Amar Photo Studio : Fantasy and Fun

Shivaji Mandir was filled to bursting on Saturday for a late evening show of Amar Photo Studio.  To see practically every seat taken must have warmed the cockles of the producers’ hearts, given that in these arid times the general lament is about thinning audiences.  

The play opened last month. Two factors must have enticed the first lot of audiences in -- the clever pre-publicity challenge that was launched on social media, drawing an overwhelming response; and the tremendous fan following the cast of the play had won in last year’s hit sitcom Dil, Dosti, Duniyadari, based loosely on Friends, in which they acted. Three of those young actors, real-life friends since then, have formed Kalakarkhana, their own production house. Amar Photo Studio is their first play, produced in collaboration with Sunil Barve’s Subak, an organisation  associated more with revivals of old classics than with new plays.

In addition to co-producing and acting in Amar Photo Studio, the energetic trio also thought up the play’s basic story idea which Manaswini Lata Ravindra then developed into the effervescent, intelligent comic fantasy that we see today. Incidentally, Manaswini is the writer about whom Vijay Tendulkar famously said, “I consider [her] to be an important Marathi playwright.” Many thought that was premature praise, wondering whether she would deliver on the promise that her first two plays held out. Amar Photo Studio fulfills that promise convincingly. 

There’s no way you can reveal the goings-on in this play without spoiling the fun for prospective viewers. All one can say is that Apu (Suvrat Joshi) and Tanu (Sakhee Gokhale) are in love, but for deeply psychological reasons, stand dithering on the brink of commitment. The play takes off from the anxieties of this real-life situation to journey through two periods of our history before returning to the present with a few vital lessons learnt. One period is pre-Independence India in which a Bollywood actress is exploited, a revolutionary calls for ..well … revolution, and V. Shantaram acts in Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani. The second period is the Emergency when Indians have lost their freedom but Hippies have won theirs from a strait-laced society.

The situations Manaswini creates, whether comic or serious, call upon the versatile cast to become quick-change artists and play multiple roles. While Tanu remains herself throughout, Apu transmogrifies into his own father and grandfather. Amey Wagh, the whimsical proprietor of the eponymous photo studio “which you see only when you need to see it”, later becomes V. Shantaram and then a hippie in a Goa bar. Pooja Thombre plays the exploited film actor, the revolutionary and the studio owner’s wife, whom he habitually refers to as his Cutie-Pie. Siddhesh Purkar plays the exploitative lead actor in a forties film, the waiter in a hippie den and a couple of other characters. All performances positively zing with energy. Actors hop off and onto the stage and gyrate to songs set to music by Gandhaar Sangoram.

From Apu’s and Tanu’s dilemma, which has brought them almost to the end of their relationship, two crucial questions arise to which the events of the play provide the answers. Question one: Would knowing what lies in store in the future influence people’s decisions in the present? Question two: If it did, how would they live their lives in the present?

Amar Photo Studio’s unflagging energy and buoyancy are due not only to the quality of the writing and performances but equally to Nipun Dharmadhikari’s direction. Dharmadhikari, the founder of Natak Company, one of the most prolific amateur theatre groups in Pune, has an unerring grasp on how to design and pace a production, how to underline potentially dramatic moments and evolve clever solutions for problematic ones. An additional reason why the play creates a coherent impact is because the entire cast comes from a common performative background, the Marathi experimental theatre.

It is not as though Amar Photo Studio is entirely flawless. Pooja Thombre’s speech needs greater clarity and her gestures sharper definition. Sakhee Gokhale must learn to distinguish between casual acting that is natural to her as a person and casual acting that is consciously tailored to the character she is playing. With all his versatility, Amey Wagh does not manage to put life into the colourful V. Shantaram. These flaws, however, are more than compensated for by the sheer audacity of a play that sweeps all established mainstream formulae off the stage and claims it for something genuinely new. Something the actors believe in completely.

Published On : 28-09-2016