“Is eating chilly chicken being less cruel to animals than eating steak?” asks Vinayak Deshpande’s wife when he is smitten with guilt after he has, unwittingly, eaten the meat of the unmentionable in Australia.
Double standards like this and religious idiosyncrasies are laid bare, with dollops of humour, in veteran dramatist Makarand Deshpande’s Pitaji Please. Vinayak (charmingly portrayed by lyricist-singer-composer-writer-actor Swanand Kirkire), a widower, who bristles with rage if described as a progressive Hindu and prides himself on being a Hindi-speaking, Hindu nationalist, has long conversations with his liberal, Marathi-speaking dead wife. He also revels in provocative discussions with his son Sanjay (played by the late actor Shashi Kapoor’s grandson, Zahan) who normally counters his father’s conservative views with an exasperated “Pitaji please….”.
But when Sanjay wants to marry Sania (played by Aakanksha Gade) he cannot walk out of the room with this refrain. Sania is a vegetarian, helmet-wearing bike-rider, not a meat-eating, hijab-wearing traditionalist, but none of this matter because she is not a Hindu. Period. Vinayak will not agree to this match. Sania, too, dare not tell her family that she wants to marry Sanjay Deshpande, a Hindu.
So, Sania becomes Swati (Sanjay’s mother, too, was Swati) when she meets Vinayak; and Sanjay becomes Shahid to win over her family, with ‘Assalam alaikums’ and ‘Walaikum salaams’ thrown in for better effect.
Accepting Swati as his son’s fiancée is easy for Vinayak. Since she is Swati, her love for Urdu shayari and ghazals is also acceptable. So far, so fine. But what happens when Sania decides to reveal her real identity?
Vinayak Deshpande goes through a process of deep introspection, torn between his love for his son and his love for his country, arguing with his dead, plain-speaking wife (played by Snehal Malgundkar), with his domestic help Heerabai (Madhuri Gawli) whose humorous repartees bring the house down, and, of course, with Sanjay.
“The best part of my character,” points out Swanand, “is that he is ready to reason, ready to see what love can do. I like him because he has the courage to accept his drawbacks. His conversations with his dead wife are his arguments with his inner self.”
Rigid though he may appear at first, Vinayak Deshpande is a person the audience, too, grows very fond of.
There is a stirring sequence of Sania narrating a nightmare to Vinayak. Fleeing from both, Muslim and Hindu fanatics, she knocks on the doors of a mosque and a temple. But, she is told, they cannot open the locks of either till the courts give them permission to. Helpless, terrified, she doesn’t know whom to turn to. “They wouldn’t let me meet Allah or Bhagwan,” she recalls, trembling with fear. Hearing her tortuous tale, the basically warm-hearted Vinayak takes her in his fold, ready to even let his son convert to Islam.
Makarand, who wrote and directed the play, says he believes in the innate goodness of man.
“I did not write in favour of or against any community. I want everyone who sees my play to think it is their play, irrespective of where they come from. No one should feel alienated.”Makarand Deshpande
Reminding one of a very young Shashi Kapoor, Zahan Kapoor, who makes his debut as an actor with Pitaji Please, provides the perfect foil to Swanand’s Vinayak. Zahan’s portrayal of youthful innocence, shorn of any set belief, makes a convincing case for love in the times of bigotry. It is a subject that both his grandfather and great- grandfather too have projected on screen and stage respectively, but seems relevant even today.
“That communal issues are still potent is unfortunate,” replies Zahan when you draw the parallel. “But for me, being a story-teller is the key drive. What I find very exciting about theatre and films is that there will always be stories to tell, feelings to share and ideas to explore.”
Combining warmth, wit, irony, poetry and music to question stereotypical mind-sets, Makarand tells his story well, ending his play with powerful lines from a Rajesh Reddy poem:
Thoda Hindu tu bhi hai,
Thoda Mussalman main bhi hoon,
Ek insaan tu bhi hain,
Ek insaan main bhi hoon.