Once upon a time, you often hear in India, we had a fine tradition of plays and music. I could be wrong (very likely), but the tradition naturally progressed to black and white musicals, and so forth. But with the introduction of 'formula' films, which have been around for longer than our parents care to remember, theater had to compete with cinema, which has bigger budgets, and bigger everything. The one count on which most plays won this hopeless battle hands down, was with their story. That has been the case with most plays. But if 'Zen Katha', which played at Prithvi over the weekend, ever had a case, it would be thrown out of court without a hearing.
For 6000 unthinkably slow seconds (1 hour 40 minutes) , we watch Dharma's life unfold like a snot-filled tissue. Dharma, we are told, by his guru - who stares into the vast black space above the audience when the dialogue demands introspection, or resolve, or seriousness, or humour, or anything - is a quick man whose quest to expand his knowledge is without limit.
Too bad then, that Dharma is played by the thickest log seen in these parts since Big Moose. He is a troubled child, afflicted by asthma, but grows to become the greatest fighter in his father's kingdom. Nearly killed by his father when he was born undernourished, Dharma sets his sights on bumming about the world after he's done with studying. He does so, and returns to India years later a new man. But he stays for only a short while, departing for China soon after, much to the horror of Sandhya Mridhul, who likes the guy and can't take no for an answer. They first meet with a lavish temple set behind them, and later in front of vinyl printouts of Chinese mountains, which signifies how far they've come.
You know what happens then. I hope you do, because at some point the characters got more interesting than the play and I was - quite frankly - more interested in the Chinese emperor who not long ago was playing Dharma's guru and presently had the misfortune of losing half his elaborate moustache before a distracted audience. The giggles were delightful.
Then there was the tantric who later turned up in two other roles that required a quick change of dress. Each time he exited the stage in a hurry, you just knew he'd be back in a few minutes in a new costume. So unfortunate was the play that he'll be remembered as the man who got into a fight with Dharma and had to utter nonsense such as, "Aha, the chicken move! Aha, the snake move! Aha, the lion move I see!" followed by, "I will not forget this humiliation," which more or less summed it up for him. What historical pulp must have been excavated for these lines.
Lilette Dubey, the director of the play, requires a new canvas. Between scenes, the actors rearranged the furniture for the following scene. It didn't help the tantric's cause at all. Little wonder he lost his scrap. And then there was the original score, which sounded like it would take off at some points, but stayed at synthesiser level most of the time. However, it only added to the play, building up with the suspense (will this play end or not?) right until Dharma dies just before the end. Not being a keen student of mythology, religion or Indian history, from the mumbling on stage I could tell he had disappeared in a wisp of smoke. Upon learning this (about Dharma), the Chinese emperor - now with firmly glued facial hair after a short stint backstage - suffered palpitations and agreed Dharma was the real deal. He stared into the distance and, in an accent reserved for racist jokes in college canteens, declared Dharma's teaching true.
Moral: Lilette Dubey's Dharma exports religion to China, and our markets are flooded with cheap goods in return ever since.
So where did good theater go? Where's the charm and the originality of English theater? Lavish budgets, this play proved conclusively, make for a better set, but not much else. Critics will believe and harp on how theater needs an inflow of cash. Sure it does. But an inflow of ideas, for a start, could help their own cause. As a medium, it's dynamic, it's personal, and it's absolutely engaging. In Finding Neverland, Dustin Hoffman, playing a financer who just lost a lot of money on a JM Barrie play, stares at the stage being dismantled and tells Barrie, "They...the critics...they changed the meaning of it. What's it called?"