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Nov 1, 2011

Mahes Dattani

Social Issues in the plays of Mahesh Dattani

WHAT sets Mahesh Dattani apart from other contemporary Indian playwrights in English today? Could it be his perfect cuing into burning issues of social relevance, ones we have collectively stashed away in dusty closet niches for generations? Issues pertaining to sexual identity, including the hijra community. Or child sexual abuse (CSA). Or hypocrisy about HIV-positive people. Or religious intolerance. Or gender inequalities. Or social stereotyping. Or even what constitutes the contemporary Indian family.

Ever since he first penned Where There's A Will in 1986, Dattani has treated each subject with a deep-seated identification rooted in everyday angst. Such charged emotions spare no one — neither the players and the director, nor the audience. Deep within platitude-ridden Indian society, his characters seethe and reveal, probe and discern, scathing their families and neighbours, leaving each reader or watcher with a storm within as the aftermath. An essential storm for our evolution as socially sensitive individuals.

The plays of Mahesh Dattani emerged as ‘fresh arrival’ in the domain of Indian English drama in the last decade of the twentieth century. His plays deal with “contemporary issues”. According to John McRae “They are plays of today sometimes as actual as to cause controversy, but at the same time they embody many of the classic concerns of world drama.” Dattani makes an abundant use of Indian mythology, rituals and traditions and contemporary problems. India is beset with but he elevates these themes to a higher level: love, happiness, sexual fulfillment and problem of identity. 

Dattani takes issues that afflict societies the world over. He has chronicled the social victim and the follies, foibles and prejudices of Indian society. Some of Dattani’s plays are eloquent defenses of society’s out casts and would be rebels. These plays include ‘On a Muggy Night in Mumbai,’ a compassionate look at the life and tensions of a homosexual community tricked away in Mumbai. This play with ‘Do the Needful’ is probably the first Indian plays to boldly deal with the subject of homosexuality. The play ‘Final Solutions’ is about partition. It reveals how the engendered suspicion only deepens from generation to generation.

Seven Steps Around Fire dwells on the theme of eunuchs, their identity, their constitution and their connotation. It is heart rendering story about eunuch, a beautiful one, invited for marriage, and the final tragic death-all seem to be a mis construct. This is all about marriage of a beautiful hizra Kamla to a son of a wealthy government minister named Subbu. The society accepts a hizra for gracing the ceremonies of marriage and births but would not allow them to portrayed of such ceremonies.

Tara is a riveting play that questions the role of a society that treats the children of the same womb in two different ways. Dattani’s ‘Tara’ is a poignant play about a boy and a girl who are joined together at the hip and have to be separated surgically, which will mean the death of either of the two. The fact that the injustice perpetuated by the victim’s own mother whose preference is to the male child, makes the play more powerful suggesting that it is woman who continues the chain of injustice. Tara is not just the story of the protagonist of the play ‘Tara,’ but the story of every girl child born in Indian family whether urban or rural. 

The prominent theme of Mahesh Dattani’s later plays is homosexuality and Gender Identity. Dattani’s plays are revelatory in nature. If, in ‘Where There’s a will,’ it is the ghost not of Hasmukh Mehta but of his father that has to be recognized in ‘Dance like a Man’. In ‘Bravely Fought the Queen,’ it is a host of issues that have to be revealed and faced from the homosexuality of certain characters. Dattani shows us the hollowness of middle class lives. 

Dattani’s plays have contemporary values and his plays can be said to have been impaired by Ibsen, the Father of Realism. Dattani handles every problem from gender issues to sexuality very successfully. Dattani’s achievement as a playwright depends on the fact that his plays are a slice of social life. They present reality as it exists.

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