On days they are working late, Dharmakirti Sumant and Alok Rajwade step out of their office in Kothrud, Pune, for dinner. “We meet balloon sellers on the street. They say, ‘We know you don’t need a balloon but we need money and we don’t want alms.’ So, we, 30-year-old men with no children, buy balloons at midnight,” says Rajwade. A girl selling balloons walks silently through A Doubtful Gaze At Uber At Midnight, a play which Rajwade has directed and Sumant has written. She is both real and absurd, and a symbol of the social and human conflict that, for 10 years now, has driven the darkly funny drama of Sumant and Rajwade.
The only other person on stage in A Doubtful Gaze At Uber At Midnight is a 30-year-old, unemployed man called Saket, who is stuck on a lonely road at midnight waiting for a cab. His girlfriend is possibly pregnant. His close friend, a self-titled Urban Naxal, has been caught by the police watching porn and smoking up. As the night deepens, the Uber journey segues into the history of contemporary India, its route landmarked by the murders of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare in Maharashtra, the killing of Gauri Lankesh in Karnataka and the building of the Statue of Unity in Gujarat. In the final scene, Saket finds out why “it is always sunset in India”.
Sumant, who won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar 2012, was at the University of East Anglia on an Inlaks Scholarship in 2018 when he wrote the play. “The news from the country was very disturbing. People were being lynched publicly. We were made to think in false contradictions: Congress vs BJP, left vs right, success vs failure, capitalist progressiveness vs religious regression,” he says. The play was commissioned for the Serendipity Arts Festival in December 2018 and is the first in English for the Marathi duo. Its first public show, outside the festival, took place in Pune a few weeks ago. The play is set to travel to other cities.
Almost always, Sumant and Rajwade’s plays begin with the everyday and expand into the bizarre. Their 2016 production, Binkamache Sanwad (Useless Conversations), revolves around a confused 55-year-old man, who replaces his Nokia with an iPhone, and gets tangled in a maze of WhatsApp forwards. “WhatsApp is the rannbhoomi (battleground) of politics. We wanted to show how jingoist, Brahminical and sexist jokes seeps through social media,” says Sumant. He comes from a family of academics and finds “political affirmation … in the words and works of BR Ambedkar”.
“The trigger for Dharma’s writings is usually self-analysis but the story goes on to criticise right-wing politics,” says Rajwade. He is a famous face, courtesy his appearances in Marathi films such as Rajwade & Sons (2014), Rama Madhav (2014) and Vihir (2008), and gets stopped at FC Road, Pune’s youth hangout, for selfies. In 2017, Rajwade was named among the “30 under 30” important personalities in India by Forbes magazine.
The two studied in the same class at Aksharnandan School in Pune, where education methods had evolved from Mahatma Gandhi’s nayee taalim doctrine. Art was encouraged as were experiments in theatre. “In school, we never appreciated each other, but I did notice that Alok (Rajwade) had a good sense of humour,” says Sumant.
Rajwade adds that he was politically ambivalent till, at 16, he went to Germany with his father, an executive with Mercedes Benz. “One of the places I wanted to visit was the Dachau concentration camp, where Hitler had incarcerated political prisoners at the height of Nazism. In school, when I told one of my friends, a German, about my wish, he said, ‘Don’t go to a concentration camp as a tourist’,” he says. When Rajwade came back to India, one of the first friends he met said, “Hitler did the right thing.” “I realised then that I didn’t agree with this. I don’t know who I am or what my politics is but this support of Hitler is definitely wrong. Since then, I have opposed fascism in all forms. My politics is about upholding the Indian Constitution,” says Rajwade.
They first collaborated in 2009 when Sumant read out his new play, Geli Ekvees Varsha, at the office of Natak Company, founded in 2008 by students of Brihan Maharashtra College of Commerce and Fergusson College to “make plays that appeal both to the masses and the eclectics”. Geli Ekvees Varsha revolves around a 21-year-old protagonist, whose parents had been young during the Emergency. “What happened to the youth involved in liberal, leftist, socialist movements in and after the Emergency? What happened to the concept of a free, secular, liberal and ideal nation?” he asks them. The play emerged as the winner at Thespo 2009, a theatre festival held at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai.
“To this day, my common point with Dharma’s writing is his constant urge to question the status quo,” says Rajwade. The director is responsible for most of the edgy stage design in their plays, including placing a commode on the stage in Geli Ekvees Varsha. Every time the character takes a dump, he launches into a monologue. “They have a unique way of looking at things happening around us. They depict normal life but stretch reality to the point when it breaks,” says theatre director and actor Niranjan Pednekar.
How does the group that wants to knock down Brahminical hierarchies function in an art form in which playwrights or directors have the final word? Their 2017 play, Natak Nako, deals with a similar topic. It is set in a rehearsal room of a theatre group, where actors turn on the director. “In the same group, people may disagree with the politics of the play. Sometimes, the disagreements become intense,” says Sumant.
“There is a thin line between being a director and dictator. I have to remember that what I want is to create a play that will hook people till the end. Dharma and I share a certain kind of love-hate relationship. We fight a lot but there is something in his writing which pulls me back,” says Rajwade.
Coming up later this year is their first film, written by Sumant and directed by Rajwade, titled Ashleel Udyog Mitra Mandal. It revolves around a man who invites a porn star to a dahi handi festival. “Every time one of us has done a film, we have channelled the money into theatre. We want to do only theatre but there is absolutely no money,” says Sumant, adding, “But Oscar Wilde says there is no point looking at a map where there is no place called utopia.” The show goes on.