THERE'S ONE quality that makes Mahesh Dattani special. He's the Gujarati boy-next-door whose individuality rings true. Whether as the playwright whose "Dance like a Man" — which has seen over 150 performances from Bangalore to Mumbai, from London to New York since 1989 — vividly enacts the traumas of a man in the diva-oriented world of dance. Or as the young theatre director who, disappointed with English translations of Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad and Badal Sircar, wrote his first play, "Where there's a Will," in 1984. Or as the debutant director of "Mango Soufflé," a film released in Bangalore, New Delhi, Mumbai and Pune on February 28, 2003.
"I write for my milieu, for my time and place — middle-class and urban Indian," confesses Dattani, now 44. "My dramatic tensions arise from people who aspire to freedom from society."
Words that prove valid within the context of "Mango Soufflé," shot in Bangalore over 23 days, a low-budget venture that whips the wraps off middle-class India, a "metero-sexual love story" that hoists a major skeleton out of our collective closets — freedom of sexual choice. Upfront, unambiguous, the film journeys into the world of gays through a love triangle that turns into a quadrangle with startling results.
The film is adapted from Dattani's 1998 play, "On a Muggy Night in Mumbai," the least-produced of his oeuvre so far. "So far, only Lillette Dubey of Mumbai's Prime Time has done it. It's a play that directors fight shy of. Maybe because we're still squeamish about sexuality, especially when it's out in the open, not making any bones about alternate sexuality or gay relationships," explains Dattani.
Shot at a picturesque farmhouse outside Bangalore, the film is distinguished by unusual values. Perfect casting, for one. Such as National School of Drama or NSD-trained, Solapur-born Atul Kulkarni in the pivotal role of Edwin, the prized love object, whose intense, speaking eyes that veer between vulnerability and cockiness almost sear the edge off Dattani's humour-laced dialogue. Then, there's the delicate Rinkie Khanna as his fiancé Kiran, her pretty pastel froth masking a spine of steel. And Ankur Vikal, another talent-packed NSD graduate, as the pony-tailed fashion designer Kamlesh, Kiran's brother, whose farmhouse brunch brings about a day of reckoning. Each cameo character, each supporting role, is wrought with care.
Most seasoned theatregoers would expect no less of Dattani, known for his gender-sensitive voice, his receptivity to issues shrouded by urban doublespeak. Advertising and theatre guru, Alyque Padamsee, once credited this Sahitya Akademi laureate with "giving 60 million Indians an identity". Through plays like "30 Days in September," which dealt with incest with insight in 2001. Or "Final Solutions," an exploration of communal disharmony, commissioned by Padamsee prior to December 1992. Or his script for director K.P. Sasi's "Ek Alag Mausam", a love story about an HIV-positive woman and a man she meets at a hospice, a film that has yet to reach the public arena.
"I'm not looking for something sensational, which audiences have never seen before," asserts Dattani. "Some subjects, which are under-explored, deserve their space. It's no use brushing them under the carpet. We have to understand the marginalised, including the gays. Each of us have a sense of isolation within given contexts. That's what makes us individual."
Returning to "Mango Soufflé", Dattani says, "Whether its directly sexuality or gender, I feel these are expressions of one's true self. I wasn't bothered about whether I wanted to be part of a genre like art or parallel cinema. I've always admired the films of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. "
How would audiences respond to the far-from-everyday theme? Recalling the Mumbai staging of "On a Muggy Night in Mumbai", he says, "During the interval on opening night, I overheard the husband of an elderly couple behind me, say: `You know, in Europe, they actually allow gay people to marry; men marry men, women marry women... ' She said, `I read about it. Now things are changing. All this is in the open.' There was no judgment in their conversation, only wonder. I felt so moved by it."
What encounters during the shoot does he cherish? Referring to a key underwater seduction scene, Dattani says, "We could only afford to fly in underwater filming equipment from Mumbai for one day. I had no clue what was being captured because, on my monitor, all I could see was blue. I had to trust the actors to do what I wanted, while making sure they were in the frame. When I saw it while editing, I said: God bless their hearts!"
Screened at film festivals at Bangkok, Austin, and the Sydney Mardi Gras since August 2002, "Mango Soufflé" is the official Indian selection of the London gay and lesbian film festival. It is slated to be shown at Turin, Toronto, San Francisco and Tokyo. Non-mainstream, star-less, how will "Mango Soufflé" fare? Its Dattani-style humour provides a comfortable distance from which to grapple with its unusual subject. Classily couched, its deconstruction of artificial gender constructs is a theme whose time has come.