Mahesh Dattani – The Invisible Observer

Mahesh Dattani

Act I

Koshy’s, a popular restaurant located on St Marks Road, Bangalore. This is the new improved Koshy’s where a lonely looking flower arrangement greets one and the exit and entrance have merged into a common door. But the walls remain the same – the colour of watered down chicken. And the chairs are covered with brown Rexene that on a warm days sticks to the skin.

A crowd of lawyers with the shut-in demeanour of Emperor Penguins on an ice floe argue; silent salesmen sip at a stealthy beer; a lone foreign tourist sprawled on a chair nurses an omelette, reading a book; a bunch of ferocious-faced women activists in khadi kurtas and terracotta earrings hold court; a young couple sit quietly brushing shoulders, entwining fingers; an old man in a tweed coat stirs sugar into his cup of coffee…

Waiters like silver -fish scurrying through the pages of an old book, dart between tables. Bottles glint from the bar at the farther end. Fans mounted high whir their heads this way and that. Laughter, the clink of cutlery, the scraping of a chair leg and stray words rise up to receive the audience.

I slide into place, perch my elbows on the table and stare at the world through the window. St. Marks Road trembles and trills with early noon traffic.

A waiter hovers. I say, ” I’m waiting for someone to arrive.”

Mahesh Dattani is forty-one years old. An age when most men have got around to acquiring wives, babies, a time-share in a holiday resort and a retirement plan. An age when all men began to encounter their fathers in their bathroom mirrors. An age when men let the relief of not having to worry about what comes next in life fill their insides and show as soft fleshy folds around their middles.

Mahesh Dattani sweeps into Koshy’s in a kurta-pajama clutching a jute bag that holds nothing beyond a few papers and a cell- phone. His face belies his age and there is something about his comportment that cocks a thumb at all the frill of middle class middle-agedom. Ironically it is the middle-class milieu, Mahesh Dattani has claimed for his own.

Heads swirl. This is the theatre personality Mahesh Dattani that young aspiring theatre types are forever hoping to meet and connect with. The creator of plays such as On a Muggy Night in Mumbai, Bravely Fought the Queen, Final Solutions, Dance like a Man. The Sahitya Akademi winner whom the Bangalore media and the regulars at Koshy’s woo.

A prince in his court, he stops at several tables to shake a hand, offer a cheek or sometimes he simply laughs in that distinctive way anyone who knows Mahesh Dattani will recognize. A nasal neigh that comes in three short bursts and if he is very amused, some more…

What does it mean to be a playwright? I ask.

“I see myself as a craftsman and not as a writer. To me, being a playwright is about seeing myself as a part of the process of a production. I write plays for the sheer pleasure of communicating through this dynamic medium.”

*Dattani began life as an advertising copywriter and subsequently worked with his father in the family business.

*He formed his theatre group Playpen in 1984 and directed several plays for them ranging from classical Greek to contemporary works.

These are facts that are offered for public consumption time and again just as the story of how Mahesh wrote his first full length play Where there is a Will in 1986. {The Deccan Herald play festival was on and Mahesh and his group were still searching for a play. At which point Mahesh pulled out the 10-12 hand written sheets of a play he had begun work on and the response to it was so encouraging that he went on to complete it and direct and act in it.]

Most writers begin with a short story collection or a novel. Why a play?

“I’m a reluctant playwright. I would choose to direct first before I write. But I wanted more plays written primarily in the English language for Indian audiences. In fact, I began by trying to adapt a Gujarati play ‘Kumarni Agashe’ [ Kumar’s Terrace] but it just wasn’t working.”

Mahesh Dattani had done it all. From acting to writing his plays to directing it to maintaining creative control when others produce/direct it. Rather like a chameleon he changes shades as he shifts from one role to another. Is there a conflict of interest somewhere at some point?

Does the actor in you battle with the playwright who battles with the director? Do you find yourself making compromises torn between the three roles?

“The actor, the playwright and the director are all complimentary to each other in a production. It is like gardening; where a whole is made of many parts. So many conditions determine a garden’s lushness, its beauty.

I write for an actor in the true sense of the word and not to pander to vanity actors. There is no theatre without an actor or an audience. Everything is geared towards ‘rasa’.

