Once the battle is lost and won, musicians-turned-warriors Goopi and Bagha are hailed as heroes and richly rewarded by the king with the hands of his twin daughters in marriage. As the chorus sings in celebration before the final blackout, the iconic lyricist-writer Gulzar, who has written the play Googli Jhanak Jhayein, and its director Salim Arif watch the cast intently. With the play readying for its premiere at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre on Saturday, Gulzar and Arif exchange notes with the cast and suggest some improvisations.
Though widely popular for his work in Hindi films, Gulzar has been closely associated with Mumbai-based theatre group Essay PPL for nearly 12 years. This play, a musical based on a story by Upendra Kishore Roychowdhary in Bengali, is his second for children; the first being Agar Aur Magar, a play in verse inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s He Who Says Yes and He Who Says No. Roychowdhary’s story was adapted for the big screen by his grandson Satyajit Ray, who made Goopi Gayne Bagha Bayne. “Many years ago, I had first worked on this story as Ray wanted to make it in Hindi. However, he dropped the idea,” says the legendary filmmaker, who has also worked on a version of it for a puppet show and a children’s book.
When Arif suggested working on a play based on this endearing story for Summertime at Prithvi Theatre, Gulzar immediately agreed. “At the core of this story is the innocence and sincerity of Goopi and Bagha. Like Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, it has had several versions even as the basics remain the same,” he says. Gulzar and Arif were keen to collaborate on a children’s play, though they have together worked on a number of plays that deal with subjects such as relationships, social harmony and environment. “Doing a children’s play is more demanding than something like Kharashein (a play by Gulzar on communal riots),” says Arif, who has worked with him on television series Mirza Ghalib and Maachis, among others.
A case in point is the hectic preparation for “the wedding of ghosts” sequence in the play. In one corner of Prithvi House, where the rehearsals were taking place, theatre artiste Lubna Salim, Arif’s wife, had been working with a group of backstage crew. They were engaged in making papier mache masks and painting them in bright neon hues, apart from taking care of other wedding paraphernalia. “We have spent so much energy on this scene alone,” says Arif. An effort has been made to keep music, which is integral to the play, simple. “Our reference has been Kishore Kumar,” adds Arif. Most of the singing is by Ajitesh Gupta, who plays Goopi in the play.
In his late 70s, Gulzar remains delightfully curious about exploring a new form and content. “He has a fine sense of editing and communicating a story. My job is to give shape to the content he provides,” says Arif.
About Gulzar, what amazes Arif is his ability to interact with people of different levels. This is evident from the way the recent Dada Sahab Phalke awardee gets involved in every aspect of the play and drops in for rehearsals regularly.