From Broadway to bay: Director Trishla Patel explores various themes, emotions in her latest story

Reviving The Graduate for Indian audiences, director Trishla Patel explores various themes and emotions in this coming-of-age story
Tejaswini Kolhapure and Shashank Vishnu Dutt in a still from the play
Tejaswini Kolhapure and Shashank Vishnu Dutt in a still from the play

Benjamin Braddock squirms with discomfort when Mrs Robinson enters his bedroom, and the audience squirms with him. After all, who wouldn’t if an older woman enters their room when they are not adequately clothed? In one of the most interesting scenes from The Graduate—Terry Johnson’s stage adaptation based on the novel (written by Charles Webb) and the iconic 1967 Hollywood film starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft—the burgeoning equation between the older woman and the younger man is established from the word go. Set in the 1960s in Southern California, the coming-of-age story had its run at both the Westend and Broadway. 

On June 10 and 11, audiences in Mumbai had the opportunity to watch the sensuous Mrs Robinson seduce young Ben when theatre director and actor Trishla Patel staged The Graduate at the Prithvi Theatre. Tejaswini Kolhapure, making her return to theatre after a gap of nearly 15 years, is near-perfect as Mrs Robinson, an alcoholic woman battling loneliness in her unhappy married life. Benjamin, played by Shashank Vishnu Dutt, is lonely too—he feels alienated from his upper-class life and is uncertain about his future. It is this desolation that acts as a catalyst in bringing them together.

For Patel, who bought the rights to the play last year and decided to revive it on the Mumbai stage, it is this aspect of isolation that attracted her. “Loneliness brings them together; also, the exhaustion of living according to society’s norms. That is what I am interested in exploring through this play,” says the theatre practitioner who has been active on stage since 1988. Having worked with stalwarts such as Naseeruddin Shah, Satyadev Dubey and Sunil Shanbag among others, she started her production company spot in 2010. In pop culture, Mrs Robinson has become synonymous with an older woman pursuing a younger man. For Patel, she is not just a sensuous character, but a woman who is trying to stand up for her rights in a patriarchal society.

Talking about the seduction scene, the director says she was initially apprehensive about how to approach it. “I was wondering what goes on in a woman’s mind or body when she sees the guy she is hunting down. Every woman has the same sensibilities and the same needs. I didn’t need to approach it intellectually because the instincts are primal and base,” she recalls. Kolhapure and Vishnu-Dutt second Patel when they say the scene flowed organically once they started rehearsing.

Similarly, a moment at the hotel which kickstarts their affair, according to Patel, is more to do with how much they enjoy each other’s company, than just focusing on sex. “There is so much comedy in sex; for example the first time the two meet in a hotel room, Ben is visibly awkward and Mrs Robinson teases him… We have played with such moments,” she adds.  Another segment at the hotel, a couple of rendezvous later, shows Mrs Robinson’s inadequacy in opening up to Ben about her life and marriage—
a running theme in the two-hour play. Later, a drunken scene between Mrs Robinson and Elaine (played by Fatema Arif)—her daughter who Ben eventually falls in love with—says much about their almost toxic relationship.

For Patel, the challenge was to crack both acts, as they are quite different from each other. “Act 1 has moments which are lighter, but Act 2 is a reality of what is going on and nobody likes facing it. It was difficult, even for the actors,” she says. Fortunately for Trishla, she has an able supporting cast including Kenneth Desai, Digvijay Savant, Kiyomi Mehta and Garima Yajnik. Under Patel’s watch, the play has not undergone any changes or tweaks to appease the Indian audience. “It is the way it is in the original. This is how I wanted to put it up on stage,” she says.

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