The Park’s THE OTHER FESTIVAL - 2003
Music. Dance. Drama. Art. You.
December 1-7, 2003, 7pm
Chinmaya Heritage Centre, Harrington Road, Chennai

Saturday, Dec 6, 2003

“Sufiana” (Theatre / Group)

Duh Phoenix Philosufi
by Ranjith Bhaskar
Photos: Lalitha Venkat

December 7, 2003
The curtain rose on a Mulla Nasruddin dialogue with unseen voices. Salim Ghouse, who played Mulla in this Phoenix Players production titled ‘Sufiana’, was on his back with his head hanging down the side of a step on the platform. Wonder what the surprised audience looked like from there.

From the handout: (Like the Koan of the Zen masters, the Sufi divines use the persona of the wise fool as a means to effect a breakthrough, to a higher learning and understanding. The Mulla therefore, is variously portrayed as profoundly intelligent, wilfully capricious or downright stupid. Sufiana is a contemporary perspective of the delightful Dervish’s escapades that have entertained and enlightened the world through the ages.)

Ghouse blitzed through the performance, supported by adept role-play by his wife Anita, and Rakesh Iyer, both of whom donned multiple roles. Backed by a strong script, the Players glided smoothly through scenes with effortless transition.
Salim, the man, has an air of superiority and a self-declared knowledge-guru aura that was evident in the manner in which he turned the usual after-performance Q & A session into a philosophical discourse. A befuddled audience, nevertheless, participated enthusiastically in what turned to be Mr. Ghouse holding court.

Salim, the actor, was guilty of impregnating Mulla with his offstage persona. As a result, Mulla came across as slightly stiff and the humour looked forced. To start with, Salim’s Mulla was quite unlike the jolly, rotund, really-idiot character that many in the audience carried in their memory, from books they read as kids. Salim is solid, purposeful and looks a very serious, practical man. The problem was in the fact that Salim looked incapable of extroverted, self-deprecating humour. This ability to laugh at himself was what characterised the Mulla of those famous anecdotes. Salim is not a natural joker. He is more like Shah Rukh Khan in reverse. The Khan is a great comic, but hams barefacedly in his melodramatic roles.

Anita played Mulla’s wife to perfection. She brought sparkling spontaneity to the role of a woman who is quite resigned to her husband’s uselessness. Her comic timing and expression upstaged Salim’s theatrics. Rakesh Iyer, playing a variety of characters, showed a talent for subtle slapstick.

The script was well written, with society, politics and life finding their way into the lines. The repartees though, were mostly clichéd, and sometimes, stale. But apart from these attempts at clever tongue-in-cheek, Salim did come up with a few winners. The scenarios were placed intelligently, without insulting the sensibilities of the audience. They were constructed pretty decently too, like the ass (donkey!) auction and the meeting with the woman philosopher.

What was completely out of place was the 1-minute martial arts exhibition at the end of the performance. It didn’t have any relation to the play, and was probably done to showcase Salim’s Tai Chi skills. Maybe martial training takes the humour out of a person. What’s that? Jackie Chan? Never heard of him.

It was an enjoyable outing for the audience. Even though it was humour-theatre with a straitjacket-ed Mulla right out of Shakespeare, the play was good for a substantial quantity of laughs. I laughed too. Seriously!

Ranjith Bhaskar lives and works in Chennai and can be reached at
The Other Festival,
Dec 1-7, 2003-Daily coverage