A couple of weeks ago, we were invited by our friend and neighbor to a play that he was staging in his basement. He explained that this was a new concept: instead of the audience going out to see a play, the play was brought to the audience. Basically, plays were staged in someone’s basement with a minimum of props and settings. The lights, the sound system and the curtains were all that was needed. Once the performance was over, the paraphernalia could be dis-assembled and put together at the next location where the play was to be staged.
Of course, there are some limitations as to the type of plays that can be staged in a basement. For one thing, there can be only a few actors, preferably less than four. Any more and they would get in each other’s way. Secondly, the scenery has to be kept to a minimum, the settings implied rather than explicit. These sound like serious handicaps and we were eager to see how the play would pan out.
The play we saw was called ” Sakubai” and it was a one -woman play about the life and travails of a domestic servant in Mumbai. Sakubai is the servant’s name and in the beginning of the play she is all alone in her employer’s apartment, the family members all being at work or at school. As she moves about cleaning the apartment , she tells us about her life, how she came as a young girl to Mumbai, her struggle to survive, her brief moments of happiness in a life of unremitting toil. Every now and then, the phone rings and as Sakubai answers it, we get to hear about her employer’s family and friends.
The play lasted 80 minutes and you might think that a lone character in an unchanging setting might make it static and boring. Not at all. I was surprised to hear that Vidula Mungekar, the actress who plays Sakubai works full time as an occupational therapist. Acting in dramas is only a part time avocation but her performance as Sakubai is magnificent, something even a professional actress would be proud of. For the eighty minutes that the play listed, the audience was completed enthralled as they watched in pin-drop silence. Vidula was completely in character throughout even though the front row of viewers was barely three feet away. For those eighty minutes, she maintained her concentration throughout, spoke her lines faultlessly and had us believing that were watching Sakubai herself, not an actress playing Sakubai.
The play was written by Nadira, the wife of the erstwhile actor Raj Babar. Sakubai’s monologue is in a mixture of Hindi and Marathi, just what you would expect from a village girl who has come to Mumbai from her village in Maharashtra. Sakubai never complains about her lot but the things that she has gone through stir our emotions and tug at our heartstrings. Her handicapped father who passes away too soon, her mother who brings her to the big city to earn a living, her being put to work so that her younger brother can get an education ( something she would have dearly wished for herself), the way she is treated by her employers,her marriage to a good man that ends all too soon… these are all brought to life in the play. Early on, there is one incident that brings home to us the difference in the lives of Sakubai and those she works for. She tells us about young Rocky, the ten year old scion of the house who is only interested in TV and cricket and has to be cajoled to eat. She has to chase him from one room to another, begging him to eat a biscuit or two and drink his milk. Then , matter of factly, she comments that if she were to show one biscuit to the children in her slum, they would all be chasing her for a chance at the biscuit.
Watching Sakubai is like a punch in the gut. There are thousands of Sakubais in real life but we never think about them and the struggles they go through. This is a poignant, well written play and, as it unfolds, viewers cannot but admire Sakubai. The way in which she uncomplainingly meets the challenges in her life is an object lesson to all of us.
This play will appeal most to those who have lived in Mumbai and are familiar with domestic servants. People from elsewhere may not understand the mixture of Hindi/ Marathi that Sakubai speaks in. Regardless, no matter where you are from, this play is a minor masterpiece and not to be missed.