A Giggleful Expedition to mid-1970s Bombay
Inspired by the decade of disco in the city where dreams come true, My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak is a sweeping tribute to the power of fusion in what was to become the world’s largest film industry. Set in 1975 on a film set, the play reveals a tense amalgamation between the Hollywood Western genre and the nascent Bollywood Masala style. Silo Theatre delivers an awe-inspiring original script by Ahi Karunaharan, who also directs this outlandish concoction of gender-role-shattering tussles and impressively scored musical sequences.
Daniel Williams’ meticulously-detailed film set is a wonder to behold as we are ushered into Q Theatre’s expansive Rangatira space, giving off the impression of an epic-scale production. The makeshift Western saloon entrance is particularly overawing – a set piece that might seem out of place in a story about Bollywood in the 1970s. Ushers with baskets handed us plastic flowers, giving us a physical connection to the world of the performance. We later discover that this is an opening to audience participation. Two musicians onstage are playing a somewhat familiar South-Asian-but-not-quite tune as a pre-show effort to set the scene as we take our seats, and the effect adds to the audience’s excitement.
Manjit, played by the versatile Mustaq Missouri, takes centre stage to introduce us to the world of the Bollywood film set. He exudes warmth – a feature not typically associated with the stereotype of the uninformed South Asian tour guide, and we realise his personal investment in the film being shot today, ‘Dust of the Delhi Plains’. We are quickly told of the enduring friendship between Manjit and the co-directors’ late father, to whom he owes his livelihood. Shankar (played vivaciously by Shaan Kesha) stumbles onto the scene, stammering out his keenness to work on a film set, and reeling off a lengthy curriculum vitae. We find ourselves drawn into a curious back-and-forth between these two, cleverly designed to walk the audience through a precis of recent film industry history. Musicians Leon Radojkovic (also this production’s sound designer) and Finn Scholes add comic relief as the mute backpackers called on to reinforce Manjit’s pronouncements as to how things must be organised to get anything done on a busy film set.
Rashmi Pilapitiya’s glamorous diva, Ranikumari, bursts on stage demanding the spotlight, handing Manjit a lengthy list of ‘requests’ and commanding that Shankar fetch her bottled water. These tropes feel familiar, but the dialogue is twenty-first century conscious rather than phrased for the mid-1970s. My curiosity is whetted – how has a mid-40s female actor been cast in a film intended for wide release in an atmosphere I’ve always known as one of absolute patriarchal domination?
We incrementally discover that the film is being shot as a long-held dream of the venerated founder of this production house as the banter unfolds. We are told that this is the co-directors’ way of honouring their father’s legacy and catapulting Hindi films to the mainstream. In doing so, Manjit envisions the creation of an expansive market for a more globally-oriented, internationally aware appreciation for cinematic art.
As we take a moment to piece together some of the culture-specific references to a rapidly globalising milieu, I reflect on the trajectory between this time of hope in the play’s 1970s setting and our current lurch to ethnonationalism. My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak seems to call the depth of our aspirations into question, even as the masterfully-played sibling tension between co-director characters Kamala and Roshan plays out before us. Consummately brought to life by Sanaya Doctor and Mayen Mehta respectively, we are treated to the familiar-sounding banter we might expect from a testy collaborative partnership to create a larger artistic work. I find myself rooting for Shankar as he finds a way to channel his optimism to attain his ambition as the first half concludes in the guise of taking ‘twenty’ from the crisis threatening to derail the production.
The knowledge that humanity shares particular desires for success, irrespective of geography or cultural identification, colours the plot of My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak. Here, we are presented with a play that powers across the finish line with a deft balance of comic relief on the one hand, and an exploration of the darkness surrounding our fears of failing on the other. The play communicates this creative intention effectively, but relies too heavily on the audience’s positive reaction to the slow-boil pace. Doctor’s performance keeps me hooked to the action, injecting crackling energy into the action.
We are gradually introduced to the unfortunate truth that older female actors are almost never cast. It hits me a second later – we are being encouraged to consider how our disappointments inform how we express ourselves as we go about our lives. Ranikumari’s persistent lashing out at the male characters around her reinforces a call to critique all-too-familiar examples of chauvinistic behaviours that we often take for granted. Pilapitiya’s effusive and layered performance is undoubtedly a highlight of My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak, as she makes light work of tackling these behaviour, wielding a well-honed craft.
The first half struggles with slow-boiled pacing. A more tightened version of the audience’s introduction to the premise in the first quarter would help to sustain the audience’s attention, while specific moments of character introspection could benefit from a more finely balanced pace for each specific plot point. I acknowledge that the five-fold ramped-up pace in the second half is true to life when looking at how films were shot in the mid-1970s in the world of Hindi cinema, so perhaps my critique departs from what would be expected by audience members with immersive experience in South Asian worldviews.
The energy brought to stage during the production’s second half is brilliantly led by Kamala and Roshan, and sublimely executed by the entire cast. We are guided through a moving series of swansongs as the plot hurtles toward its climax. I feel uncertain about the transition from rehearsing a scene to filming it – perhaps a little too fast for the audience to keep up. Apparently unfazed, the cast gallop forward into a joyous amalgamation of the Spaghetti Western with hints of Bollywood magic.
With a 2-hour performance including interval, the last scene is compressed into too small a space – the last 15 minutes. Karunaharan sacrifices narrative closure of individual storylines for a final scene that blows the audience away and an authentically overextended Bollywood-style dance number as a climax. I am captivated by the community dance group, bringing all of my mother’s memories of growing up in 1970s Bombay to the forefront of my nostalgic indulgences as I reflect on how much I enjoyed the soulful portrayal of artists struggling to be heard from a retrospective view. However, the audience is left rather stranded at the conclusion, reeling from a tangible inclination to applaud the witty humour fused with the palpable dread at confronting our own prejudices about how the patriarchy endures in our own environment. Character performances could have resonated more powerfully if the play had followed the characters’ resolutions after filming was completed.
The inconsistencies of the play’s pacing do not however detract from the thematic exploration of a post-colonial society reeling from widespread economic discontent and a political culture steeped in venality. In this performance, these themes are anchored by the omnipresence of patriarchy outside the film studio, and a welcome awareness of its tendrils on the part of the characters indoors. We are lulled by the cheesy, overdone gestures as the characters stand up and contest established gender norms – a testament to Karunaharan’s smooth direction. We’re also asked to probe the tension between the world of the past and that of the present – a question that grounds the discussion around how we navigate intergenerational tensions when confronted with change.
In staging My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak, Silo Theatre has ventured into the territory of bolder drama – the kind which demands that audiences check their privileged comfort zones at the door. Heralding a more diverse range of stories making it to the stage is a step that the city of Tāmaki Makaurau sorely needs.
This production delivers on the grand expectations communicated by Padma Akula’s period-perfect costume design, Alexander Holloway’s skillful choreography and Sophie Roberts’ fine-tuned dramaturgy, with a few lingering reservations about the merits of keeping the speed to the very end.
My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak play is a powerful reminder that our communities are crying out to be heard, and that our stories are as resonant as those who came before and after us.
*Disclosure: I have been previously directed by Ahi Karunaharan in A Fine Balance.
My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak plays at Q Theatre until 14 December.