A Special Bond 2 by Akvarious Productions

Dir: Akarsh Khurana

Last week, I had a chance to watch Special Bond 2 on stage – a collection of Ruskin Bond’s short stories rather well enacted in stage. The adventures of three children in the hills of Dehradun were definitely a delight to watch.

The play is technically not strong at all. The lighting was average and the sounds were just suitable. The whole show was on the shoulders of the actors who took the comedy forward by dialogues alone.

I’ve always believed playing the role of a child is very difficult. When adults play the role of children, they seem and sound like ‘mad’ adults. This play was different. The actors did a fantastic job in playing children and portray childhood very innocently. Laudable effort.

Each episode (a short story) was very compact, 10-12 minutes at most. A nice collection of stories (Ruskin Bond’s of course) put quite well together made for happy viewing. At least the children in front of me laughed and clapped to their heart’s content.

Me being me, had a very small problem. In one of the episodes, the male lead Ranji gets attracted to a girl (these are 8-12 year old kids, mind you) who comes from London. The girl is well dressed, well behaved, well spoken and foreign. The Indian female friend of Ranji’s is shabbily dressed, not-well-behaved (by accepted standards) and is jealous of this new London girl. Ref: Picture to the left!

I can’t see this as anything but an extention of a man’s fantasy and understanding of the world. For an art form like theatre, especially the ones made for children, shouldn’t these sensitivities be kept in mind?!

Anyway, at the end of the play, I got some time to talk to Akarsh Khurana (Director of the play, director-performer of many other plays, screenplay writer for Krish and Krish II) himself. This is our conversation.

What about Ruskin Bond’s writing interested you to make this play?

Basically in 2007, we set out to do a children’s play. We had watched a few plays that we enjoyed and we wanted to do our own as well. What we were looking for was something in English, predominantly. But I was very clear that I didn’t want to take a foreign script. I didn’t want it to be something that didn’t belong to our world. There was always the option of adapting it. But I wanted something that was intrinsically Indian.

One day we were sitting around discussing and we thought why not Ruskin Bond. It was the perfect match. It was set in India but with a western sensibility. So, it kind of worked really well for us. Also, most of it was set in the hills. And the children in the metro have never got a window into that life. It all came together pretty well.

Then there was the matter of permissions. Initially, we were talking to publishers, which ended up being a long drawn process. Then through contacts, I got in touch with Mr. Bond himself. He was very giving. He was very happy that we wanted to use his stories. In fact, we went and performed in Dehradun where he came and watched. He really liked it and called us over to his place the next day. He helped us with the sequel. He suggested stories that we could use. In fact, in the show that you watched today, the part about the mountain camp with the bear was unpublished when we did it first in 2008. It was eventually published. He’s been really supportive.

It has been a fantastic experience working on these stories. We read everything he’d written for children. We wanted to string stuff together. We needed something that children would enjoy. We needed something that is easily put together. Something that was not too complicated to pull off on stage. We tried to do as much justice as possible. Of course, it is impossible to put everything into one part, so the second part was born and now there is talk of the third part.

I spoke to Mr. Bond last month about the third part. I wanted him to change a few things a little bit. We have done plays where Ranji goes to the hills. I wanted to have people from the hills come to the city, which makes it slightly different from the last two plays. He said he is going to mail me some stuff. Let us see. I hope something works out.

I notice that there is a lot of popular culture influence in the play? Singh is Kking, What an idea Sirji and such dialogues are used generously in the play. Is this a conscious effort? What’s the idea behind such an effort? What’s the reason behind not sticking to the original?

Mr. Bond himself told us that we will have to adapt it to make the references contemporary to make it more relate-able for audiences of today. A lot of credit for this actually goes to the actors. A lot of these plays evolved on the rehearsal floor. We have a script and then a lot of modernisation came about on the rehearsal floor. I’ve been running this play for over 5 years now and the play evolves every time we stage it. Mr. Bond told us that we have managed to maintain the essence of the stories and still be suitably mad. Yes, it is a conscious effort to make it more relate-able to our audiences.

