EJJI IN THEATRE
My Theatre Life
My earliest appearance on stage was in Class II of Good Shepherd Convent, Madras, in the 1950s, when I appeared in a small scene as the "pie man" in "Simple Simon met a Pie man". The play had school children depicting nursery rhyme characters and was staged at The Museum Theatre. What little I remember is that I wore a Baker's cap made of paper on my head, and I was dry-mouthed with stage fright. I also remember wearing a paper apron, and one pin on one of my shoulders slipped and I had a hanging apron on one side. Bad beginning for an exciting future on stage indeed! My first director was a nun from Good Shepherd Convent.
Later, I used to do skits and short plays in Round Table and Rotary. But you cannot call them "plays".
I have been associated with the stage in various capacities due to my company advertising our services through tickets for English plays staged in Madras, since 1971. Ejji Domestic Service for many years did the ticketing of all English plays in Madras, not as a matter of generosity, but with a purely selfish motive. We had the elite of Madras society for captive advertising of our services. This is how I came to know "The Madras Players", India's oldest theatre group who have completed 50 years on stage now. I have served on the Committee of Management of The Madras Players for many years.
"The Dreams of Tipu Sultan" written by Girish Karnad, was my first major play. Director N.S.Yamuna cast me as "Osman Khan", the Commander of Tipu’s army, in "The Madras Players" production of the mammoth play. This play was staged in February 2000 for 5 days at the Open Air Auditorium in YMCA Nandanam, Chennai. I also did the part of Arthur Wellesley in the same play, in a scene that was done as a shadow play by back lighting the actors on to a white cloth screen, a novelty rarely ever repeated. The play was a big hit, and Girish Karnad himself watched the play one evening. It was literally a "70mm play", the vista of the stage being a few hundred feet in width! It had a cast of 40 actors not counting the "atmosphere actors". The back up and technical team was the best in their vocations. Sarika (Kamalahasan) did the costumes. Mohan Narayanan and Anil Srinivasan composed special music. At that point of time, it was the biggest play staged by The Madras Players.
"Phoenix" written by Anushka Ravishankar was my next major play. Bhagirathi Narayanan directed this. I play the character Narayan a handicapped person in a wheel chair. This was the specialty about this role. It was a unique experience, as I had to show all emotions using only my face. It opened in Chennai, and being a serious play, had a niche audience. It was selected as one of the seven plays by Royal Court Theatre, London, in association with the British Council in India & Sri Lanka and the Artiste Repertory Theatre (ART), Bangalore for performance in the StageRite Festival in Bangalore in October 2002.
"Squabbles" by Marshall Karp is my favorite play. A roaring comedy, it was directed by Noshir Rathnagar, one of the doyens of "Theatre Comedy" in the country. My role was as Abe Dreyfusss, an old man, the key character. Squabbles was quite a hit with many shows in Chennai and Coimbatore.
"Funny Money" by Ray Cooney was another hit I acted in. Directed by Mithran Devanesan, it has a special meaning for me. The whole play is about me. Yet I appear only in the last 10 minutes!! I am a goon, dressed in black pants and black full-sleeved shirt open at the collar, with a white badly knotted tie and a bald-head (I shaved my head bald before every performance). I get hit on the bald head by a heavy box, crash to the floor with a huge thud (I was fitted with abdomen guards, knee pads, elbow pads, etc.) I practiced falling with a film stunt director, and the wooden floor of the Museum Theatre stage was perfect for the making the biggest of sounds falling down. My entrance and the few minutes was perhaps the biggest hit in the play. It was a very physically taxing role, and the few minutes on stage were like doing a three-hour serious play, though the role and the play itself were anything but serious. A rip-roaring comedy it was. This play was last performed in August 2003 at Coimbatore for a very big audience.
"Incident at Twilight" by Friedrich Duerrenmatt can be called my best performance, by any reckoning. The play directed by Krishna Kumar (KK) and performed in 2004 for his group Masquerade was a big success. It is a tight suspense filled script ending in a death scene (murder or suicide, that is the suspense). This script is very similar to the theme of the film "The Sleuth". There is a story within a story in this script. The play has just 2 characters. My role was that of Feargod Hofer who comes to the house of Maximilian Frederick Korbes an author to blackmail him (or murder him), as is left to the audience to fathom at the end. The lines are quick in coming, and every word in the script has a meaning that ultimately lets the audience decide the truth, any which way they want. A masterpiece of stage language! Hardly anyone can guess the end of the play till a few seconds before the close. And even then your own interpretation will decide the end for you. It needs all your efforts to keep an audience glued to two characters on stage for 2 hours. And again, the ending in this play called for my falling over a balcony wall in a high rise building and ending on the ground off stage, (the audience will not see me land), with a thud. No guards and coverings on my body. Just 4 large size rubber mattresses piled one on the other off-stage for me to fall on!! The same play was performed under a two-bill show, titled "Mapping the Mind" in Coimbatore.
Among the many short plays I did were:
"The Song of the Loom", directed by my favorite director the late Bhagirathi Narayanan". This was not a full-length play. You could call it a rehearsed reading. There was a "Suthradhar" or a "story teller", and my role was the character of Dharmadhikari, who describes the hardships faced by plight of weavers in Bengal during the British Rule In India.
"Anath Babu's Terror", directed by Mithran Devanesan, a horror story with the supernatural as the theme, written by Satyajit Ray. I play the lead character Anath Babu. A period play, the costumes reflect the age.
"The Waiting Room" by Tanika Gupta, again directed by Bhagirathi Narayanan, a story with elements of the supernatural. I play the character Feroz.
Plays written and directed by Ejji
I wrote and directed two short plays. It was a mix of some plagiarized jokes added to some real life incidences. They are:
"The Bombay Restaurant" and
"Lost in Translation"
When I built my house, I had designed the open terrace for rehearsal of plays. Lights and sockets for sound and permanent seating were all incorporated in the construction. Many rehearsals have taken place here. We even celebrated the World Theatre Day one year on this terrace, to which everyone connected with theatre in Chennai came. This construction again was not an altruistic act. I built this rehearsal space for very selfish reasons. I need not travel in this disorganized Chennai traffic to attend rehearsals. Everyone had to endure the travel to come here for rehearsals!!
Read reviews of some of the plays Ejji acted in.
As Osman Khan in "The Dreams of Tipu Sultan"
As Arthur Wellesley in "The Dreams of Tipu Sultan"
Shyamala, Ejji, Yamuna & Girish Karnad
As Narayan with Indrani in "Phoenix"
With Indrani in "Phoenix"
With Amrita Shetty, Raghu Avula and Indrani in "Phoenix"
As Abe Dreyfuss with Nilu, Ameera and Bhavani in "Squabbles"
With Dr.Sudha Ramachandran in "The Bombay Restaurant"
In "Anath Babu's Terror"
In "Anath Babu's Terror"
As 'Passer-by' in "Funny Money"
As Feargod Hofer with Shankar Sundaram in "Incident at Twilight"
"Incident at Twilight"