But at every step of the production, the director found herself competing with Shankar Nag’s hugely popular television series, Malgudi Days

You can watch Swami and Friends on stage in Bengaluru and smell the filter coffee tooImage source: Screenshot; Visual Respiration/YouTube
Features Tuesday, October 13, 2015 - 20:35

Being able to smell the filter coffee while watching Swami and his friends go about their escapades is something that only theatre can do for an 80-year-old story told in a novel first, and then in a hugely popular television series.

Earlier this month Bengalureans were treated to a re-creation of Swami’s house, complete with filter coffee, as they watched performances of “Swami and Friends” based on RK Narayan's 1935 classic of the same name.

Theatreperson Aruna Ganesh Ram, who adapted the novel into a play in English, was up against a formidable task when she decided to turn the novel into a play six years ago.

"We had to be very selective about what to keep and what not to," explains Aruna.

Narayan’s troublesome trio – Swami, and his friends Mani and Rajam – are not easy to keep up with.

But once Manasi Subramaniam had carefully and painstakingly condensed the novel into 90 minutes, they wondered whether child actors could capture the spirit of the three central characters in the story who are aged between 10 and 13.

Although it required a lot of observation of body language, Aruna says they ultimately decided to rope in older actors for all but Swami’s character. "The actors are much older but give an illusion of being younger,” she says.

Except the 13-year-old boy who plays Swami, the other actors in the play are aged between 21 and 26.

But at every step of the production, Aruna found herself competing with Shankar Nag’s hugely popular television series, Malgudi Days, the title of which, many believe is a portmanteau of two localities of Bengaluru – Malleswaram and Basavangudi.

"Not only is the book popular, but the tele-series was also hugely successful. People have visuals of Malgudi in their minds. I did not want to remove those visuals with my play, but I was worried about how I'd meet their expectations," says the Bengaluru-based director.

So how does one re-create everything from a typical Tamilian Brahmin household to the Albert Mission School that Swami went to and the forests and streets on the sets of a play?

It’s here that the filter coffee comes in.

Aruna wanted to make the performance an experiential one for the audience. As a medium, theatre gave her the means to use the sense of smell to transport the audience to the 1930s. In a scene which takes place inside Swami's house, the aroma of filter coffee wafts into the noses of the audience, Aruna says.

Other aspects of the townscape were more difficult to design. “We decided to go minimal. We used wooden boxes of different shapes and sizes to give the illusion of a landscape. Wood was a common choice because not only is it natural, it also gives a warm feeling," Aruna says.

When it came to music too, Aruna found she had to deal with the signature tune from Malgudi Days. “Many people have the tune from Malgudi Days as their ringtone even today,” says Aruna.

So she collaborated with MT Aditya and specifically asked him to predominantly use percussion instruments, which she felt gave out a naughty and bubbly vibe.

The play will next be performed at the Ranga Shankara theatre in the city on October 23 and 24. The makers plan to take the play to schools in Bengaluru and Mysuru before venturing out of the state.

“Everyone can connect to the story of Swami and his friends in different ways. For some it is nostalgia, for some it is going back to simpler times and for a few it is the politics embedded in the play. An eight year old and an 80 year old person can watch the play together and enjoy it,” Aruna says.

After the first performance on October 2, there were 10 more shows and to Aruna, the “overwhelming” response from the audience is an indication that she has more than met their expectations.

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