Gandhi The Musical
Danesh Khambata’s extravaganza Gandhi The Musical is the kind of drama Akshay Kumar will give a ten-minute standing ovation. The play is designed to appeal to the uncritical patriotic impulse, which gets stirred when the national anthem is sung but is quiescent when votes are cast for people with reputations stained with human rights violations. When the Indian flag is shown on stage, Chirag Vohra, playing Gandhi, sings the national anthem in a quivering, old man’s voice. During the last show of the play’s opening run, the entire audience rose to sing along.
Gandhi The Musical is a mindless tableau of song and dance that’s nearly three hours long. It’s been produced by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, which has lavished money on elaborate sets, costumes and choreography but paid little heed to the story. Now the life of Gandhi has been told many times in many ways in cinema, theatre and literature. Yet the material on him and by him is vast and rich. Judging by the number of books published on Gandhi every year, it’s clear a lot of the literature is yet to be mined. Instead of viewing Gandhi afresh or examining underexplored facets of his life, Khambata strikes an exhausted seam, providing a tired laundry list of biographical milestones: the awakening of his social conscience in South Africa; his return to India; giving lower caste folk the name ‘harijan’; the Jallianwala Bagh massacre; Chauri Chaura; the round table conference in London; the Quit India movement; the Dandi march; his troubled relationship with his son Harilal, Independence and, finally, his assassination.
The only novel element is that Khambata has attempted a showy Broadway-style musical. Composers Rahul Pais and Nariman Khambata, the director’s brother, have produced the ringing score. The lyrics, which he wrote himself, are mostly puerile. Though well-choreographed, Bertwin D’souza’s contemporary dance pieces are completely at odds with the narrative and do nothing to further the story. Colonial cruelty in South Africa is also an excuse for a simulacrum of a Zulu dance. A courtroom scene in which a Zulu man (Rohit Tiwari) is indicted for not paying taxes turns into an absurd pageant – the lawyers shed their robes and wigs for red and black outfits, the prosecutor (Harssh A. Singh) puts on a jester’s suit, the judge (Francois Castellino) a shimmering tailcoat and top hat. They dance around the young Gandhi (Abhishek Krishnan), fuming at the injustice he has witnessed in court.
In Gandhi The Musical even the non-musical parts are loud. Words are spoken at a high-pitched register. Nehru (Darius Shroff), Jinnah (Vivek Tandon) and Maulana Azad (Uday Chandra) don’t talk, they shout. The exception is Chirag Vohra, who does an able job of portraying Gandhi in his older years and deserves to be cast as the man in a more thoughtful, challenging production. Boman Irani provides the insulting, angry voice of the Raj, sounding more like an evil sorcerer from a children’s movie than the voice of the empire. Whenever his voiceover is played, the British flag superimposed with a sinister face is projected on to stage. Khambata has been staging plays for a decade. Yet it’s often hard to believe that Gandhi is the work of an adult mind.