What would happen if the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan had to rule modern-day India? Would the rumour of chopped arms still perpetuate or would the Taj Mahal even have been built?
Aaina Dramatics’ main production for this semester brings to you a satirical take on the socio-political issue of widespread corruption, a concern which has now grown deep-rooted in the present-day functioning of the country. The play attempts to put across a relevant message without sermonising the audience.
Set in the 21st century, ‘Taj Mahal Ka Tender’ explores the yearnings of Shah Jahan, portrayed by Varun Kapoor, to erect a tomb in memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The plot revolves around the obstacles he faces as he battles through corruption, chicanery, and red-tapism in the government. After entrusting his Chief Engineer to build the memorial, his attempts to ensure progress in the construction of the monument go in vain. Several hysterical episodes follow, showcasing the helplessness of the emperor as he only lives long enough to witness the tender for the monument being passed.
The act begins with a strong narration and introduction of characters, laying the foundation for a gripping play. The story is surprisingly driven by the intense performances of Devansh Sood, who plays Guptaji – the king’s Chief Engineer and his deputy Sudhir, portrayed by Attreya Diwedi, who together hatch a plan to sanction funds from the royal treasury. Ensuring their own pockets are filled and not paying much heed to the king’s desires, they propose the formation of a Taj Mahal construction company before starting to build the monument itself. Convincing the king that this company will pave the way for the completion of the desired monument, Guptaji and Sudhir cater to their own greed the whole time. Ultimately, decades go by, and not a single brick is in place. Their accomplice Bhaiyyaji, a Haryanvi contractor, depicted by Prateek Singh, reminds us of Vijay Raaz’s trademark roles, and stands out with his unique intonation and dialogue delivery, as he leaves the audience in splits with every sequence.
The choice of venue — a temporarily prepared stage and an open seating arrangement — initially raised doubts of viability amongst the audience. However, the clever usage of the surroundings left everyone in awe. Fire lit torches, Campus Patrol’s cameo, and Bhaiyyaji’s observation of easy releases from jail (read, two days in Jodhpur), whilst standing under a tree disseminating knowledge capture the raw spirit of the play.
The set shuttles between Shah Jahan’s durbar and Guptaji’s office as the supporting cast of various darbaris and bodyguards comes into the picture. They play their parts well with not much to offer individually but coming out powerful as a unit.
The transition between modern-day English and traditional Urdu, as the characters deliver dialogues, is smooth and adds to the flavour of the overall theme, instead of making a mockery of itself. A common challenge which all new-age adaptations face is presenting a fresh rendition of the same script without destroying too much of the original’s authenticity. A beautiful juxtaposition of these aspects, the directors, intricately handle nuances. For example, colloquial English just garnishes the dish without being exorbitantly overpowering.
One of the distinguishing aspects of theatre from films is the absence of a fourth wall between the audience and the artists. Theatre gives you the flexibility to enter into the crowd and involve your audience within the story. A testimony to this positive engagement was the quick reaction of the crowd as they switched on their phone flashlights when a technical glitch led to complete darkness on stage. Professionally handled by the artists, they incorporated the sequence of events into the script, delivering an incredibly natural performance.
While many might argue that the cast consisted of stereotypical characters from across the subcontinent, in my opinion, none of them were projected in a bad light. Developing a style to distinguish characters quickly is a challenge in most theatrical performances, primarily due to their short format. The directors subtly make use of the diversity of India to ease this process without having to mock any community or tradition.
While all the actors delivered power-packed performances, my personal favourite was Angkrish Gujral’s character of a peon (chaprasi). A seemingly insignificant role with hardly any dialogues; he catches the audience’s attention with his sardonic expressions towards authority. Occasionally walking on the set, serving tea and cleaning the furniture he makes his presence felt without having to utter a single word.
Dr Srikanth Rao, Director, MIT, exclaimed how thrilling he found the entire performance and appreciated the production for choosing a venue on campus, instead of venturing outside. The only disappointing feature of the night was a mediocre turnout as a huge chunk of chairs lay empty. The amount of dedication, commitment, and effort which goes into setting up a play; starting from the casting to its final execution deserves at the very least a sold-out show. A well-adapted script, with subtle references to current happenings and a personalised Manipal touch, the play was magnificently executed and rightly earned the standing ovation it received at its culmination. In the end, we look forward to more such plays, at more regular intervals.
Written and Reviewed by Abhishek Mishra for MTTN.
Play directed by Khushveer Sharma and Aaryan Tandon.