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Prithvi Festival 2019: Bone of Contention is a motor-mouth hysterical farce, as the crow flies

Prithvi Festival 2019: Bone of Contention is a motor-mouth hysterical farce, as the crow flies

A comedy is what you would automatically expect from a theatre group that calls itself FATS theARTS, and a comedy it is. A farce to be precise. A nod to Molière, the full name of the play seen on 09 November at Prithvi Theatre was Bone of Contention in Cosmopolitan Co-Operative Housing Society. That’s quite a mouthful, and every character in the play had a mouthful to offer, over the 90-minute drama, staged without an interval.

Set in one of Mumbai’s housing co-operatives, and focussing on the residents of five of the flats (apartments) of the society, it is narrated by a housemaid named Kalpana, who travels two hours each way from the distant Mumbai suburb of Nalla Sopara to do the housework in these five flats. She introduces us to the residents, the Chairman and the Secretary of the society and to herself, in some detail. They consist of a Jain Brahmin family, an oldman and his (divorcé) son and effeminate grandson, a Parsee ‘family’ comprising two old ladies and a dog, a Muslim couple and their 23 year-old, rebellious daughter, and a Christian family consisting of a separated woman, her son and her vegan, green crusader daughter (both appear to be in their late teens).

Trouble starts brewing when a crow drops a large bone (remember the title of the play?) in the pure vegetarian Jain family’s balcony. Outrage ensues, after which the patriarch asks Kalpana to throw the bone into the Christian balcony, where, he thinks, it came from. It is lent, when they do not eat meat, and they are outraged too. Assuming that the dog did it, Kalpana, who is now in their flat, is asked to toss it ‘back’ into the Parsee premises. They, in turn, presume that meat-eaters, the Muslims, must have indulged in this mischief. So, the omnipresent Kalpana is asked to send it back to ‘where it came from’.

Now, all four families are up in arms and a battle royale ensues, across the balconies, with the denizens calling each other choice names. All of them agree that this is a serious matter and that it should be reported to the Chairman, a half Irani half Punjabi doctor, who is single and wears the doctor’s white coat and the stethoscope at all times. He and his assistant, a man they call (man?) Friday, face a barrage of protests from all the affected parties, on the landline, the intercom and the mobile phones. Since no easy solution is possible, the Chairman calls a Special General Body Meeting, with a single point agenda: the Bone of Contention. At the meeting, a second, more intense round of accusations and counter-accusations follows, with several skeletons in the respective cupboards of the residents tumbling out.

An alumnus of the J.B. Petit School, Mumbai, Faezeh Jalali attended Beloit College in Wisconsin, USA, where she studied theatre arts. Jalali went on to obtain a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Tennessee. She is theatre, TV and film actor, a writer and a casting director. Her screen appearances include Qissa, Kurbaan, The President Is Coming, Slumdog Millionaire, Mr. Ya Miss, Waterville (made in the USA). Faezeh Jalali is the writer-director of Bone of Contention. Audiences also fondly recall her 2017 production, Shikhandi: The Story of the In-Betweens which dealt with questions plaguing Indian society, like patriarchy and societal pressures, and gender identity.

Of all the problems in putting together a play, the biggest, she says, is finding the funds. While doing 07/07/07, a 2016 play about the Iranian woman, Reyhaneh Jabbari, who was put behind bars for stabbing a man, who tried to rape her, the producer backed off halfway through the project and it had to be crowded. Faezeh is one of five sisters and one brother, and none are involved in theatre or any other art. A fourth generation Iranian living in India, she trained in Bharat Natyam, which must surely be a rarity among Iranians anywhere.

“At best, this play, is hysterical. At worst, it is pure noise,” Jalali told a newspaper. It is both: hysterical noise, rattled off at a speed that would make any Radio Jockey blush self-consciously. Normal speech is intelligible at 120-180 words per minute. RJs, I believe, touch 200-220. Bone of Contention went at 240! Add to that infinite cross talk, and you know what I am talking about.

Staged over 90 minutes at the festival, it started as a 45-minute one-acter Jalali had put-together with students at her alma mater, earlier this year. Looking inwards for inspiration, Jalali recalled the times when her family lived in a Mazgaon (central Mumbai) bungalow, with Parsee and Irani inhabitants, right next to a strictly vegetarian Hindu co-operative building society. Crows fed on the chicken and bones from the non-vegetarian society’s trash cans and dropped them across the ‘no meat’ fence. This was in the mid-1990s, post the communal riots of 1992-93, and mutual tensions still simmered, mainly among Hindus and Muslims.

