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Real India in the limelight

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STAGE MATTERS: Nishi Doshi and Prerna Chawla in Purva Naresh's 'OK, Tata, Bye Bye'

How would London theatre audiences react to a festival of plays about contemporary India's urban angst? With great enthusiasm, it turns out.

Mumbai's BEST buses are not normally discussed on the London stage. Nor, for that matter, are Kashmiri djinns, Pune's traffic jams or Mumbai's ruthless property developers. But a season of new plays at London's prestigious Royal Court Theatre saw the most unlikely minutiae of life in India served up to British audiences.

And they lapped it up. One after another, five new plays by Indian writers sold out - and saw audiences moved by the plight of a hardworking family man in Pune facing redundancy, squirming at an obsequious politician, and delighting in a kite-flying truant schoolboy.

Twelve playwrights from across India were chosen to develop ideas for stage in collaboration with Mumbai's Rage Productions and London's Royal Court.

They were encouraged to tackle issues facing contemporary India and, through a process that started as early as 2010, the playwrights worked at their ideas through workshops and mentoring. The resulting plays were then performed in their original language of Marathi, Hindi or English at Mumbai's Prithvi Theatre in January.

Of these 12, five were chosen to be put on as rehearsed readings in London.

Addressing very topical issues and set firmly in Indian settings, many were worried the plays simply wouldn't translate on to the London stage. Ayeesha Menon's play Pereira's Bakery at 76 Chapel Road follows a Catholic baker, retired army major and Indian Idol aspirant as they battle property developers determined to knock down their colony in Bandra to replace with a glitzy mall and parking lot.

The playwright was worried that the story would go right over the head of an audience which has no clue about Mumbai's Catholic community or its property rackets. "I was so nervous they wouldn't get the references, " says Menon. "But they actually laughed at things I would never have expected. "

Elyse Dodgon, director of the Royal Court Theatre's international department, believes it is in fact the detail that interests London audiences most. "There's such a hunger to know about India here - and to break down older assumptions, " she says. "They want local details, universality happens automatically if the script is good. If a play is written for universality then I don't want to see it!"

On their journey from Prithvi to Royal Court, the plays naturally took on slightly new guises - even without the playwrights changing a word. They had different directors, some had to be translated into English, and the actors were all changed. In fact, many of the Royal Court actors were second- or third-generation Indians - familiar with the rhythms and cadences of the language but as clueless about the background and references as anyone else.

But, of course, some things are inevitably lost in translation. Sagar Deshmukh's play Leftovers is about a working class Pune family torn apart when the father and main breadwinner loses his job. His daughter struggles to pay college fees, his wife becomes obsessed with puja rituals, and gradually the middle-aged man cracks under the pressure, with devastating consequences.

The characters are close to Deshmukh's own heart, but when he hears their conversations translated from Marathi to English, he admits even he has trouble recognising them. "It sounds completely foreign to hear my characters speaking English, " he says. "The play is about lower-middle class Maharastrians - they would not speak English at home like this. "

Purva Naresh also had to work around a new audience when adapting her play OK Tata Bye Bye. In a scene where two girls are falling in love with foreigners the song in the background is Nachoon odhni odh ke aaj, ki dil pardesi ho gaya from Tere Naam. "In India, people understand the reference, " says Naresh. "But here, that will be lost completely. "

The playwrights as well as the plays have been taken on a long journey. Working in films in Mumbai, Naresh has been to London for work on occasion to attend swish premieres for the likes of Raavan and Kites. "I did the la-di-da work thing, the fancy hotels and limousines, but it's so great to have time to actually see London - to have a sense of living. We talk to people, do our shopping at Tesco, use our Oyster cards on the tube to get to the theatre, " she says.

For the playwrights, it is hoped this collaboration is the first of many. "They're part of the family now, " says Dodgson. "We don't want to lose them. " She hopes some of the plays will be picked up by other theatre companies for full performances.

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