"Mark Twain: Live in Bombay!"
Written by Gabriel Emanuel
Staged by Padatik-Rikh
Photo courtesy: India Today
At the outset, thanks to Gabriel for the wonderful reimagination of an actual event that dates back to the Bombay of 1896. It's always easy to pinpoint subjective flaws in hindsight but it takes both craft and conviction for a purposeful recreation rooted in history. Twain's three-month visit to India was essentially a plan to recoup the heavy losses he and his investors incurred from his failed enterprise and yet it was profound in the manner Twain captured the India of that time in his 712-page travelogue Following the Equator, and the effect he had on the people here. That a voyage to a deprived nation should stem from an economic necessity is a story worthy of dramatization, and given Twain's wit and wisdom, a tale for posterity indeed. Gabriel's adaptation hence assumes greater significance, in that it urges the audience, Indians in particular, to look back and learn more about the peculiarities of India from Twain's perceptive quips. The more you delve deep, the more you would agree nothing much has changed here, even though a lot appears to have.
Vinay Sharma's version of Samuel Longhorne Clemens - white suit, untidy hair, shaggy eyebrows, furrowed face, probing eyes, nasal drawl et al - is engaging in flashes - especially in the parts where Mark spares his inimitable tongue-in-cheek advice for the youth of the time, or makes a few perceptive 'India' observations. But ahead of Sharma's effort, though a feat of sorts given that he pervaded the stage for a good ninety minutes, it's Sudip Sanyal's astute lighting that spins more magic through its wonderful variations. Just to cite an instance, note the 'illumination' of the book atop the table at the very end, as if speaking on Mark's behalf: "Mark my words as you leave the auditorium".
Sharma is first-rate in his personification but you hardly feel he's addressing a Bombay crowd of a bygone era. We may be wrong but we heard 'Mark' make a mention of his wife's demise in the play. If she was alive during the Bombay visit (Twain reportedly traveled with his wife Olivia, daughter and a colleague, Mr. Smythe) why should this reference find a place in the script?
Besides, Sharma's talk unknowingly takes the form of a know-all sermon as he moves from one handpicked reference to the other, and is hardly consistent with the acquired diction and intonation. (The 'Baaambay' gets a bit put-on at times) This comes as a great disappointment when we learn that Twain preferred an informal, conversational style for his talks which he referred to as "At Home." An essay titled 'Mark Twain's Little Known Travels in India' published in the April 1996 web magazine edition of the Hawaii-based Hinduism Today informs us that Twain tailored each talk to suit the sensibilities of the given audience. A Bombay newspaper had this to say about Twain's Bombay lecture "With his feet planted some distance apart and a hand sometimes in his trousers' pockets, elbow sometimes placed against his cheek and supported by the other arm whilst his eyes oftener than not gazed as he would in the presence of a group of familiar friends and never once raised his voice above a conversational pitch."
Sharma's rendering is not even remotely "At Home". It even sounds glaringly rehearsed in one longish, over-vehement Pap-Huck enactment, a passage from Twain's profound work "Huckleberry Finn" (No wonder, Hemingway famously remarked "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.")
Sadly, Sharma goes overboard both as Pap and Huck, but the crown for his most fanciful portrayal must go to the 'Golden arm' narration. This being a rather preposterous folktale condemning the perils of avarice (one that faintly reminds you of Tagore's Lost Jewels), winning the listener's attention called for more zing than what Sharma assumed. Luckily for him, he was helped by many flashy enthusiasts among the audience who seemed keen, nay desperate, to underline their incredibly-timed guffaws as living proof of their gushing intellect and interest. The 'Golden Arm' bit was God sent for this tribe and, not surprisingly, fetched a thundering applause.
While we feel audience involvement as volunteers is a great idea, it runs the risk of fanning the inherent desire of many craving for their moment of glory, which could disturb the play's conviction if not dilute it. Thankfully, the volunteer chosen for the occasion (with the customary preface "That lovely lady in so and so dress") didn't add her own histrionics to Sharma's ghastly rendering of the ghost story. In the play on Einstein, one frisky remark 'You remind me of my first wife' prompted a needless response from the volunteer and ended up trivialising the story of Einstein. As it is, for a large part of the audience, watching a play on Einstein/Mark is more a staged exhibition of their 'intellectual' propensities than an earnest desire to know the scientist/writer better. It should come as no surprise if they pounce on anything that even remotely sounds frivolous.
However hard one tries to dismiss the temptation, one is inclined to compare Sharma's Mark with Naseer's Einstein. The latter was a vastly superior portrayal and left enough to savour long after Naseer was done with it. Thanks to Naseer's studied approach - an intricate mix of discipline and discretion, intuition and insight, effort and facility - Einstein came alive on stage through an engaging monologue with his audience that underlined Einstein's diverse emotions - delight, despondency, reminiscence, regret, fear, fulfilment, belief, bewilderment, guilt, and gullibility. Sharma would do well to learn from Naseer's reflective utterances of the celebrated Einstein aphorisms (with a delightful German twang), undoubtedly a case study in effortless acting. Playing legends on screen and stage is more about bearing the weight of responsibility, not throwing that of authority.
The flip side of the Padatik production notwithstanding, it was great to note the almost full house that greeted Mark Twain at Prithvi. We hope Gabriel Emanuel's love for Mark Twain will motivate the younger populace to probe deeper into the reflective realism of Huck Finn, mesmerising romanticism of Tom Sawyer and piercing pessimism of The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson. Else, much of Twain's timeless works would remain classics as he defined them: books that people praise and don't read!