Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Two Special, But One More than the Other

Joshi and Oak in a promotional still
A few weeks ago, in a very cramp-seated Dinanath Mangeshkar Natyagriha, I watched the much acclaimed  Special. The play has been winning accolades across the many Award Functions that the Marathi industry generates. It is a matter of great pride for me how for years the vernacular news papers and TV channels have been giving theatre just as much importance as films. Because the 'Star' culture in Marathi is a bare minimum, these awards are also often much more credible than their counterparts on Hindi GECs. Which is why, I had a lot of expectations from  Special (a play my mother was watching for the second time and my mom's judgement of the arts is something I trust a lot). While most of the play did live up to expectations, a certain aspect left me massively confused and even worried.

The play opens in a very elaborate box set. A sound track featuring jingles from the late 80s tell us what year this is. A young fanboy (watch out for this boy!) waiting for News Editor Milind Bhagwat (Jeetendra Joshi) very tactfully tells us everything we need to know. So Bhagwat is an honest, hard-hitting, wordsmith journalist. Enters Meenu Jog (Girija Oak), his former lover and intern, and somebody who married well. Oh and yes, she's dumped him 10 years ago. If that isn't enough drama, she's also a PRO of the company against which Bhagwat is writing an article.

In this 10 years, Bhagwat has been fired, broke, gotten married, has a son and survived the accidental handicap of his son (all perfectly put in places to make us feel bad for him) and done everything except forgiven Jog. He tells her how she ruined everything for him and keeps hurling taunts at her but surprisingly is in no mood to listen to her side of the story.

She on the other hand maintains her dignity for most of the play and once when he's holding her by her shoulders sharply tells him how she left because this imposing that he does. I want to applaud. Here is a strong female character from 1989 refusing to be subjugated by anything. Here on however, the writer seems to have lost out of the courage he had handed to the woman. She proceeds to tell him how cruel fate played games, how she was molested, almost committed suicide, was married off out of pity (thus making her infinitely grateful of the man who 'accepted' her), has to support her marriage financially and is still getting sexually harassed at work. And she's pregnant.
Oddly enough, that works excellently in balancing out both sides. Sure the guy had to wait tables at a beer bar, but the girl almost got raped so it's okay. All this is enough for the guy to reconsider printing the news that will cost her her job as a PRO.
Because she wasn't as evil as he thought all these years, situations forced her to do that. God forbid if she had left him because he suffocated her. That would be utterly shameful to the entire female race.

The dialogues are great, the characters are well shaped, the pace works. The problem lies in how easily we have accepted the fact that a woman must have a terrific explanation for the incorrect decisions she takes. Even better if she is strong enough to not offer them for very long, because she can't sound defensive. Here I must mention, that the story of how her sister forced her to go to Mumbai (where the ill-fated incident happened) has no other relevance to the play.

The other problem I have with the play, (though not as big as the first one) is the not-very-subtle names. His newspaper is called Hindustan Daily. Her company is called India Builders. His newspaper used to be an honest supplement but commercial companies like hers have brought that honesty down. This just feels like another addition to India Versus Hindustan cliché that seems to convey that manipulation, capitalization and dishonestly are all Western values corrupting the Indian ones. The play is set in the wake of Privatization and Liberalization in the country, also an era that marks the changing face of journalism. Which is why every time Bhagwat starts his cry of helplessness it feels like a complaint against the modern values, something that has somewhat become a very common theme in Marathi fiction. 

Over the last two years some of the most popular shows on Zee Marathi have displayed themes like a woman managing to win the love of her bipolar, aggressive husband, a woman accepting the man she's been married off to, because her lover turned out to be a cheat and a woman managing to find perfect balance between her six mother-in-laws while also converting her evil step-mom.

'Don't Worry, Be Happy', a play I saw some two weeks apart from 2 Special is extremely modern, relevant and yet manages to end on the working woman returning to her household and husband, despite how visibly bad they are for each other. My mother returned home after watching the widely popular 'Selfie' and declared that she was super-confused about if the play actually advocated things like how a woman must stay with her family and maybe not have an abortion even if she's a working actress.

On the other hand, there's a play like Samudra, a story from the early 80s that talks about the wife's infidelity. The very mature and progressive play somehow manages to turn a blind eye to the fact that the husband violently attacks his wife who ends up making peace with him.

The problem is, that all of these plays are actually progressive. They have modern characters, ideals, conversations and scenarios. They hardly endorse traditional values that need to be let go of. Marathi plays have always upheld strong female characters right from Tendulkar's Sakharam Binder and Elkunchwar's Party. But the worrisome part remains these unintended, perhaps subconscious portrayals of women who must either conform or have a reasonable explanation. 
And sadly, that remains not a problem with just plays, but extends to most of our societies as well.

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