Naseeruddin Shah’s portrayal of Einstein should have made Canadian-born poet and playwright Gabriel Emanuel a household name in India. That it didn’t tells a lot about the sorry state of theatre in India. The customary attendance at Prithvi and NCPA, more often than not, is more of an intellectual pendant flaunted by the elitist SoBo brigade (and their deprived and desperate cousins from distant suburbs). Their applause, barring few exceptions, largely smacks of a theatrical love for theatre (befitting, they would claim). Having said that, the play was hailed by critics as Mumbai’s topmost stage production in 2014. That’s no mean achievement, thanks to the celestial, long-distance chemistry between Emanuel and Naseer that left audiences of all makes enthralled. Einstein is Emanuel’s most popular play that premiered at Toronto in 1985. Translated into more than a dozen languages, it has had a great run across the globe, winning accolades in the US, Brazil, Portugal, Israel, Argentina, Spain, India, Pakistan, Dubai among other nations.
Refer to https://coastaldelights.blogspot.in/2014/11/relativity-at-play.html for a NCPA show review and a dated tete-a-tete with the dramatist
Emanuel is back in India, bringing us Samuel Clemens, or Mark Twain as we know him better, in what promises to be another delectable stage offering. Following the premiere at the Prithvi on April 21, two shows are scheduled at the Padatik Theatre in Calcutta on April 24 and 29. A tour to other cities is in the works.
Being a lonely molecule, disillusioned at that, I am not adequately qualified to promote the play, more so after having made a royal mess of all private relations (blame my brief stint in public relations)
But I sincerely appeal to a few quintessential mavericks to go watch the play, if they are not aware already, and spread the good word in their circle of influence, based on a rather elusive rapport I share with them, having had some delightful email and text conversations on a host of issues - from Kosambi to Kishore Kumar, from Ray to Renoir, from Shaw to Shakespeare, from Bicycle Thieves to Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.
Among them, Manohar Parrikar, CM Goa who is currently in the US for treatment but sill very much accessible, Amar Ambani, partner at IIFL Wealth and a dear friend, actor director Naseeruddin Shah, star actor Aamir Khan, offbeat actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Ray biographer Andrew Robinson, Ray's photographer Nemai Ghosh, actor-psychiatrist Dr Mohan Agashe, film makers Tigmanshu Dhulia and Mansoor Khan, and a few casting directors from Mumbai.
Excerpts of my conversation with the prolific playwright:
After Einstein, what drew you to Twain, or to India, or perhaps both at the same time?
Ironically, I was drawn to Twain before Einstein. Years ago, I had written a one actor play entitled “Mark Twain in the Holy Land” which was about Twain’s visit to Palestine in 1867 which he wrote about in The Innocents Abroad. The play was to appear at a festival in Jerusalem but at the last minute the actor was lured away by an expensive film contract and the play got shelved. After watching Einstein at the Prithvi Theatre a few years ago, I suddenly recalled that Twain had also been to India and wrote about it in "Following the Equator”. Whereas the Palestine of the 19th century he had found to be desolate and mournful, India, for Twain, was “the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty of splendour and rags of palaces and hovels of a thousand religions and two million gods, the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of speech, the mother of history, grandmother of legend, the one land that all men desire to see…”
I was struck by Twain’s fascination with India and knew that this time, the play was meant to be. And no better place for the play to premiere but at the Prithvi Theatre. Indeed, I was amazed to discover that while Twain was touring around Bombay, he stopped to give an entertaining public lecture at the Novelty Theatre on January 24, 1896. Who knows? Perhaps the Novelty was the Prithvi of its day. And so, my play imagines what that magical evening must have been like…
What was your key source for the research - was it Twain's ‘Following the Equator’ besides books and chronicles about him?
Yes, to all the above but more important, perhaps, was simply having been a dedicated reader of Mark Twain since my youth. In Twain I had felt a kind of kindred spirit for I had been quite an unreformed rebel in my youth and Twain’s inimitable disdain for all those who exercised power and authority resonated well with me and my kind.
