A euphemism for something outdated, Sumeet Vyas’s Purane Chawal, set to open at the Prithvi Theatre Festival 2023, is anything but. On making way to the decrepit but spacious rehearsal space in Mumbai’s Aram Nagar, one is greeted by veteran actor Kumud Mishra, who puts the cast, crew, and visitors at ease. Director Vyas is due to arrive and the crew ambles to the rehearsal room.
Adapted from The Sunshine Boys, a two-act play by Neil Simon, Purane Chawal situates the story in the locales of Andheri and Alibaug. It focuses on Khushaal Mehendi (Kumud Mishra) and Vijay Das (Shubhrajyoti Barat), a comedy duo, who performed a hit play, titled Purane Chawal, for 42 years before Das walked out. Both stars in their time, have now fallen on tough times and could do with any attempt at a career revival.
The perfect opportunity arrives in the form of the opening of a cultural centre where the two are invited to revisit a part of their play. Except now, they can’t stand being in the same room. Mehendi’s nephew-turned-manager orchestrates the reunion, and what follows is the comic sparring of two greats, who are stuck in a time warp. The plot progresses as they rehearse, much against their wishes, and find common ground, much against their intentions.
Vyas, who was recently seen in the new season of Permanent Roommates on OTT, has returned to theatre after a decade-long hiatus from new productions. One day, he called Kumud Mishra, expressing a desire to act with his group, D for Drama. “He said, I have found the right script but the cast has old people. Would you like to direct?” reminisces Vyas.
Terming the play as a sensitive insight into the lives of popular artists who have lost relevance in present times, Vyas believes that though the world of the script is universal, adaptation and local references are essential. “They can’t be Willy and George when they look like Kumud and Shubhrajyoti,” he says.
Vyas, one can tell, is a gentle director mindful of the seniority of his actors. He admits, though, he is a stickler for textual accuracy. “I am that annoying person, who finds the need to be true to the text. Lines are written in a meter, and sometimes they may not make sense, but serve a purpose,” he says. “My directorial process involves finding back stories, to make every line make sense to the actors. It helps them emotionally arrive at that point. It’s a great exercise for me and the actors”.
In Purane Chawal, he has built a believable world that is funny and endearing, but one that does not play on the sympathetic. “Actors, who had done well at the time, bought apartments in Juhu or Malabar Hill. So, the house has a certain old-world charm and opulence. They have good furniture, but it's old,” he says. “I had seen some of those when I was looking for a house myself. It felt like I had stepped into the 80s”.
Beyond the physical setting, Vyas has also reimagined the personalities of the two characters to make them sound almost like a married couple. It makes the tiffs and disagreements both comical and intimate.
When asked about what it feels like to return to theatre after sustained success in films, he admits about having to do some “unlearning”. “Because I had not directed in a while, I had forgotten the mechanics of it. For instance, I did not realise that making a theatre set takes time, unlike in film where it is delivered in three days,” he confesses.
But, this return to theatre is momentous as he loves the medium and now vows to do a play every year. “It was through theatre that I studied philosophy, art, literature, and religion. It became the catalyst for everything else. If it paid better, there’s a chance I may have never gone to film,” he says.
Purane Chawal will be staged at Prithvi Theatre on 7 November, 6 pm and 9 pm.
Prachi Sibal is a Mumbai-based writer.