- Staged by Lillette Dubey 
by Vasanti Sankaranarayanan, Chennai 

April 2002 

Recently the much acclaimed Lillette Dubey production of Mahesh Dattani's celebrated play, "Dance Like a Man was staged in Chennai at the Music Academy auditorium. 

The hall was full and expectations were high on all counts; Mahesh Dattani  is well known to Chennai audiences as Madras Players have staged many of his plays at different times. Dance like a Man itself was staged at Museum Theatre a few years back, directed by Mithran Devanesan. Mahesh himself has conducted theatre workshops in Chennai and is a very familiar figure. Lillette Dubey is also known to Chennai audiences through her film appearances in "Zubeida" and "Monsoon Wedding". Lillette Dubey’s production has also been staged as Supper Theatre by Taj Coromandel Hotel a few years back.   

During the Press Conference held by The Crafts Council, sponsors of the play in Chennai, vital details with regard to the play were revealed. The play has so far had 159 stagings; it has traveled to various cities in India and abroad. Prominent among the stagings were the ones in New York and in Edinburgh during the theatre festival. Rave reviews were given wherever it was staged. New York Times, prestigious for its theatre reviews has given it a good review. Yet, in spite of all that, this writer found it disappointing. Being probably the lone voice in this matter, it requires some explanation and substantiation. 

This play is of great importance to South India, especially Chennai, as the main protagonists are two Bharatanatyam dancers, past their prime and their reflections on the past and how it affects their present. Mahesh is exploring through this play two key aspects; the general inhibitions to a man taking dance as a career and that too a dance which is usually and traditionally performed by women; the relationship between a husband and wife who have, contrary to all public impression of being a happy and well suited couple, grown apart and have done enough harm to each other; how their own thwarted ambitions and frustrations affect their own daughter who is in love with a man who has nothing to do with the art scene at all. Mahesh, true to his tradition of writing has created various layers in this play. His language is very accessible as it is closer to the speaking rather than the literary language. There is humor, which can be understood by any viewer. But, beyond all that, there is pathos, the pathos of human predicament, which he explores in a subtle fashion. Most of the directors tackle Mahesh Dattani plays in a direct, upfront manner. They never bother to go beyond the lines and bring in the main emotion, the hidden pathos and irony that Mahesh expresses. Lillette Dubey, in her production has also done just that. To this writer, this is the bane of a Mahesh Dattani play - that directors tend to take the easy way out without fully exploring the intentions of the playwright. 

Mahesh deals with real life situations in his plays. So, the script and stage directions are always realistic. But, if the directors try to present it in a realistic manner, with no reflection, introspection and subtlety, the play becomes a comedy and nothing more. In the Lillette Dubey production, the sets and props on stage were too realistic and cluttered. The reproduction of an upper middle class drawing room reminded one of Parsi plays, which try to do the same. The sets detracted the audience's attention without contributing anything to the actual play. The sets were dead as far as the play was concerned. They did not give any energy to the players. In fact, the stage only limited  their movements and made them artificial. 

O.S. Arun provided the background music. The music by itself was not bad. But, what it did to the play was again distracting the attention of the audience from the main plot and emotion. The usage of Bharatanatyam notations and aalaps did not have any element of surprise in them. In fact, they only did the expected in such situations. The music was too loud and it overwhelmed the acting; it was almost as though the actors and the director were seeking the help of music to cover up the shortcomings in acting.  

But, the most disappointing aspect of the play was the quality of acting itself. Except for Vijay Krishna who took the role of the protagonist and his father, all the others were very disappointing. Lillette Dubey's acting took a downward plunge because she fell into the trap of showing a South Indian Bharatanatyam dancer as perceived by the rest of India. To say the least, it was stereotypical, parodying the gestures of a Bharatanatyam dancer and throwing tantrums like a shrew. If the aging dancers of the South like Padma Subrahmanyam, Chitra Visweswaran, Sudharani Raghupathy or Kalanidhi had witnessed this show, they would have protested  vociferously against this caricaturing of  one of their kind. The net result was that the actors managed to get a few laughs out of the audience; but, they failed to bring out the pathos or irony built into the play.  

This kind of surface exploration of sensitive plays actually does more harm than good to the playwright. The fact that audience reception was good wherever it went is not an encouraging factor. It only goes to show that the audience perception can easily be influenced by media hype and the glamour that surrounds anything which comes from Bombay.  Would justice ever be done to Mahesh Dattani and his plays by serious theatre directors and actors?   

Vasanti Sankaranarayanan, is a PhD holder from Madras University on the subject “Malayalam Cinema, Society and Politics of Kerala”. She has translated books from Malayalam to English and vice versa and has written some dance scripts. She is a freelance journalist and art critic.