What makes Twain's visit to India a story for posterity, was it the fact that it was essentially a plan to recoup the heavy losses he and his investors incurred from his failed enterprise and yet it was profound in the manner Twain captured the India of that time in his memoir and the effect he had on the people here.
First of all, I think it’s always fun to see ourselves as others, in particular great wits like Twain’s, see us. For example, and I’m purposely not giving away anything here, when he describes the “spectacle” of the great train station in Bombay he says that “it seemed like the whole world was present, half of it inside and the other half outside…and both halves bearing mountainous head loads of bedding and other freight, trying simultaneously to pass each other, in opposing floods, in one narrow door.” And then you have to ask, how much has really changed in the past 120 years? And beyond the local observations lie his unsparing skewering of all things sacred: publishers, priests, and politicians, to name but a few. For example, he attacks the press for promulgating what is commonly referred to today as “fake news”. As Twain said, “If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed. But if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed."
How did you go about the reimagining? Could you share your approach and method for the benefit of aspiring dramatists?
I think that when an idea gets hold of you and doesn’t leave you, as with this play the core of which has been embedded in my brain for decades-that’s a sign that sooner or later you must become engaged and wrestle with it until you tame it and cajole it into some new shape and form with substance and life of its own. If the subject is based upon a real person or historical figure than it is essential to devour every bit of information that you can possibly absorb before you begin to write a word in order to painstakingly breathe life into the character. While the character is forming you need to become aware of his taking up residence within you. This may progress to daily conversations. After the extensive refining process comes to a halt, there may only be a small recognizable percent of the raw material which is preserved intact. But if the essence rings true it will pave a path for the character to finally emerge, warts and all. I don’t know if that makes any sense to anyone out there or whether it can benefit any aspiring dramatists. Probably not. More likely I have even depressed a few. But that is my method and what works for me may not work for someone else. Or, to paraphrase Twain when asked whether he had any advice for others how to reach old age cautioned that his own habits included drinking, smoking and a liberal use of profanity. “Those are the habits that protected my long life,” he said, “but they might assassinate yours.” In other words, you can’t necessarily write by adopting another’s method. You have to find your own.
Were you tempted to include characters like his wife Olivia and colleague Smythe as fellow characters?
Olivia was indeed the love of Twain’s life and she does figure at times in his thoughts in the play. It never occurred to have other characters acting in this play because Twain's presence is too commanding. Anyone else would be upstaged. It’s the same reason any actor worth his salt won’t set foot on a stage with a child or a dog. They know that all eyes will remain on the child or the dog.
How did you zero in on Padatik for the enactment? Were you aware of Vinay's profile or Padatik's legacy and body of work beforehand?
I was expecting this question and the honest to goodness truth is that I have no adequate answer. Mark Twain himself believed in something he coined “mental telegraphy”. I know I was first to initiate the contact with the talented Vinay Sharma and he immediately and proudly confessed to owning a moustache (a detail which I was unaware of, by the way.) How and why I arrived at his doorstep remains a mystery to the both of us. I have since become exceedingly impressed by the venerable artistic achievements of both Vinay and Padatik. But we have yet to meet in person and neither was Padatik’s legacy known to me at all before that first contact was made. It can only be explained as a surefire case of "mental telegraphy".
Your expectations from the India run…
On a personal note, I am greatly looking forward to returning to Mumbai and especially to the Prithvi Theatre. The Prithvi is one of those very special theatres and quasi-holy spaces which immediately envelops you in its aura of intimacy. Seeing Naseeruddin Shah perform “Einstein” there in 2015 was simply an unforgettable experience. I had no expectations at the time but the combination of Prithvi’s magic and Naseeruddin's brilliance produced one of those rare and magical evenings of live theatre whose sparks linger long after they have stopped flickering. I was also most impressed by the audience at the Prithvi. They are of various ages though predominantly young; all are full of energy. I am excited to bring something new to the Prithvi stage and audience and to bask in that theatrically charged pool of energy again.