By Tara Desai
Religious frauds are not a new phenomenon. For millennia, supposedly god-men have abused their positions of authority to exploit naïve, vulnerable individuals who only seek surety on their journey to spiritual enlightenment. Adakar Theatre and Cultural Group’s production ‘Shri 420’, staged at NIDA’s Parade Theatres on July 14th and 15th, explores the often-comic ramifications of blindly following rogue ‘420’ Babas. Adapted by celebrated Indian writer/director Atul Tiwari, ‘Shri 420’ is an Indian take on French playwright Molière’s 17th century masterpiece ‘Tartuffe’.
‘Shri 420’ is Adakar’s third major stage play, and the first time the group has brought a director in from Mumbai. Residing in Sydney for almost three months, Atul Tiwari worked with a cast of varying experience, alongside co-director and artistic director of Adakar Saba Zaidi Abdi, to create a humorous social commentary.
It is often said that comedy equals tragedy plus time, yet ‘Shri 420’ flips the switch on this equation as it uses comedy to lay the foundation for the audience’s affection for the characters, only to uproot the laughs in the third act with the tragic consequences of having blind faith in corrupt and immoral conmen. Our protagonists’ interactions with Swami Anandpunjanand Tarakeshwarnath (acted with aplomb by seasoned professional Vipul Vyas) initially highlight the amusing idiocy of gullible men like Om Prakash Bhatti (Nisar Sirguroh), yet give way to increasingly sinister and exploitative acts by the Swami. Where many stories would make passive victims out of women who fall prey to creepy old men, ‘Shri 420’ gives them greater agency, as it is their retaliatory actions that expose the dhongi sant.
The cast were all in wonderful form: the characters ranged from the delightfully manipulative Sweety (Aparna Vats), gullible ‘Bhagt’ Omi (Nisar Sirguroh)’ docile and helpless Mahi (Jyotsna Sharma) to the cynical Krishna Kant (Smarajit Dey). Notable in the slew of fine performances by the cast was that of Avantika Tomar, whose Deepal was in many ways the audience’s tether to common sense. She concurrently imbued a voice of reason and a spirit of mischief in Deepal, evidenced through the élan with which she sprang across the stage and the glee with which she cut down the naivety of those around her.
Another notable performance was that of co-director Saba Zaidi Abdi whose appearance as Ammaji bookended the story, yet was infused with a zest and authenticity that tapped into the family dynamics of many Indian-Australian households. The veteran actor Vipul Viyas as charlatan Swami looked every inch the character of a conman that he was playing and did full justice to the role.
Where the play slightly suffers is in its attempts to imbed itself fully into the experience of the Indian community in Australia. Some references to life here felt like flipping through an Australian edition of Lonely Planet, yet other references to the loopiest of loopholes in the 457-visa system strike a chord with the audience. This small issue doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the play – it is remarkable that a volunteer-based theatre group can stage such a professional production. Of note was Amod Bhatt’s music which was especially commissioned for ‘Shri 420’, and the set design by Rajeev Maini, which conveyed the idea of the living room as the nexus of the family home.
This never was a play about religion. Any concerns going into the theatre that it would be an ode for antitheism were quickly dispelled – more than anything, ‘Shri 420’ is a story about human relationships and the ease with which they can be manipulated for selfish ends. Our ability to relate to the play comes not from our own experiences with fraudulent gurus, rather from the relationships we have with people we think are our friends or family, who turn out to prey on good intentions. It is ultimately a warning to not be swept up by grand promises or alluring propositions, but to retain a degree of critical thinking in our day to day lives.
What makes ‘Shri 420’ such a memorable production is its ability to make its audience consider such difficult topics with a smile: to have us laugh at ourselves, then question ourselves.