Mumbai Notebook

Anil Dharker is a journalist and former editor. He is an Open columnist
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The love of theatre, season of mangoes and buzz of Ramzan

THE LONGEST RUNNING play in the world is not a musical. In fact, it is a murder mystery called The Mousetrap which has been running in London’s St Martin’s Theatre since 1952. That’s 68 years! Based on Agatha Christie’s short-story Three Blind Mice, its original producer thought it would run for 14 months. Christie herself gave it eight months. That’s probably why she gave the rights as a birthday present to her grandson. That’s some silver spoon in the mouth.

Generally, of course, it’s musicals which rule both New York’s Broadway and London’s West End. The hottest ticket in both places at present is Hamilton, an unlikely sung and rapped musical based on one of America’s ‘Founding Fathers’, Alexander Hamilton, with the twist that Black actors play the lead White characters. Aladdin, another musical hit on Broadway and West End, made a surprising but well received debut in India.

Surprising because putting on a musical needs more than small change—most Broadway musicals cost $10-20 million to stage. To recover money of that kind, you need high ticket prices and a long run. The Mumbai production did have high ticket prices (Rs 2,500 to Rs 15,000), but its ‘long’ run was for a month. The Broadway production is now in its eighth year. That kind of sums up why theatre in India is still largely an amateur activity, sustained by love, not commerce.

Not all theatre in the West is commerce: in England, its National Theatre and Royal Court in London, and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford upon Avon are all heavily subsidised by the government and by local authorities. Do our state bodies support theatre? They charge Entertainment Tax instead.

Based on the Walt Disney Film of 1992, the Aladdin we saw was great fun. Directed by Shruti Sharma, the ads boasted of ‘350 costumes! 14 locations! 50 performers!’ but left out the magical special effects, especially the flying carpet, no doubt to catch the audience by surprise. As in most Disney productions, the show’s biggest scene stealer is not the lead character, but a ‘side kick’. Here, it’s the genie—he has the best costumes, the best lines and the best scope to ham it up.

Do we need more Aladdins in India? Of course we do. Disney earlier did a wonderful production of Beauty and the Beast in Mumbai, but that too had its ‘long run’ of a few weeks. What the city needs is Aladdin’s magic lamp, and a genie which conjures up enough people for a play to run continuously for a year.

MUMBAI’S MANGO season doesn’t have a long run either, but that’s the fault of nature, which squeezes it in into three months of summer. Votaries of other mango varieties keep extolling their superiority, but they know in their hearts that it’s a losing battle. Alphonso is king, and will always remain so.

But as is often the case with royalty, there’s always an imposter or two. With prices pegged at Rs 600 a dozen at their lowest, there are the usual ripe-by-night operators who use artificial methods to ripen and even colour their produce. There are experts who claim to know the difference, but I haven’t met any yet.

The Nehru Science Centre, of all places, had a Mango Festival the other day. Even at 10 in the morning, the mango-sellers who had set up stalls in the tin-roofed shed were ripening by the second, so hot and stifling was it inside. That didn’t lower the prices, though. We bought super-sized Alphonso for Rs 800 a dozen, each mango a guaranteed 350 gm. The guarantee, as usual, didn’t cover the insides: a fourth of the box’s contents had gone bad in the centre. Always read the fine print.

IT’S NOW ALSO the holy month of Ramzan, and restaurants which cater to its pre-ordained meal times remain open when everything else is shut, and shut when everything else is open. Take a landmark of Colaba, the century-old Olympia Coffee House (surely a misnomer, for coffee is the last thing on your mind there). It downs its shutters right through the day, remaining open from 7 to10 pm as well as 3 to 4.30 am.

In India, fasting is often feasting, and Mohammed Ali Road, the heart of Muslim Mumbai, hums with not just the faithful, but people whose only religion is food. My late lamented friend, Ismail Merchant, was a regular here. I went with him once in a group including a few bewildered Americans as we walked the crowded street from restaurant to restaurant.

Finally, we settled down at one of the street tables where Ismail ordered a sumptuous meal. As we were wolfing down dish after dish, we noticed a small family group at an adjoining table. They too had tucked into their meal with the gusto of people who would not eat during the day. Half-way through their meal, the child placed on their table created a little puddle all around itself. The father picked the child up nonchalantly, and the meal continued as if nothing had happened.

I haven’t been there since.