You have all come to this play to learn about Mahatma Gandhi,” says actor Pratik Gandhi, slowly rising from his chair in the centre of the stage. “But you will feel cheated.” He takes off his coat, shoes, and hat, one by one. “Forget about Mahatma,” he declares, standing upright in just his bare essentials, “This performance is about Mohan, just Mohan.”
This is an unexpected way to begin a play on Gandhi but Manoj Shah, the director, says it is the story of a common man that anyone can identify with. “From his childhood to young adulthood, Mohan’s life was a series of unfortunate events. He was a failure at most things, not the Gandhi we know today,” says Shah.
The one-person play, Mohan’s Masala, is being performed in Hindi, English and Gujarati, and has a minimalist style with few props, echoing Gandhi’s later asceticism. It will be staged on June 10 at the Prithvi Theatre, Juhu. After its premiere last November at National Centre for the Performing Arts’ (NCPA) Centrestage Festival, the play has had several shows in Mumbai and Gujarat; it has just completed its 43rd. “What drew me to the life of Mohan was simply that it was a mystery as compared to his later life,” says Shah.
Enacted by Pratik, a 20-something Mohan appears in present-day Mumbai on one of the local trains. He’s searching desperately for a diary, but everyone is busy with their smartphones. He travels to a bookshop on Grant Road where a certain Mr Somaiya is famed for his Gandhi collection. “Have you seen my diary?” Mohan asks him. Mr Somaiya hasn’t. Mohan seeks out the writer of the film Gandhi, John Briley. “Have you seen it?” he asks again. No one has. The diary he is searching for is a collection of events and memories from Gandhi’s youth. “Everyone remembers Mahatma, but no one remembers me,” cries Mohan. “But I am the main reason Mahatma became who he was.”
An unlikely location for the play was the Sabaramati Jail in Ahmedabad, where they performed last week. Pratik and Shah were initially apprehensive about the inmates’ reactions, but they seemed to be totally absorbed in the play. The inmates told them they identified with the ordinary aspects of Mohan’s life — his bad grades at school, experiments with smoking and non-vegetarian food, or budding interest in girls, recounts Shah. “One inmate came up to me in tears saying the scene where Mohan comes back home to find his mother dead struck him hard. It reminded him of his own mother, and he had decided to make amends and go back to her,” says Pratik.
In one of the most powerful moments of the play, Gandhi is being beaten by English officials in South Africa. Mohan notices fear in his tormentors’ eyes, and realises that if he were to die, they would somehow lose. Mohan turns his weakness into a strength, and develops the principles of ahimsa.
The play’s essence is held in a single dialogue: “My book, Experiments With Truth, gives you the ingredients that made the Mahatma. But, just like the nutrition label on a food wrapper, it doesn’t tell you the process. This play tells the process.”