Which is why I always direct the first production of any play I write. That enables me to put in more stage instructions which goes on to become a kind of blue print for other directors. That way, there is no conflict”

The cell phone rings. All through our conversation, we have been interrupted several times. Later in the evening Mahesh Dattani’s book ‘Collected Plays’ published by Penguin is to be launched in Bangalore. Everyone who is anyone wants an invitation. Right now, it is going to be difficult to get behind the skin of Mahesh Dattani.

Act II

An upper class living room in a very nice part of Bangalore. Mahesh Dattani’s ‘Collected Plays’ have been displayed at vantage points. The focus is on a corner of the room where two chairs have been placed at angles to each other.

The guests – a film critic and his novelist wife, several actors, painters, members of a book club, corporate types, culture vultures begin to arrive and the rugs and floor cushions scattered on the ground, an L-shaped sofa, a chaise lounge begin to fill; a plump writer usurps the plump single sofa; for the latecomers there are several dining table chairs and even a high chair.

The two actors make an entrance and begin the reading of excerpts from the ‘Collected Plays’.

Mahesh Dattani the playwright is an observer. Whether it is in a stage play like On a Muggy Night in Mumbai or in the radio play Do the needful, the characters speak his words. But he maintains the position of an outsider and never allows himself room in the plays he writes. In many ways it is a reflection of the person he is – someone who is non-judgmental and hence the stance of an observer.

There is little attempt to advocate change or even convey a message.

Do you this do this consciously? I ask.

Mahesh thinks for a moment and carefully frames his reply. “Theatre to me is a reflection of what you observe. To do anything more would be to become didactic and then it ceases to be theatre.”

But by simply holding up a mirror to the society and by not showing the way, isn’t it expecting too much of an audience? That they formulate their own answers…

“Audiences need to make the effort. Unlike TV or cinema where the viewer doesn’t have to contribute, theatre is a collective experience.

In fact, at a moment of truth, you will find how people who don’t know each other join in from all corners of the darkened hall to applaud and declare their appreciation of that important moment. And that’s when you know a play works.”

The reading goes on with tremendous energy and as Mahesh claimed earlier, a moment of truth does arrive and the audience in the living room applauds.

But more than the theme of the play itself, what makes his plays highly enjoyable is his characterization. He knows the world he is talking about and shows it just the way it is – the hypocrisy, the prejudices, the dilemmas, nothing is spared. And yet, if there is a point where Mahesh stumbles, then it is when unconsciously the characters who have his sympathies end up much more resolved and developed even if they are not the principal ones. Sharad from On a Muggy Night in Mumbai. Anarkali from Seven Steps Around the Fire. Alpesh from Do the needful. I tackle him on this.

“Shouldn’t you be resolving your principal characters more than the ones who have your sympathies?”

“Where am I focussing? Where do I want the attention to be placed? If I were to present it to the audience the way I see it, they wouldn’t be able to connect. So they have to be taken through a journey of the familiar before they are presented with something that is totally alien.”

In the preface to the volume, Mahesh writes of how he is often accosted by the remark – ‘ It would make sense in Hindi or Kannada. Meaning, “we are not bigots, it’s those bloody vernacs who need to think about all this.” That too in the same breath as professing to be liberal-minded and secular.’

There is anger there and Mahesh minces no words when he says what makes him angry.

“I believe in justice and fairness and something that isn’t makes me angry. Just as prejudices too.”

The reading ends and a vociferous member of the audience has a whole list of questions for Mahesh. How on earth can someone who confesses to having seen only one of Mahesh’s plays generalize so blatantly? I wonder.

I haven’t seen too many of Mahesh’s plays either but I do have an advantage in having read the book from cover to cover.

Are plays meant to be read or performed? And when they are read, do you read them as you would perhaps a collection of short stories or try to remind yourself at every page that this was written to be performed.

In a volume, certain idiosyncrasies of the playwright come to light, which wouldn’t otherwise. Mahesh has his when it comes to names. Four names occur again and again in his plays and these names represent more than just syllables. Daksha is helplessness. Lata means confidence. Salim indicates a passivity and Praful is the uncle who can be depended upon. While this can be dismissed as a mere quirk, there is one aspect that requires serious attention.

