‘Dreams of Taleem’ had an unusual opening. As Girish Karnad’s stentorian voice asking us to please switch off our mobile phones faded, Sunil Shanbag the director walked onto stage. He spoke of Chetan Datar, the playwright who wrote ‘No.1 Madhavbagh’ and who passed away suddenly in 2008. ‘No.1 Madhavbagh’ was a mother’s monologue, of her coming to terms with her son’s sexuality. ‘Dreams of Taleem’ is a lot more – written by Sachin Kundalkar, it is a play outside ‘No.1 Madhavbagh’ within which Chetan Datar’s original work gets enacted.
Sunil Shanbag spoke not like the director addressing an audience, but like one speaking to a friend. His five minutes on stage made an instant positive connect. They also helped to bring clarity to a fairly complex plot; we might have struggled to grasp what was going on without it.
The play opens with Yash (Anand Tiwari) rehearsing ‘No.1 Madhavbagh’, while the director Anay (Suvrat Joshi) looks on. We learn very soon that Yash and Anay are in a relationship, which is a reflection of the play they’re enacting.
An aging theatre actress Sita (Divya Jagdale – didn’t they introduce her as Divya Dutta? Has her name changed or did I mishear?) who had abruptly quit the stage and disappeared twenty years ago, resurfaces with a wish to take on "one last role" in Anay’s play. Anay is elated. Thus begin her rehearsals, intercut with reality. There is some exceptional writing in the portions where this overlap happens.
Sita’s whacko mother plays a major role in providing metaphors that link fantasy with reality. Like the toboggan in Calvin and Hobbes, she is a moving, comic counterpoint to weighty scenes, with her nonstop chatter and her wheelchair going in and out of stage. Many of her scenes do not have much relevance or logic, and the play would not have lessened in meaning without her, yet she was one of the best features of the play. Enacted superbly by Geetanjali Kulkarni, she gave us some laugh-out-loud moments that we talked about long after the play was over.
I wish I could say the same of the rest of the cast. Anay’s performance was very weak – at places such as when he read out the playwright’s mails, it made me squirm. He was decent enough in his phone conversation with his mother, though – perhaps the language made a difference. Among the leads, it was only Yash who stood out.
Through the course of the play, there are digs at the world of theatre – motivations that lead people to become part of it, their reactions to it and what makes them quit. The playwright makes his presence felt through his depressing-ominous emails. In another self-referential stroke, the playwright dies abruptly before Anay’s play is ready for stage.
‘Dreams of Taleem’ is written with panache and ambition. For all my niggles with it, I think it’s worth a watch for serious theatre buffs. And if you do see it, I’d like you to explain to me two things I did not quite get.
1. Why is the play trilingual? Wouldn’t it have worked better in only one language? The actors who played Sita and Ayan were clearly not comfortable with English, and it felt most natural when in the scene of their first meeting, Sita says a line in Hindi and Ayan quickly takes cue and turns to Hindi too. Later, when they become friends and have a much deeper conversation, it seemed forced and unconvincing that they would use English. Likewise, when Sita’s mother speaks Marathi, I don’t see the daughter having her side of the conversation with her in Hindi.
2. Why is the name of the play "Dreams of Taleem"?
PS: Divya Jagdale seemed very familiar. We recalled later that she had played the role of Ajay Devgan’s sister in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam.
PPS: If you believe that hair does not make much difference to a person’s appearance, check out Geetanjali Kulkarni with and without wig, and change your mind.