"How quickly you forget the emergency and the desperate measures of our Prime Minister - and now she's assassinated!"
Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance is a poignant reflection on India's authoritarianism during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's reign, specifically the state of emergency from 1975-77.
Adapted by Sudha Bhuchar and Kristine Landon-Smith, this production is directed by the versatile theatrical maestro Ahi Karunaharan and brought together through the joint forces of Prayas Theatre and Auckland Theatre Company.
Focusing on the intense period of upheaval during Gandhi's emergency, Mistry's narrative follows the adventures of Ishvar (Mustaq Missouri) and Om (Mel Odedra), two tailors who have left their village with dreams of success in the city. Driven by ambition and a desire to redeem themselves after suffering the injustice of the caste system, they make friends with beggars, find a new home in the slum and gain employment under the watchful eye of the widowed entrepreneur Dina (Rashmi Pilapitiya).
Deep slices of life are presented, not just between the rich and the poor but those wedged, often cruelly, between the layers of society. Beggars need beggar-masters, tenants must have landlords, widows fend for themselves with "two-paisa businesses" and a nation of 700 million that was the poster child for democracy is subject to the whims of a tinpot autocrat.
Karunaharan's production is deeply poetic, the women sweep, sweep, sweep - the remnants of the past, the remains of the war between Indian and Pakistan, the unemployed and homeless themselves. They are all inevitably caught up in a relentless dismissal of life and civil liberties.
Setting the play in the round occasionally renders some of the action invisible and acoustics on opening night make some of the dialogue tricky to hear, both of which distract from the intimacy of the performances. However, there are some deeply felt moments dotted throughout the production, and the final scene is heart-wrenching.
The cast of 18 showcase the strength, diversity and skill of Aotearoa's South-East Asian theatre community and deserve to be lauded especially so closely following the landmark production of TEA in 2018. The team, including assistant director Sananda Chatterjee and costume designer Padma Akula, join Karunaharan in showcasing quality talent offstage.
In addition to the directing and striking costume palette, Tim Williams' lighting, Tupua Tigafua's choreography and Paul Lewis' puppets are outstanding additions to a traditional dramatic text.
Exceptional performances are given by the leads, especially Pilapitiya, Missouri and Odedra; with Ravikanth Gurunathan (the crippled beggar) and Mayen Mehta (Dina's young paying guest) also crafting notable characters. Aman Bajaj, who unexpectedly found himself performing on crutches, also gave an unassailable performance, making the most of his unforeseen props with gusto.
Ultimately, A Fine Balance is a stirring production, political and reminiscent of the dangers of forgetting our past, too easily, too soon.
What: A Fine Balance
Where & when: Rangatira at Q Theatre, until Saturday, July 6
Reviewed by Dione Joseph