Now that after retirement I am employed in a corporate, I am able to see the difference in work culture: you have people specifically for specific duties as given in their JDs or Job Descriptions. In the armed forces, one is expected to do everything as and when the need arises; and many a times someone else’s job too. No one tells you how; you learn as you go along. If the armed forces were to be a play or drama, there is rarely a prepared script or dialogues or plot; you ad-lib the entire thing. People’s lives are at stake, at times, and hence you better get your role right; the first time itself without any rehearsals. For example: “That over there is Tiger Hill. Now get it vacated of intruders.”
Why did I think of the Navy as a drama or a play when I was in active service? Well, come to think of it, even life is like that. But, I had one more reason: my fondness for acting and directing honed from my school and college days. In the NAVAC or Naval Academy, on the positive side, I was much in demand for plays and skits, even extempore ones during camps. On the negative side, I recall that a boxing bout between me and my course mate was stopped by the referee on the ground that whilst the entire thing looked very impressive complete with wincing and all that, he was sure that we should stop acting and get on with real boxing for a change. Actual blood and bruises followed after that and then only our officers and instructors were happy. Histrionics have their time and place elsewhere in the Navy, I learnt.
One such opportunity came my way when I was posted to Navy’s Leadership School at INS Agrani in Coimbatore. One fine day, our CO called a senior colleague and me to his office and said a letter had arrived from Southern Naval Command at Cochin for us to field a team at the Annual Dramatic Championship. He said the responsibility for taking this task on rested on my shoulders since I was the junior most officer posted there. He said my colleague Amarjit Bajwa would help me out.
Bajwa and I took our task rather seriously and that night discussed our strategy over several bottles of beer that continued till wee hours of the morning. In our drunken stupor a brainwave hit us; which is, that in order to enact a play, we require a script. So, next day we started searching in our library for play scripts. We found that the library was loaded with books on current affairs, history, poems, stories and the like; however, there was not a single play. In the next few days, we ransacked various libraries in and around Coimbatore; but we couldn’t find a suitable play.
We even went to the Staff College Library in Wellington by Bajwa’s Bullet mobike. But, it appeared that whilst in real – life in the armed forces, everybody is acting, there was a dearth of good play-scripts to help out people acting on stage.
After these expeditions, we involved a few sailors in doing a play. Various problems came our way. One prominent one was that most of the play scripts had some female cast. Our tall Regulating Petty Officer (Naval Police) was persuaded by us to put on a saree and shifting his role from being a terror in office to being a terror at home. But, somehow even the donning of Saree made no difference to his austere and upright naval police looks.
We tried a few sailors for their suitability in various roles and found that they were typically suited only for one role!
Dejected, one day, I performed various roles for Bajwa that I had performed in school and college and some that I would have wanted to do. In his no-nonsense mood, he wasn’t tickled. In one of these, I made him sit on a bench complete with his turban and beard. But imagining him as a girl, I approached him with a large sunflower, and wearing a tapori cap and started a dialogue that I had heard in one of Sunil Dutt’s movies, “Dilo dildaar, gulo gulzaar, ahd-e-bahaar, rango khumaar, film star, mallika-tarunnam, malika-e-jahan….” Before, I could finish with “….roop ki raani, baharon ki mallika…” Bajwa had given up on me as a gone case nut.
The date for staging the play was getting closer and it had come to last one week. Let alone rehearsing the play for a prestigious event, we hadn’t even selected a play. That day Bajwa was so annoyed with me that he could have eaten me alive.
That night, I wrote the script for a three-act-play titled Hamara Drama. Whatever we had done in search and preparation for the play was put in the first two acts. In the last act, Bajwa and I were sitting dejected that we still didn’t have a play and that everything had failed. And then yet another brainwave occurred to me and I tell him, “Why don’t we present our search for a suitable play and a cast as a play…is mein khushi hai, gham hai, bebasi hai, suspense hai, comedy hai, tragedy hai….aur kahin kahin to paagalpan bhi hai…hahahaha…hahahaha..exactly like our navy life..” The play ended there with a freeze shot. Bajwa and I, until the last day, kept adding to the dialogues in order to make them more satirical and comical.
