate, Tanu’s conditioning is easily subverted, and her naiveté adds some merriment to the evening.
Edibam Khurana plays a lesbian character that is sensitively etched for the most part, although the lessons of inclusiveness she carries are somewhat prescriptive. Nath Krishnan is in good form as an endearingly foul-mouthed woman with a questionable taste in men. Aahana Kumra and Zayn Marie Khan (as the bride’s sister) offset their Mean Girls vibe with reserves of unexpected compassion.
Fresh off the heels of her star-making turn in the mildly subversive chick flick Veere Di Wedding, Talsania contributes a cameo as the bride in question, who is vilified for the most part but is ultimately, and quite surprisingly, the balm for the collective lacerations of the women she has assembled as her posse. Desire and decadence take center stage in Dekh Behen, and the lack of a perceivable dramatic structure allows us a freewheeling exploration of a feminine zeitgeist, even if it is particular to a specific ethos.
Nights of shining armor
Akvarious’ other play, One Night Only, directed by Amey Mehta from a script he’s co-written with Nath Krishnan, shares some common ground with Dekh Behen—an audacious and sassy sisterhood (this time, with hijras), and a wedding backdrop of the transgender aravanis who “marry” the resident deity (Aravan) at the Koothandavar Temple in Koovagam, only to be collectively “widowed” the next morning. Documentary-style interludes evoke age-old rituals and life in the margins, and Mehta appears to get the pulse of an embittered community right. Juxtaposed against this is the relatively amateurish staging of the myth of Aravan, one of Arjuna’s sons, who was sacrificed, like so many young men, in the Mahabharata. Tonal inconsistencies aside, the play gives us a contemporary Mohini — Krishna’s feminine form, who marries Aravan on the night before his martyrdom. Played with great comic felicity by the effervescent Mukti Mohan, here, once again, traces of Nath Krishnan’s outlook of ‘slowly, softly’ feminine emancipation reveals itself, although less subtly worn on the sleeve this time.
True to its director’s choreographer credentials, One Night Only features production numbers galore, but one moment stands out. Mohan doubles up as a hijra who has prepared the Madhuri Dixit number, “Ek Do Teen”, for a talent show organized at the festival in Koovagam, and when she’s called in to perform to the frenzied refrain of “Mohini, Mohini” (as in the film, Tezaab) it’s an instance of a pop-cultural reference perfectly utilized in a play that is otherwise shorn of inspiration.
This article originally appeared in thehindu.com on September 4, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.