While the play is a logistic and setting challenge, what with four houses symbolised by two storeys (set design by Areen Attari and Shahveer Irani) and a crow puppet (highly innovative and competent, Anmol Oberoi) carried across the stage and made to drop the bone in the balcony, it also had its scripting and directing challenges. Some pertinent questions do arise. Why was Kalpana the only maid in as many as five houses of a single building? Were there only five houses? Not likely, since you need at least 10 to form a society. There maybe six houses, if we assume that the Chairman had one, though it is not shown. If we get into the symbolic and metaphorical mode, we can assume that what is shown is a microcosm, and that, by projection, it would mean there were many more houses and many more maids. But managing four flats and their residents must have been a hard enough task, so Jalali must have had to stop there.

Why is Kalpana given so much exposure and so many rap numbers? Admittedly, the actress playing her is a Marathi stage and film-star, but the play is not about Kalpana. Jalali has clearly got carried away. Kalpana calls the shots, even signals entries and exits and lighting cues. Why have jokes/puns/witticisms/slips of the tongue and other forms of humour to get lost or drowned on account of staccato rapid-fire or cross reactions? They are funny, in most cases, so what is the great harm that can fall upon the audience if the get to sink-in the punches a bit? Some are laboured, like the incessant variants of bone-related phrases, yet there has to be method in the madness, which is, on several occasions, missing. And since when do all the residents of each flat attend Special General Body meetings? Only one member is allowed.

Parna Pethe is a delight to watch and listen to, whether it is English, Hindi or native Marathi. Hailing from Pune, she is an M.A. in Psychology and a trained Bharat Natyam dancer (guess what happens when a trained Bharat Natyam dancer directs a trained Bharat Natyam dancer in a play?) and has been working in films since 2003. Her recent films include Photocopy and YZ. Bursting with energy, a slim-fit body to boot, Parna is the life and soul of the party. The play begins and ends with her. A crutch that Jalali uses often--a character saying something and then, realising that it was a faux pas, reversing the sentence, or saying that what she said was the opposite of what she wanted to say—would have been lost on an artiste of lesser talent. We did not get to see her understudy, Srishti Shrivastava.

In the Jain family, we have Karan Desai, Abhishek Deswal and Prajesh Kashyap. The Sheikhs are Nidhi Bisht (who had a sore throat, probably as a result of many rehearsals at full volume), Niketan Sharma and Muskkaan Jaferi (actor Jagdeep’s daughter and step-sister of Javed and Naved; good job; uninhibited; easy on the eye). Then come the Parsees: Meher Acharia-Dar, Zinnia Ranji and Fatema Arif (fabulous job as a dog; brilliant piece of casting). No non Parsees could have done such justice to the characters, in roles that included spewing emblematic Parsee expletives. Lastly, here come the D’Souzas: Gillian Pinto (had to be a Goan/Mangalorean!), Kristin D’Souza and Shubham Chaudhary (I am assuming it was not the understudy, Abhishek Chauhan). Chairman was played by Junaid Khan and Friday by Sunny Abraham. Tenants in the Jain’s second flat, who obtained the rented property by pretending to be married vegetarians, were enacted by Prajesh Kashyap and Chakori Dwivedi.

While all the others managed to keep us engaged and interested, the last four named above struck discordant notes. Kashyap and Dwivedi went too far ’cause the writer did not know how far she could go too far with them. Khan and Abraham need to improve both, their acting skills and their dialogue delivery. Credits are too many to list, but one name must be mentioned: Sujay Jadhav. He is the man who takes the ra…I mean gives us the rap. Sadly though, it became too much of a good thing. Not all rap numbers were well-written or well-composed.

In the end, the sheer energy and gusto, coupled with irreverent digs at stereotypes and religious narrow-mindedness, sustain Bone of Contention in Cosmopolitan Co-Operative Housing Society. Incidentally, there is a suffix to such names, which might find place in an expanded title: Limited. Your funny bone will surely be tickled at BOCICCHS(L). With some fleshing out on the writer-director’s drawing board, you will have both flesh and bones. There are two shows today, Sunday, 10th November, at Prithvi Theatre, as the crow flies.

Rating: *** ½ 

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


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