By Jay Athalye
Let’s begin from the beginning… of this year.
I think it was January when Tanvee, my wife, mentioned that she will be part of Pratidhwani drama’s next production where she will play a dancer. That’s the first time I heard about Dance Like a Man.
“So you will be dancing?”, I asked matter-of-factly. Given the name of the play and the fact that it was Tanvee, I was merely putting two and two together. “Maybe... I don’t know”, she muttered, not looking away from her laptop, probably updating a couple of spreadsheets with dancer allocations while simultaneously replying to the thirty odd emails she received that evening while she was busy in practice.
Wait, back up a little.
Some extra background. Tanvee has been the co-lead of the dance wing of Pratidhwani for about four years and as her outgoing production of sorts, she played the lead character in Yours, Mallika along with being part of the core team coordinating on and offstage activities for a 100-strong cast and crew. I played her “friend, love and confidante” in the show and we were just getting started with practices. In the craziness that was January and February, I remember Tanvee having to leave for a reading of Dance like a Man while we were shooting our trailer for Yours, Mallika. That was the second time I heard about the show. In the time leading up to Yours, Mallika, I found out that one of the actors that I most enjoy watching on stage, Abhijeet, was part of the cast, as was Meenakshi, who I had fun working with during a Pratidhwani dance show a couple of years ago. Some time in March, Agastya’s email popped up in my inbox checking if I would be interested in auditioning for a role in DLAM.
I had watched Agastya’s plays over the years, and was regularly acting with the dance wing, so I had always wondered how different the experience would be on the pure drama side. Plus there was the opportunity of working with a great cast, including Tanvee; it’s fun acting with her (and spending time together becomes much easier!) Next thing I know, Agastya is at home and I’m reading lines.
He says the part of "Viswas/Jairaj" is mine, and I say yes! My head says “woohoo!” while at the same time reminds me that I should probably read the whole script…
Ah, the script
It started off with Viswas and his playful, funny, light-hearted lines. Viswas is having his “meet the parents” moments as he visits Lata and her parents, namely Ratna and Jairaj Parekh. The tone and humor of Viswas seemed similar to Sameer, the character I played in Yours, Mallika and as I continue reading, I start enjoying goofy Viswas’ antics and his one-liners.
I got this all figured out.
As the parents’ conversations take some serious turns, more of their history is revealed, more questions though, than answers. And the script continued.Viswas exits and I see that I am now to become Jairaj and with that, the light-heartedness disappeared. Agastya explains that Jairaj is a male Bharatanatyam dancer pursuing his passion for dance, and fighting for its revival in post independence India.
Wait, revival of Bharatanatyam?
Bharatanatyam is so prevalent in the circles I grew up in, that I could not truly grasp the situation Jairaj is in. My portrayal of Jairaj started out as a dancer angry about being deprived of the joy of dancing. My first Jairaj was turning out to be just that, the stereotypical angry young man from the movies.
Got it, switch from Viswas the clown, to Jairaj, the angry young man.
Agastya then set out to educate us about the state of Bharatanatyam and dance in the time period that we were portraying. Before the British rule, art was well respected and artists had patronage from the nobility at the time. Turns out that during the colonial rule, British propaganda transformed Bharatanatyam into an immoral and inferior practice. This lead to the artists losing their patronage and having to depend on ordinary wealthy people and in some cases resort to prostitution. There are lines in the play where Jairaj and Ratna have to answer and defend these very questions about the art itself and the people practicing it.
Along the path to becoming Jairaj, I learned that the popularity which Bharatanatyam is enjoying in these last few decades, is only due to a few art revolutionaries that had to go against the grain of society, a cause Jairaj believes is as important as gaining independence itself.
Ok, this is getting tricky, there’s way more to Jairaj than what it seemed.
The other major aspect of the play of course is that Jairaj gets portrayed in two different phases of his life which are decades apart. AND Jairaj is a classically trained dancer… Jay, of course, isn’t. So there was a session arranged with Joyce Paul Siamak where she talked about how dancers move, how they talk, how they emote. Abhijeet and I have tried to inculcate some of those mannerisms into our Jairaj-es, and hopefully we make it believable to the audience!
Of course, no journey is complete without facing ones fears. It’s in the last year or so that I have gotten more “into” acting, and ever since then I have pretty much dreaded doing a non-comedy drunk scene. Naturally, DLAM came with one such nicely gift-wrapped scene.
It’s actually been fun playing with that sequence. Tanvee, Agastya and I have been tweaking it for a while, seeing what works and what doesn’t. We of course got the “something’s missing” from Agastya for the scene at one point! With time of course the scene has evolved, going through a journey of its own. From the first practices when we started off with our angry Jairaj to today, where we’ve tried to use as many discoveries about Jairaj and Ratna that we have made over
time, to fill in whatever we thought was “missing”.
For a while, becoming Jairaj felt like a goal that kept going farther and farther as I moved towards it, because for almost every discovery I had about Jairaj, Agastya had a new question that needed more discovering.
Then of course there was Agastya’s favorite question, “Yes, I know that’s the line, but what is he actually saying?” (“What are you thinking right now?” being a close second) Those same questions started making Viswas’ character intriguing. Sure he will let his wife dance, but how “liberal” is he really? He does appear a bit docile, but he also seems to get what he wants, what exactly does he believe about himself?
Ok, a complicated Viswas that has to appear uncomplicated, and a super-complex classically-trained Jairaj. Good luck, Jay.
The script and Agastya have made the journey of exploring these complex characters extremely fun. The seemingly endless discussions between the cast and crew with Agastya about what every line means, what is being said, and more importantly what is not being said... those discussions are my biggest takeaway from the journey. They were fun, insightful and taught me a lot about approaching a character and a script.
The first time I danced on stage was three years ago. It just happened though, I never gave it much thought. Mahesh Dattani’s play forced me to think about what it means, and what it has meant over time, to dance.
And more specifically, what it means to dance like a man.