EQUUS AT THE PRITHVI IN MARCH 2010. And someone rang to ask if this was a new play. That call catapulted me almost three decades into the past. I can almost claim to be a chronicler of EQUUS.
Equus is the story of a disturbed young stable boy who blinds six horses, and a Psychiatrist who attempts to treat him and find out why. .and discovers he has a pathological religious/sexual fascination with horses.
The first production I saw in Mumbai, was in 1975, Directed by the unforgettable Pearl Padamsee with Rooky Dadachanji (now a dealer in Restoration furniture in Pune) as Alan Strang, and Vijay Crishna (who juggles Board Meetings with rehearsals) as the Psychiatrist Martin Dysart.. And I was in awe of Peter Shaffer and his writings.
In November 2009, Ranan -- a group from Calcutta -- staged their movement-based version of Equus at the Prithvi Festival.
In February 2010, the students of St. Xavier’s College opened Equus. And now are returning to Prithvi in March.
It was the Xavier’s connection that triggered off my flashback. It was in 1986, when a young student from St. Xavier’s College -- Varun Khanna -- ambitiously set up his own Production Company -- Stage Coach Productions -- and directed Equus as his first venture. And I walked the boards at the Sophia Auditorium as the Magistrate Hesther Saloman with Noshirwan Jehangir as Dysart and Rayomond Noble as the precocious Alan Strang.
Jeet Thayil reviewed the play in an erstwhile magazine called BOMBAY, Nov. 22, 1986 and wrote “Varun Khanna, who at 20 is certainly Bombay’s youngest director , makes an impressive debut….The horse heads have been lovingly crafted, nostrils magnificently flared, veins standing out in violent relief. It helps, of course, that Equus is a director’s delight; the script is so clear and precise it would be difficult to go wrong…..Gayatri Chowlera (can’t even recall her now) as Jill takes off her self-consciousness with her sweater, and from then on, she is an aesthetic treat. The love scene in the stable, especially, is done tastefully and without fear.”
A year later, Varun Khanna was in the US getting an MA at the University of Akron in Scenography, and then an MFA in Directing at Ohio State University. But Cinema seduced him away from theatre. And he made a very daring first film “Beyond Honour” which couldn’t be released in India because of its bold subject about ritualistic clitoris circumcision (female genital mutilation) forced upon a Westernized Egyptian American Medical Student in Southern California.
But for me, the greatest Equus experience was when that brilliant director of the Hindi stage Mahendra Joshi asked me to play the Magistrate in Hindi -- opposite another great of the Gujrati and Hindi stage Shafi Inamdar as the Psychiatrist named Dr. Rakesh Inamdar aka Martin Dysart, and a young Feroz Khan as Lalji aka Alan Strang. -- who burst onto the theatre scene in this remarkable production of Ekshuff.
It was the first time I was acting in Hindi, and I was nervous specially since I was pitted against the Hindi theatre greats of that decade. Initially rehearsals were at my home – a concession they made to my hectic schedule in those days – and my scenes mostly involved Shafi the psychiatrist and me.
I recall that Mahendra Joshi as my director seldom spoke to me directly – perhaps because of the language impediment. But I was in awe of him and his work. It was always the handsome Shafi who communicated whatever needed to be done or said.
In true theatre tradition, I had the entire cast and friends over to my flat for dinner after a performance in South Bombay (still) and Amir Khan with a single ‘a’ then also joined us for dinner along with his sister Nikhat who was recently married to Mahendra Joshi. And I have a photograph to commemorate the evening – but none of the performance.
I am not the only one to have had the privilege to attempt Equus in two languages.
In 1977, Mahendra Joshi did Equus as TOKHAR in Gujrati with Paresh Rawal as Alan Strang, and Shafi Inamdar as the Psychiatrist. Interestingly, in 2000, I also saw the Gujrati version “Tokhar” directed by Naushil Mehta with Ratna Pathak Shah as the Dr Anita Munshi and Amit Mistry (now in Chaos Theory)as Lalji.
A few months later, the theatre world was plunged into grief as it lost Mahendra Joshi and Shafi Inamdar in quick succession.
Feroz Khan -- after smash hits like Khelaiya and Royal Hunt of the Sun, and Mahatma v Gandhi which even had Boman Irani in it, got swayed by the magic of cinema and abandoned theatre and all of us, and became Feroz Abbas Khan so as not to be mistaken for the late Producer-Director-Actor Feroz Khan of Qurbani fame. You can now google him as Feroz Abbas Khan. Ekshuff even finds a mention and a photograph in The Prithviwalahs book. I must confess that being a part of Ekshuff finds a very special place in my theatre bio.
Two years ago walking down my favourite beat in London -- Leicester Square, I suddenly spotted the unusual EQUUS poster. And nothing attracted me more than the creative use of the human torso as the horse’s head. And I rushed in to see EQUUS at the Gielgud theatre in Shaftsbury Avenue.
Till then I was not aware that Daniel Radcliff of Harry Potter fame was performing as Alan Strang -- and that there were nude scenes of him. I went there to see a British version of the play that I had been a part of in 1986-87. I had played the Court Magistrate/Social Worker Hester Saloman in the English and Hindi version in then Bombay.
The magic of Equus is that no matter how many productions one sees, there is always a freshness in its staging. And I am looking forward to catching the March shows at the Prithvi.