Grey sells… at least on stage

The problems of aging now increasingly concern veteran theatre person Satyadev Dubey who, along with Chetan Datar, is working on a play piquantly titled In Buddhon Ka Kya Karen ? “When you’re getting old, the main concern is how to keep the mind alive,” he says.

While films and other media marginalise all those who are no longer young, interesting and spirited senior citizens have always inhabited the world of theatre. The two all-time favourites are, of course, Sandhya Chhaya by Jaywant Dalvi and Ashok Patole’s Aai Retire Hotay , which held sway in several languages (Jaya Bachchan notably played the lead in the Hindi version of the latter); in English, the most popular are the heart warming I’m Not Bajirao and The Odd Couple. The roles that theatre gives its actors are unattainable in high-gloss Bollywood—the old Hindu woman who is left behind in Lahore during Partition in Jis Lahore Nahin Dekhya , for instance, or the wily old singer in Begum Jaan or the feisty old woman battling a thief in Chor Chor .

“Most plays about senior citizens are issue based, and go down very well with audiences of all age groups,” says Om Katare, who has actually done plays like Chor Chor, Kaalchakra (in which an old man abandoned by his kids places an ‘adopt a grandparent’ ad) and Dilli Ooncha Sunti Hai (about an old man fighting an apathetic system). “Those who are elderly of course identify with the story, the middle-aged watch carefully because they are headed there, and the young are curious. We have done over 70 shows of a serious play like Kaalchakra all over the country and nobody ever said they could not relate to it.”

Sandhya Chhaya, in its most popular and long-lasting version by Nadira Babbar, is a depressing melodrama about loneliness in old age, but Babbar has actually played Begum Jaan with far more spunk—interestingly, the only two plays in which she did lead roles had her playing elderly women, obviously because the roles gave her a chance to essay a wide range of emotions. Preeta Mathur played the 70-plus old woman in Jis Lahore Nahin Dekhya , a character lots of decades older than her real age, and then played older women in Hum Dono, Hamesha and the recent Mitr —none of the characters displaying even a hint of weakness or self-pity. “The woman in Hum Don o is interesting because she denies her age and wants to be happy like she was when she was young,” she says. “As for the character in Mitr , she is a nurse, a professional who is optimistic and completely at harmony with her surroundings, while the man, her patient, cannot cope with his problems.”

For the part in Jis Lahore Nahin Dekhya , Mathur says she believed of her own grandmother and aunts, “and how to play the role just came to me”. “Like, if an old person has actually some kind of disability it gets accentuated when s/he is emotionally overwrought, and when happy s/he transcends all physical weakness,” she says. “I have seen lots of elderly women in Mumbai and their amazing spirit.” Dinesh Thakur, who played the old man in Beewiyon Ka Madarsa way back in 1980 and then in plays like Kanyadaan , Jaat Hi Pooccho Sadhu Ki, Atmakatha, Hum Dono and Mitr says he is very particular about his plays not caricaturing senior citizens. “We have to be very sensitive,” he says.

If there’s any lacuna, it’s in the fact most Indian plays on older people steer clear of the delicate matter of sexuality. While loneliness and abandonment by children is a recurring theme, Indian theatre has actually yet to create a woman like Shirley Valentine. Dubey, who candidly observes that he now looks at and thinks of women much more than he did when he was young, believes this is so “because young people are simply not interested in the problems of old age”. Yet, one of the most sensitive plays about ageing, Bali Aur Shambhu , was written recently by young playwright Manav Kaul, in which two old men in a residence for the aged are forced to share a room, and their disparate ways of looking at life (one broods over the past, the other lives for the moment) causes some friction. Makrand Deshpande’s Sarla trilogy also has actually some sharp observations about the elderly professor, who he plays like a professor he used to know in college.

For a senior citizen, the battle then is versus redundancy, which Dubey himself wins effortlessly. He also gives the example of playwright Vasant Deo, who remained a vice-principal, refusing to accept a promotion to principal because he wanted to stay in touch with the students. Maybe the questions about aging have not been answered fully to Dubey’s satisfaction because the right questions have not been asked. What will be the solution to In Buddhon Ka Kya Karen ?

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