A trilingual take on Kipling
My first encounter with Kipling was with Rikki Tikki Tavi, from his collection of short stories published under the title Jungle Book, some sixty years after he had been honoured with a Nobel Prize. Much later when the Disney movie Jungle Book hit the Indian screens, I enjoyed the way some of those short stories had been woven into one narrative, though sadly RTT was not a part of it. Jungle Book is best known today as the adventures of the ‘man-cub’ Mowgli, and it is this version that this play brings on to the stage.
Let me not waste any time on the plot – most people already know it: a human child raised by the wolves, with some help from a bear and a panther, who protect it from other creatures in the jungle – and get on with this play.
Most of the characters in Rangbaaz Group’s Jungle Book speak English or Hindi or both. The Bandar Log seem to be the only ones who are trilingual, chattering in Marathi with each other. They sing various Hindi songs and play rhyming word games. If you had any doubt as to where the troupe was from, the monkeys put them to rest – they were from Bum-bay, sorry Mumbai. One of them even reminded me of my favourite Marathi comedian Ashok Saraf, sans his trademark moustache , which I understand has now parted ways with him. The Marathi used was simple and, accompanied by energetic escapades of the monkeys, elicited appreciative cheers from the crowd to such an extent that language did not really matter.
Mowgli and the girl, who finally enticed him away from the jungle with her come-hither glances, were quite cute. The Vulture puppets were deftly handled and their preferred mode of conversation was shaayari in Lakhnavi Urdu, though they did make an exception to croon in Punjabi pop “Sadde naal rahoge to aish karoge …”.
Sher Khan’s dramatic entry with a roar was welcomed by a kid in the audience with a wail. What reception can be more fitting? Sher Khan continued to snarl and growl as long as he stayed on stage, and the aggressive and defensive stances of animals during confrontations were done well.
Baloo the sloth bear lived up to his species’ reputation, with his penchant for siesta as he regularly dozed off. Bagheera was the steely mass of muscle and strength, but agile as one might expect any cat to be. The best performance, in my opinion, was from the actor who played the jackal Tabaqui and who also doubled as Kaa, slithering up and down a vertical path. Well, I will let you work that out or see it for yourself when you watch the play. But Tabaqui/Kaa was not the only actor rendering multiple roles: the head count at the final line up was about 12, but the number of characters essayed was around 20. There was one animal played by two actors. Try guessing which animal that might be.
Props and fluorescent lighting were used to good effect. Several ‘animals’, got off the stage and mingled with the audience, to the kids’ delight. The play had excellent live music, with a very good percussionist who played the jungle tattoos brilliantly, and a guitarist who also played the harmonium and gave vocal support.
The wheel has, indeed, come a complete circle: after being part of comic books and movies (both animation and otherwise), Jungle Book is being played by a troupe from Mumbai – the city which used to be called Bombay, when Kipling was born there. The play is scripted by Sumeet Vyas and directed by Shivani Tanksale.
Kids were welcome for this play and many adults became kids for the duration of the show. As they say in Hindi, it truly was Jungle me mangal …
 The answer to my poser: Hathi, of course, though we could not see the real face of the ‘rear’ actor.