How do you like the audiences in Bangalore? Is the theatre going audience in Bangalore better or worse than anywhere else, according to you?

I’ve been performing in Bangalore for over 4 years now. Primarily in Ranga Shankara and we’ve done shows in schools as well. We’ve been coming to Bangalore quite regularly with all sorts of plays. I personally enjoy performing for Bangalore audiences. It is very nice that there is a very enthusiastic theatre going audience here. Perhaps the venues are responsible for creating that.

For example, recently we did another play called the interview, which won a couple of awards as well. But may be because it is set in the corporate world, the response that came from Bangalore was unprecedented. I would say that in terms of their wavelength, understanding and sensibility, they are at par with Bombay. After Bombay, I would be very happy to stage a play in Bangalore and I don’t have to worry about the content. It could be dark, controversial or political, I know that Bombay and Bangalore will probably accept it. But when I go to places like Delhi or other smaller places, all kinds of content may not necessarily work. But in Bangalore, I can rest assured that I can come with anything and at least I will get some people to watch it, whether they like it or not depends on the quality of the production. But Bangalore is a smart sensitive audience and that’s why we keep coming back here.

How different is it to perform for children from performing for adults? What efforts do you put into making it happen? Is one easier than the other?

I think the moment you start differentiating, the problem arises. I think children are a lot more intelligent than we’d like to believe. I’ve seen plays for kids that are dumbed down. They are kind of spoon-feeding kept in mind that kids might not follow. But kids are really smart. They are exposed to a lot of stuff these days.

They are the most entertaining audiences to perform for because they are so genuine with their reactions. Also, they are the most difficult to perform for because they have smaller attention spans. You need to keep them hooked right from the beginning. Their parents might be more giving because they are following everything.

All the plays that we’ve done for children, at no point of time have we tried to dumb it down. We have told our stories as it is. Look at animated films like Shrek. There is as much adult humour as for children. They are catching on to it. I don’t think there is any kind of watering down necessary for children.

It is more difficult to perform for children. You have to make sure that there is never a dull moment. You can’t let them slip up. But what’s reassuring is that there are a lot of adults who come with as much positive response as children. They come later and tell us that they had a great time and it is really heartening for us. Somewhere I think it is Bond’s story telling that is theatrical.

Can you introduce your actors to us? Have they all been with the production from the beginning?

We do not have a rigid repertory. There are a few actors who perform for us regularly. The cast for this play has gone through a lot of iterations and some of them have remained. The boy who plays Ranji has been with the production for five years. The man who plays Chaukidaar has also been from the beginning playing multiple parts. The guy who plays the leopard also has been with us from the start.

It’s a great bunch of actors, flexible, thinking on their feet all the time. It is not easy performing for children. We’ve had children walk on the stage and take the ghost’s glove and the monkey’s head off, hug the bear. It is always incorporated into the play and performed.

What else are you currently working on?

I just finished Krish 2. I might be casting for the film as well. Theatre has become fulltime for me. My film projects are more spaced out. We’ve done more than 100 shows this year. We are constantly travelling. In terms of theatre, we have opened a couple of plays this years. We opened one called Rafta Rafta which has been pretty successful. A comedy about Indian family in the UK. In comedy, we opened a children’s play. We opened Peter Pan. We are also playing Baghdad wedding at festivals. It is a far more serious political play. Our longest running play is all about women. The writer of the play is launching all about men which might be next on the cards.  We are also travelling with existing shows. We are performing at the Hindu metroplus festival in Chennai with the Interview.

Am I safe in assuming you like theatre more than cinema today?

No. I like both mediums equally. The threate company became full fledged and needs more attention. It is going in the right path. By next year, it should be able to sustain on its own and I will have more time to concentrate on cinema.