Tamil drama, then and now

Madhu Balaji and Crazy Mohan in Chocolate Krishna. Source: Deccan Chronicle
Madhu Balaji and Crazy Mohan in Chocolate Krishna. Source: Deccan Chronicle

It is not often that I go to watch a drama on stage. Whenever I go, I find it refreshing. It is a good change of pace from usual high strung superhero movies and sloppy rom-coms that are way too common in the recent times.

The drama I went to last month in Mylapore Fine Arts Club was a combination of four short plays lasting 20 minutes each. It was presented by a theatre group called Theatre Marina. Of the four dramas enacted, two was written by late writer Sujatha – Ammonium Phosphate and Vaasal (entrance) and two original plays by their writer Arun Kumar.

When you think of drama, you usually associate it with older people who act, write and direct just like its audience base. Surprisingly, the group was a good mixture of the old and young. Even the directors were two newbies – Ashish and Mahalakshmi. For first timers, they had done a pretty good job.

The one-year-old Theatre Marina has close to 50 part-time members who are IT professionals, Chartered Accountants, management consultants and freshers in corporate offices. It is their love for theatre that brought them together. When I spoke to Keerthi Mariappan, founder the group, he said drama culture in Chennai is not what is used to be decades ago. “The group is our attempt at reviving the culture,” he said.

Mylapore was once known for its sabhas and its share of theatre groups that compete with each other. While I was waiting for the play to start, I happened to listen to one of the audiences, who must be in his early seventies in green t-shirt, grey pant and thick glasses, and his conversation with his friend. He said to his friend that unlike decades ago, sabhas do not pull in as much crowd. Recalling his good old younger days, he said, “When I was in my twenties, there was no television. So after work, I go to Naradha Gana Sabha in the evening to watch drama. There is always one group or other performing.”

“In our days we go to work at 10 a.m. and come back home by 5 p.m. But now the concept of 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. is lost. With all this internet the line between office and work is blurring. So how do you think people will come?,” his friend, another gentleman in white check shirt and black pant, responded.

That is exactly how the life is. Theatre and drama culture that once thrived began to wither with the advent of television and internet. Even now, the kind of crowd you see are older people who once enjoyed theatres and very less younger generation. Crazy Mohan and S Ve Sekar’s group performance draw a considerable crowd now and then. Smaller drama troupes and actors have now disappeared.

When I was talking to Crazy Mohan when he had come to my workplace, he said though older people participate more in theatres, the interest is slowly reviving amongt the young. “But the number of groups that produce drama still remains the same till date,” he said. That is it his contemporaries still ruling the world of Tamil stage drama. Though there are stand-up comedians and theatre groups that stage performance, they are still very few and mostly self-financed like Theatre Marina. Theatre groups like Marina pool money from their own pockets, which would be anywhere between ₹50,000 to ₹2 lakh, for one round of performance. There is no profit as most of these shows are free and this is how they draw people.

Dramas were rich in history and were considered a powerful medium once. During Indian struggle for independence, British annihilated drama groups that attempted tell people the reality people faced under their rule. They were captured, tortured and sometimes killed. You will see that most of the yesteryear comedians and heroes like late Cho Ramasamy and Sivaji Ganesan were a part of drama group before they attained celebrity status in Tamil cinema. Not only that drama those days had variety with good dose of comedy that was thought provoking. 

Fast forward to now, Tamil theatre culture is dwindling with very groups and not so rich content. Comedy is now laced with so much sexual innuendos that you do not feel like laughing any more. There are only few plays that make you think and relevant in current times. Crazy Mohan feels there is dearth of interest among the current generation to revive the culture. “We do have youngsters in our group. But with so many form of entertainment, it is no wonder that Tamil drama is losing interest,” he says.

Though few like Evam and Stray factory has cropped up, he feels there is a long way to go.

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