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Review: Being Mrs. Gandhi by HuM Theatre

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The tragicomic life of the wife of India’s most iconic historical figure.

There is perhaps no better time than now to remember India’s most internationally renowned figure – Mohandas Gandhi. Commemorating the 150th year since his birth, HuM Theatre celebrates the anniversary with a play about the Mahatma. Yet, rather unusually, instead of directly portraying Gandhi himself, writer and director Subin Subaiah has chosen to use Gandhi’s wife as our eyes and narrator to tell the turbulent tale of politics and the movements he inspired.

From the moment she is introduced, Kasturba Gandhi (Daisy Irani) promises us a narrator who is almost always cheeky and entertaining, yet fiercely loyal to her husband from the day their eyes first meet to his final days as he lays dying in her arms. Over the course of Being Mrs. Gandhi, Kasturba takes us through her life as a child bride (played by Gauraangi Chopra) and the years that follow, as her husband leaves to attain a degree in law in London. Gandhi then returns to India and becomes the man he would be remembered for, along with bringing home the ensuing complications he has with authority and his own family.

Most significantly, what results from this play is Subaiah’s use of this rare chance to paint Gandhi not just as a towering hero of legend, but to humanise him by revealing his flaws, as seen through the eyes of his very own wife. Despite never being physically present in the play, his actions have an undeniable impact that is felt by all those around him. The Gandhi that Kasturba speaks of is not god-like, but simply a man, a great one at that, staunchly committed to his beliefs and methodology, one that leads to support from the masses and movements such as the epic Salt March of 1930 and Civil Disobedience Movement.

But simultaneously, these same beliefs are tempered with the revelation of a less than perfect family life, with two sons that have evidently been equally traumatised by their father in their upbringing, from years of ‘prison education’ leading to alcoholism and near-insanity for Harilai (Yogesh Tadwalkar) to a gaslit Manilal (Krish Natarajan) who willingly leaves a woman he loves on account of his father’s beliefs, yet still holding him in high regard. Gandhi may have been a hero to India, but an objectively awful father and husband in Being Mrs. Gandhi. 

If anything, it is Kasturba who emerges as an unexpected pillar of strength amidst all this, struggling to balance her dual roles as a devoted wife and a good mother. By far the strongest scenes in Being Mrs. Gandhi are those between Kasturba and her sons, providing snatches of genuine emotion that anchor the play. Here, Daisy Irani evokes an almost divine maternal energy as she tends to their respective problems, pained at their individual suffering yet knowing that she can only do her best to offer them comfort in these dark times. The scenes where she recounts her interactions with an invisible Gandhi remind one more of an aunt at a family gathering, gleefully complaining about her absent husband and his latest antics, outsmarting him and painting Kasturba as a capable woman who may just know Gandhi better than he knows himself. With how she accepts each of his increasingly bizarre ideas, it speaks of a woman with immense mental strength to survive and live through these constant readjustments to lifestyle and thinking.

Being Mrs. Gandhi does possess a number of odd directorial choices, such as setting the opening scene in a local kopitiam without explanation (if only to make references to kopi-o and kaya toast), or the script is stretched too thin by attempting to cover the entire history of Gandhi, sacrificing characterisation for a comprehensive collection of his achievements. Multimedia designer Genevieve Peck’s projections, while occasionally brilliant (the realistic visuals of waves lapping takes us right to the shoreline), often slips up with jarring aesthetics (a train rushing by looks cartoonishly hand-drawn in contrast to the realistic backdrop). Much of the time, the pacing drags, if only because there is simply not enough character groundwork laid out in the writing, who are mostly defined by their actions and interactions, concerned more with recounting history rather than plumbing their emotional depths.

But even with these flaws, Being Mrs. Gandhi should be acknowledged as a rare play that elevates Kasturba beyond simply being the supportive wife by Gandhi’s side. She is given a voice and dares speak out against Gandhi’s pristine image, and amidst her struggles and suffering, lifted via this play from the sidelines of history. In her final years, as Kasturba is thrown into prison once more, she reflects on all that she’s done in her life with Gandhi in her arms. Ending with a simple ‘I don’t know’, this woman does not realise that after tonight she is no longer just a forgotten sidekick to her husband, but a heroine in her own right.

Performance attended 5/10/19

Being Mrs. Gandhi plays from 4th to 12th October 2019 at the KC Arts Centre. Tickets available from ShowTickets

 

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