In your plays, the traditional woman as the mother is portrayed with some contempt, be it Sonal of Where there is a Will, Prema Gowda in Do the needful, Baa in Bravely fought the Queen, Aruna in Final solutions. While the younger woman is depicted as a scheming problem solver; Lata in Do the Needful, Ratna in Dance like a Man, Bharati in Tara… In contrast, men are not treated with such disdain and are often shown to be as victims suffering from a woman’s machinations – Jairaj and Ratna, Patel and Bharati, Preeti and Hasmukh. Why?

“It’s to do with my perceptions. I don’t mean to say that this is a definitive view of life. But several of the images that we carry around in our minds are politically generated images and we accept them to be as true. However I don’t think so and my characters are simply a personification of my perceptions.”

Yet another feature of Mahesh’s plays are how there are no pat endings. All the plays end with a question in the audience’s mind. What is going to happen next? is something you’ll have to answer as you drive back home after watching a performance. Even more so when you read the plays back to back. But Mahesh has an answer.

“You can’t treat a play like a roller coaster ride which even at its most terrifying moment you know will end soon and quite happily when you hit terra firma. It’s only when you are left hanging in air you start to question your own personality, perceptions etc. Like I said before, the theatre is a collective experience and the audience have to finish in their own heads what the playwright began.”


Once this would have been called the outskirts of Bangalore. Now it is just another residential area. One side of the road is park with trees planted in symmetrical rows. A little signboard reads Mini Forest.

Half way down the road is a plot with very high mud walls shrouded in green. This is ‘Mahesh’s Studio’.

The gate leads to the mini amphitheater on the left. Three rows of semi-circular seating, spotlights, and high walls that are draped with Bougainvillea and jasmine. Straight ahead is the staircase with thirteen steps, a landing and then four more steps. The staircase is flanked on one side by plants. Morning glory, roses, geraniums… everything is green and bountiful.

Mahesh’s Studio is exactly what it set out be. A creative person’s retreat and living space. The accent is on art and craft without being expensive – naked brick walls, mirror work cushions, notices of Mahesh ‘s plays framed, masks, terra-cotta figurines etc. Inside is a tall and spacious room where theatre workshops are held.

Once upon a time Mahesh Dattani had a dream. The Studio. A place where he could be who he was and do what he likes to do best. Whether it was to work on a play or stage a small production or conduct a theatre workshop or simply host an art exhibition.

And now that dream has been realised. It is here Mahesh writes; using a computer. In fact, Mahesh admits that he is a disciplined and hard working writer and if it weren’t so, he wouldn’t be as prolific as he was. Like all creative souls, he has his pattern. He works best in the mornings and begins the thinking process from the bathroom.

I look around me; the beauty of Mahesh’s studio overwhelms me. In many ways, this is every creative person’s dream. A place of one’s own. And to be able to live off one’s art. There is no compromise here. The day job is also the ruling passion.

“Oh, I couldn’t live off writing plays alone. I supplement my income by teaching and conducting workshops,” Mahesh says when I tell him how fortunate he is to be a full-time writer.

But it would be silly to treat that as a complaint for Mahesh is merely correcting my perception of his life. And once again I am struck by how much at peace he seems to be with himself.

“What makes you happy?” I ask

“When I’m directing a play, I feel like I’m a complete human being. That makes me happy. And also when I meet people with a passion. It reaffirms all that I do.

I’m enjoying what I’m doing and I don’t want to do anything else.”

Mahesh Dattani as a playwright will never be a brand. His plays have varied content and varied appeal. His characters seldom mouth lines, which will be quoted by just about everyone. Nor does his thematic content rise to extraordinary heights. But what makes Mahesh Dattani one of India’s finest playwrights is in the manner that he speaks to the audience straight from the heart.

Much as his plays make commercial sense, his expectations of his audience is high and therein lies the difference between art and commerce. He does not provide ready-made solutions or fully resolved endings.

He aims not at changing society but only seeks to offer some scope for reflection in the hope that his plays will give the audience some kind of insight into their own lives.

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