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Lillete Dubey: A lukewarm greeting

Lillete Dubey talks about 'Salaam, Noni Apa', a play based on a short story from Twinkle Khanna's book

The cast of ‘Salaam, Noni Apa’.
The cast of ‘Salaam, Noni Apa’.

Salaam, Noni Apa. The title of the play was beguiling. It whispered to me of a world I had encountered on and off as a child; of lined faces, and artlessly draped dupattas that held intimations of grace. In my mind’s eye I could see smoke rising from a thatched hut, and hear the sound of dogs barking in the distance. I do not know what memory the name stirred, but it piqued me enough to want to watch it. Not having read the short story by Twinkle Khanna that it was based on, made it all the more exciting.

Noni Apa appeared on stage in a pretty salwar-kurta, cut to perfection. Her hair was in curlers, under a scarf. And though the soundtrack suggested that the car she had obviously driven up in, wheezed and coughed off-stage, no dogs barked and there was no curl of smoke.

So much for preconceived notions, I thought, settling deeper into the plush red seat of the Royal Opera House auditorium, prepared to be surprised.

And surprised I was. The scenes between Noni Apa, played by Lillete Dubey, who also directed the play, and her sister Bini (played by Jayati Bhatia) bordered on slapstick. The contrast between the gregarious and high-energy Bini and her sedate low-key sister was played out well, to Apa’s disadvantage.

From slapstick to a hint of romance, and marital discord in the male protagonist yoga teacher’s dysfunctional home, the story moved on, quite like the spluttering car that Apa drove, to reach a near-death encounter, some pathos and an Ibsen-like Dolls House ending, where Apa decides to throw public opinion out of the window and leave the straight and narrow path for a life of love, even if it was not, in her own words, of the “heart-beating-fast variety".

Luckily, Bini and the yoga master, played charmingly by Darshan Jariwala, keep the energy levels high. And while the dialogue mostly left me cold, I loved four one-liners that I later realized were verbatim from the original story. My favourite dialogue was the description Anandji, the yoga master, gives of his wife as being “no longer a volcano but over the years becoming more like a pressure cooker. Instead of erupting, she just makes a few shrill sounds and lets off steam."

Speaking to Dubey, who was in Delhi rehearsing for the show following the Delhi premiere on 29 October, I tried to understand the play’s genesis. Edited excerpts from a phone interview:

How has the play been received?

I wish you could have seen the show (in Delhi) yesterday! Or the premiere in Bengaluru. We had 1,000 people in the audience there, and here, at the Siri Fort auditorium, the 1,800 seats were sold out. The energy was awesome. In Mumbai it was an all-invitee audience, which is quite different. But Twinkle (Khanna) loved it. And that matters too.

What made you choose this story in particular from her book ‘The Legend Of Lakshmi Prasad’?

Three-four factors. My company, Primetime Theatre, was created with the idea of creating a platform for Indian writing. I have done enough theatre based on world literature, from Greek to Italian to German plays adapted to English. My mission is to tell our own stories to our people. Indians for Indians.

You have been recognized for strong productions of intense plays. Was this a conscious departure?

Yes, I am attracted to intense, strong theatre and themes. I have staged Adhe Adhure and 9 Parts Of Desire; I particularly enjoyed directing Womanly Voices, where I had three very different stories by women in one production. But I am a very restless person too, and do not want to repeat myself. I like doing the unexpected. I directed Dance Like A Man, which had 600 shows; it won us accolades internationally, from Oregon to Auckland and across Canada. I will do whatever resonates. It could be a children’s play, or 9 Parts Of Desire, or Gandhi.

So you let your mood guide you in the choice of themes?

In theatre, I find complete freedom. I started in films too late, in my 40s. I was lucky, and moved from My Brother... Nikhil to get meaningful roles in Baghban, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Monsoon Wedding. Roles are not waiting for me in films, there are so many good established stars who are waiting for good mature parts; our cinema does not have the roles. Theatre is different. Here I am not bound by stereotypes. I choose my themes. Gauhar (Jaan), for example. It came from a need to do a play with music, it was my dad’s anniversary and he loved music...and I thought the play fitted perfectly into that need. Noni Apa was also like that. It was pure serendipity. I had gone to Crossword for a meeting. I saw the book, picked it up, liked the story. That was that.

Did you have to work a lot on it?

Even the ready plays that come to me, need a lot of work. What looks good on paper does not always work onstage. It takes many restructurings. Noni Apa was a narrative, it needed serious work to transform into something that could come alive on stage.

Tell us about the journey.

I thought having a young man look at two elderly women from his perspective would add a piquant angle. So I got Adhir Bhat to write the script. It went through seven-eight drafts. Twinkle was also consulted on and off and would share her inputs.

The story appealed because it notices the small things of everyday life; it reminded me of my role in Monsoon Wedding. I saw the beauty in it, the deceptive simplicity that covered a deeper theme.

Would you have picked up or noticed the story had it been written by an unknown writer?

The name has nothing to do with it.

Salaam, Noni Apa is being held in Mumbai (4 November), Pune (5 November), Jaipur (10 November), Hyderabad (11 November) and Kolkata (12 November). For details, visit

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