Jatinder Verma's Mughal transposition of Molière's Tartuffe for the National Theatre in 1990 drew universal plaudits. Now once more under the banner of his own Tara Arts company, he has returned to the same fertile source.
Verma's adaptation of The Bourgeois Gentilhomme is set in the French colony of Pondicherry in the southern India of the late 17th century. The merchant Monsieur Jourdain, ludicrously eager to elevate himself socially, here becomes successful fisherman Thirru Kaka Deen, hopelessly trying to buy in bulk the frills and furbelows, airs and graces which will unlock to him the world of the Annians, or French colonisers; in order to win his daughter's hand after Kaka's first snobbish rebuff, her suitor impersonates not the Great Turk but the Sun King himself.
Much play is made of Kaka Deen's desire to transform himself from a crow (the literal meaning of his name) into a peacock, and Vincent Ebrahim makes a fine strutting idiot, attempting to buy knowledge by the yard and discovering in the original play's most famous aphorism that he has been speaking prose all his life and never realised it.
Yet Verma's version is more than mere prose. He uses the term "Binglish" (by analogy with "Bollywood", the common coinage for the Bombay movie industry) to describe the fizzing East-West linguistic cocktail which his characters speak. The likes of Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth have conveyed the energy of this modern vernacular on the page, but hearing a classic French comedy rendered thus is another experience entirely. The unaccustomed ear is never allowed to attune fully; Verma is alert to the possibilities of "Binglish" for ridicule, as Kaka Deen fails time and again to master the formal "received" speech of the nobles whose favour he craves, and lapses back into his altogether livelier "natural" lexicon.
This cheery verbal syllabub re-enacts the central message which Tara's production elicits from the narrative: that energy, happiness and truth are found in hybridity rather than in trying to attain a phoney alien propriety. Kaka Deen is spoken of as a would-be social "coconut" – brown on the outside, white on the inside – yet when the play reverts in its final moments to the modern frame in which Verma has mounted it, the question, "Are you a coconut?" is met with a joyous, affirmative "Aren't we all?" The change and interaction of words and cultures is to be embraced: at one point a character quotes the central teaching of 20th-century guru Meher Baba; pauses; repeats it, and begins singing it... because that's what we now associate with the phrase "Don't worry, be happy," that's what it now means to us.
None of which is to damn the production as "worthy". The touring performance I saw managed (eventually) to seduce even a resolutely Surrey-commuter-belt audience into going along with the larks. Molière's "comédie-ballet" is rendered with song (accompanied on an arsenal of percussion by Joji Hirota), dance (choreographic consultant: Shobana Jeyasingh) and a kind of semi-improvised puppetry which sees Kaka Deen exchanging flatteries with an aristocratic mango wearing a tricorn. Verma's primary aim is celebration rather than profundity, and on that score The Bourgeois Gentilhomme succeeds comfortably, thank you.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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