Swami and Friends – a review

“This is where it all began, at the banks of the River Sarayu”, said Mani as the lights blanked out over him immediately and the audience burst into thunderous applause.

November 5th and 6th saw the return of Swami and Friends to Sivagami Petachi , where it ran to packed houses (yet again, I’m told) in spite of the incessantly heavy Chennai rains. I had missed it the first time around, and some of the mixed reviews I’d heard piqued my curiosity enough to go watch it…. even if it was on a weekday.

Adapted by Manasi Subramaniam, and directed by Aruna Ganesh Ram, the play starts off with a scene at the Sarayu river. Swami and Mani have just returned from the station, after having said goodbye to Rajam, who is leaving Malgudi for good to go to Trichinopoly with his police superintendent father and family. Then, going back in time to when the boys first met Rajam, the play courses through the events of one and a half years, highlighting the shenanigans of the little boys living in the quaint South Indian town of Malgudi in pre-independence India. From getting expelled from school on account of bunking class and breaking the school windows while participating in a demonstration, to forming the MCC cricket team, the boys are enthusiastic to welcome excitement and adventure into their worlds. However, Swami soon finds himself soon dodging Drill Class to train for an upcoming match, and in the process is expelled from school yet again. He then tries to escape the wrath of his father (T.T. Srinath) by running away from Malgudi in search of Madras.

As a wide-eyed wondrous 10 year old, the challenges that Swami (Ujwal Nair) must face include understanding arithmetic, standing up to a religiously intolerant Scriptures master, dodging Nallappan while stealing mangoes from his grove, passing First Form exams, and… um, many more. I fail to remember because, truthfully, the most memorable parts of the play were in the first half where Swami and Mani (Shyam Sunder) make friends with Rajam (Ajay Kumar Ramachandran) and go on to introduce him to the quirks and eccentricities of each of their teachers (P.C. Ramakrishna, Mohamed Yusuf, Shankar Sundaram) at Albert Mission School. Other memorable scenes include the ones of the boys writing their First Form examinations, and of Swami parroting to his granny (Sushi Natraj) Rajam’s tall tales of himself. The rest of the scenes could’ve been handled in an equally experimental manner, for it seems the kind of rigor that went into the thought process of directing the first half, disappeared somewhere during the second half of the play.

The set design was a brilliant idea, an intereactive, ever changing set, where three tall wooden boxes were placed to form (depending on the story) a pier, a column, a tree, a wall, a sofa, a table, benches, an orchard… it was a creative display of set changes. At some point of time, it did become slightly tiresome, with some arrangments not making any sense as to why they were moved and placed in a particular position at times. For example, why the Z-shaped arrangement for the scene where Swami runs away from Malgudi? The scene could probably have played itself out without those having been there in the first place.

Though the play seemed to strike a low point in terms of its narrative somewhere into the later half of the play, the energy levels of the actors was commendable- simply for the consistency that they succeeded in maintaining throughout the show.

A special mention to kanjira vidwan B. Shree Sundar Kumar, the man behind the lilting sound of the tabla that kept the mood alive through most of the play.

Being one of the the first R.K. Narayan stories to be staged as a play, we must remember the sole literary creation of the author’s that has occupied the minds of his readers for decades now, each in a form that is given shape by the readers themselves in their mind’s eye: Malgudi. Does the Malgudi of the play live up to the Malgudi in our heads? Or, more importantly, could it ever? Although the scene changes were handled such that each scene blended into the other almost seamlessly, and although the lighting was reflective of the particular mood on stage; I can’t help but ask- Where was Malgudi in all of that? The only answer I can give to that is that probably the stage design was meant to give the audience the room to relive the Malgudi that was mapped in their heads, and superimpose it upon the play as it moved from scene to scene.

Also, being an adaptation for stage of the most loved English writer in India, its hard not to miss Narayan’s soothing narrative in all of it. Once they were moved onto stage, the mangoes of Nallappan’s grove were no longer succulent, and you didn’t feel the air hang heavily down from your shirt onto your back as you walked along the banks of the Sarayu.

The debut joint venture between Madras Players and Landing Stage was definitely entertaining, and engrossing at points. However, if the play were to be rewritten to liven up the second half, so that it swept you away with its speedy narrative like the first half did, in all probability I would find myself being a very enthusiastic part of the thunderous applause at Mani’s closing line.

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