When we went to Cochin for presenting the play, our hearts sank seeing the plays of other establishments. Each one of them had elaborate sets, cast, background music and other props. We had nothing. But, now, at that late stage could do nothing about it.
Ours was the last play on the second day. Each play was to be one hour’s duration with ten minutes given for changing sets. During our preparation time, Bajwa and I were sitting with the audience in uniform. When the curtain opened, we got up from the audience and performed on stage. It was a riot. The audience roared with every dialogue. For example, at one stage, I told Bajwa that I could do the famous Rajesh Khanna’s Anand movie dialogue, “Babu moshaye, ye zindagi ek rang manch hai aur ham sabb ismein kaam karne wali kathputliyan; in kathputliyon ki dore ooper waale ke haath mein hai. Kab, kahan, kaise kis kis ko uthana hai ye koi nahin jaanata…ha, ha, ha…ha, ha, ha..” And Bajwa asked me on stage, “But, what has this got to do with the naval audience?” And then I told him that we could modify it…and I enacted the modified dialogue:
“Babu moshaye, yeh navy ek rang manch hai aur hum sabb is mein kaam karne waale afsar ya sailor. Ham sabaki dore DOP (Directorate of Personnel) ke haath mein hai. Kabb, kaise, kahan kis kis ka transfer ho jaaye yeh koi nahin jaanata..ha, ha, ha…ha, ha, ha...”
I espied C-in-C and his wife in the front row having side-splitting laughs. It was difficult to proceed from one dialogue to the other throughout the play as the laughter and applause won’t die down. No one could believe we could actually present a play, a humorous take on how we did things in the Navy or for that matter in the armed forces.
The jury was unanimous in voting for Hamara Drama as the Best Play and yours truly as the Best Actor.
Some pictures of the play are still there with me but they are lying in my home-station Kandaghat in the baggage yet to be unpacked, after my retirement in Feb 2010. I shall, subsequently, put them up when I visit Kandaghat next. In the meantime, Bajwa could persuade his wife Jaya to search in his baggage and find some pictures (he himself is on his ship at sea). She was able to find one and I am putting it up:
Many years later, in the year 2003, I directed the inaugural play in Mulla Auditorium in Mumbai. The Chief of the Naval Staff was the Chief Guest. My son Arjun acted in it. I adapted it from a Moliere’s play and called it Suddenly In The Park. Navy is a life’s drama in which your families are also acting and involved!
I did many other plays. For example, in Peter Shaffer’s farcical play called Black Comedy, I was Schuppanzigh, the German electrician, sent to repair the fuse since the entire play is as if performed in the dark.
I also directed and acted in Mahesh Dattani’s play on incest called ’30 Days in September’. The fauji audiences are normally used to only two type of plays: comedies and suspense-dramas. We were not sure how the audience would view a serious play on incest. Our C-in-C summed up the response by saying, “If Mahesh Dattani had been present tonight at the staging of his play by this team, he would have really felt proud. I was, of course, the bad guy, the perpetrator of incest. For many months after the staging of the play, women and girls, in naval residential areas would scream and run for cover after seeing me.
The last one I did was in 2007, a Neil Simon play called ‘Come Blow Your Horn’. I also acted as the father of Alan and Buddy Baker. Just before the curtains, Aunt Gussie who was all the while only talked about made her appearance. The only problem was that we hadn’t got anyone to do Aunty’s role. So, after my last appearance as father, I quickly changed my clothes and make up and appeared as Aunt Gussie!
In the final scene of this three act play me appearing as Aunt Gussie with Buddy, the spoiled brat
That was true reflection of what Navy is all about; we change roles together with the situation; and, we do absolutely strange roles that people least expect us to do. We don’t ever say we ain’t ready for a particular role.
We also do many roles on the stage but not half as difficult or strange as in real life.
Babu moshaye, yeh Navy ek rangmanch hai…..
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