I begin 2019 with the same paragraph I ended 2017 with. Over the last few years, it has become something of a tradition for me to conduct an informal year-end poll with regards to what plays people really liked in the year gone by. It started as a wide sample and slowly became a moderately sized sample of people from the theatre itself because they tend to be the hardest to please. So, if they’re vouching for something, it must be worth its salt.
The votes from 2018 came in, and the following are the results.
In my last year-ender, I had said that 2017 was the Year of the Woman. So it seems only fitting that the play leading the 2018 list (by neck and shoulders) has an all-woman cast and crew (yes, lights, sound, backstage, everything). The only man is the producer: me. Perhaps the results of last year inspired me to produce an all-woman play, and early in 2018, Dekh Behen was born.
Written by Dilshad Edibam and Tahira Nath, directed by Prerna Chawla and Shikha Talsania, the show has done 43 shows, 4 cities, 10 months, with 40 shows sold out in advance.
It remains one of our biggest hits of recent times and shows no signs of slowing down. The play is set in one room, during a wedding sangeet, where five bridesmaids hang out and speak about everything under the sun, but mostly about their common dislike for the bride. I can be objective and say that, for a change, urban Indian women have been written about authentically and sound like real urban Indian women. This has clearly resonated with audiences.
Leading last year was Motley’s The Father, featuring Naseeruddin Shah in the title role. It slipped this year to the second spot. Meanwhile, D for Drama’s Dhumrapaan, which held second place last year, slipped to third place, where it tied with another Motley production featuring Naseeruddin Shah—The Truth by Florian Zeller (the same playwright as The Father)—who co-directed the play with Ratna Pathak Shah.
Again, Motley did month-long runs of this play and played to packed houses. Radically different from The Father, which is a serious drama about mental illness, The Truth is actually a comedy about adultery. It was apparently a conscious choice to go with something significantly less intense, and audiences lapped it up.
Dhumrapaan, a dark comedy set in the corporate world, won the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Award for the Best Original Script in 2018 and has been chugging along nicely since, having now performed over 50 shows across seven cities. I believe that a publication of the script and a Marathi adaptation are in the works.
Tied at No. 5
Tied in fifth place are two plays that really are at opposite ends of the spectrum. One is a one-woman, devised piece of theatre, while the other is a mammoth musical, full of razzmatazz and technical wizardry. Jyoti Dogra’s Notes On Chai is an experimental piece that juxtaposes everyday banal conversations centered on tea with sounds inspired from the chanting techniques of Tibetan monks and Western overtone singing techniques. It is a unique experience, but one which has left everyone who watches it greatly impressed with the concept and the physicality.
Sharing a spot with it is Sing India Sing, a massive production touted as India’s first original musical. The brainchild of Bugs Bhargava Krishna and Rahul DaCunha, with music by Clinton Cerejo, the project was in the works for a while, finally opening with a bang, expertly directed by Nadir Khan.
Set inside a reality show, the play navigates through rivalry and politics and the contestants’ backstories, stitched together by some spectacular singing, and ending with the audience voting live. I doubt there could be a more contrasting tie anywhere ever.
So those were the top six. I usually mention the next five as well, but there’s six there too, owing to more ties. From last year’s line-up, Patchwork Ensemble’s Ila finally dropped off the list after a couple of years, but its choreographer Amey Mehta went on to direct his first play, One Night Only, which made it into the next five of this list.
Broadly it qualifies as a dance drama but it’s actually a comedy which has dance and deals with the transgender community and its fascinating connection with the Mahabharata.
Last year, Aadyam plays didn’t quite make it to the list, but this time two have managed to climb in.
Sing India Sing made the top five, and Atul Kumar’s Detective Nau Do Gyaarah made the next five. A comic thriller in the vein of the famous international production of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, this won over audiences with its energetic ensemble and ingenious craft.
Motley clearly had a fantastic year, because their production of Aurat Aurat Aurat, based on selections from Ismat Chugtai’s autobiography, got enough votes to get them into this list thrice. Faezeh Jalali’s Shikhandi slipped off the list, but her new play, A Farming Story, just about made it. And rounding the list off is another tie — Gaa Re Maa (produced by Isshita Arun, directed by Anahita Uberoi) with the Disney spectacle Aladdin.
Do catch these shows if they’re happening around you and see if they deserve the love they got here. I really should sign off now. I have a feeling I have crossed my word limit, but I’m pushing my luck. After all, 12 plays made the top 10, audiences flocked back to the theatre, and accepted very varied content. (And, ahem, I produced the play that got the maximum votes!)
This article was originally published in The Hindu on January 12, 2019, and has been reposted with permission.