Had the author of Primetime Theatre Company’s Boiled Beans on Toast remained anonymous or pseudonymous, this review would not have gone beyond one paragraph. But Girish Karnad’s cachet gives us pause; one must crease one’s brows wondering, what have I missed? A celebrity’s mediocre work generates more attention in our media-driven culture than some unknown’s genuine creativity. So one revisits it repeatedly in one’s brain, but the exercise does not improve the impression it left.
Karnad, in his last three plays, has tried to marry stage with screen, which he had never done before, despite his close early links with film. The shift resulted in the bravura technological brilliance of Broken Images, where a television persona talks back to its flesh-and-blood self. But it flopped on Wedding Album, which reminded us of such movies as Monsoon Wedding. And it double-flops here, by recalling the now-common filmic trope of disparate lives in a metro (Bangalore) that chance to overlap and whose stories remain unresolved. Karnad’s dramas used to lead from the front in originality; of late, they have simply followed trends. Previously, his lines naturally spouted profundity; now he consciously strives for the occasional words of wisdom, which therefore come out forced.
The concept of slices of urban life works best cinematically where the camera’s photographic eye captures the myriad reality essential to cityscapes, while the medium’s editorial fluidity enables transitions in the blink of an eye. Theatre cannot compete in either domain, hence the finest playwrights have resisted depicting multiple metropolitan narratives. Karnad holds on to what dramatists do best — the human aspect, all the characters shown as flawed, nobody solely to blame — but he puts in so many (21) in an attempt to mirror diversity that their individual portraits cannot go deep.
The onus then falls on the performers to make the most of a raw deal of cameos. Lillete Dubey casts nine, each doubling up in several roles. Only Joy Sengupta stands out, not so much in his main appearance as an entry-level employee lured by a job in Singapore, but more in his quick-change bit parts speaking distinctively different south Indian lilts, like the driver (picture). The other two principals, Deepika Amin (a lonely upper-class lady) and Avantika Akerkar (a pathological name-dropper), face no acting challenge at all. Dubey extracts a wonderful array of languages and accents from the working class, like the maids (Gillian Pinto and Divya Unny), but not always credibly and consistently from the rest.