Let me start this review with a Buddha quote as a statutory warning: ‘Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.’

Well, the BIG here isn’t BIGG of BIGG BOSS, the B isn’t representing the might of the mighty Amitabh Bachchan, Big B is certainly not a spoof on the reality show where Shilpa Shetty won, and no, there is nothing Orwellian about it too. Big B is a play adapted from ‘Bade Bhai Saab’, a short-story written by Munshi Prem Chand. By the way, were you aware that his real name was Dhanpat Rai? I wasn’t… well, this was an interesting fact that I overheard as I was climbing the dimly-lit stairs of Sriram Centre on the 26th of February 2011. Will someone please tell the managers of the centre to seriously think of helping the stairs emerge out of their extreme moodiness?

I found the audience rather morosely seated inside the audi… must be the stair-effect rubbing on psyches, I thought… and this is how my restlessness began. This restlessness subsided only after I had reached home and had a scalpel-wielding verbal duel with my wife on the chuckle generation ability of the play. I was sure I could count how many times I actually chuckled during the play which means the number wasn’t very high… and my wife insisted that I was probably too distanced from comedy that evening. Obviously, Specky (my wife) loved the play and I did not (enjoy it as much as she did).

‘Hmmm’, I hmmmed. And then I searched my book collection at home for this story, found it, read it, and hmmmed again with a lot of force now. You too can read a part of this story in the pdf shared below.

‘It is a lovely story. Well written too.’ I said.

‘So that’s what the play was about,’ said my wife with yet another chuckle, and added, ‘They did script in a contemporary feel by bringing in the 80 year old Samta Prasad, the younger brother, and all his punches…’

‘Yes, that was a clever inclusion. But I didn’t like the way poor Ashish Nehra was bumped repeatedly… especially when the World Cup is so near…’

‘That was humour… and wit…’

It was getting late and I let the discussion fade away into a few more hmmms. I woke up later that night and thought about the play. Yes, there was humour right in the beginning… even before the play started. There was an announcement and a female voice boomed: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please keep your mobiles ON… <there was stress on the word ON followed by a distinctly long pause>… silent mode or switched off. Thank you.’ If this was scripted into the play, then this was brilliant! If not, this was one time when I chuckled irrepressibly.

How would I define comedy? I remembered the time when I met Raju Srivastava, the comedian, at a seminar in IIT Delhi. I was then heading Corporate Communications for PT Education and we had invited him for a half-hour show to prove that good focused education needn’t always be drab and grim. I watched him closely as he performed. Even the most inconsequential muscle in his body was in sync with the jokes he was vocalizing. There were nearly 900 people in the hall and not one was just chuckling… they were roaring with laughter. Thus comedy needs:
1. An effective script
and/ or
2. An effective communicator for the script

That’s it. From reading P G Wodehouse to watching a joker perform in a circus, from listening to a stand-up comedian to hearing your friend tell a joke all that is needed is contained in the two conclusions above. Try this experiment: Listen to a known comedian tell a joke and then try to retell it yourself. You will know how difficult it is to carry a joke!


Let’s now move on to the 101st show of ‘Big B’… where the Pierrot’s Troupe claims it to be the ‘first ever ind-ish comedy’. I will try to analyse this play by answering just two questions.

Question 1.
What made me restless while watching this play?

For most of the time, at least two-thirds of the cast simply reminded me of Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN-IBN. Two brothers talking to each other don’t need to always shout like desperate parliamentarians or over-bearing journos trying to give their channel a unique identity! So obviously, the tonal variations of the actors troubled me immensely. This made me rather sad as I really admire the restrained acting talents inherent in Sayeed Alam. The Ghalib that I saw through him simply appeared to tower high over the diminutive caricature of Kamta Prasad that he portrayed here. And seriously, after seeing Aamir Khan fit snugly into his role in ‘3 idiots’, I was unable to digest Sayeed Alam as a student of class IX. To add to his woes were the slack bits in the dialogue and script.

Yes, I have read the original story written by Munshi Prem Chand and it is representative of the times… in comparison, the script of Big B attempts to force-feed comedy through quite a few clichéd jokes on the adoption and learning of English as a language of communication. The audience today is so exposed to the pithily edited and precision-fed scripting of comedy shows on the electronic channels that this script, even with Prem Chand replacing the back-bone, seemed to go absolutely limpid too many times not to be noticed. The actors were giving it the best they could, but even with shirtless sit-ups thrown in, couldn’t lift the sagging interest of the audience to a level that could’ve guaranteed even a sustained applause at the end of the play. Obviously, there was no standing ovation this time.

The script definitely needs a heavy dose of corrective measures that get drunk on the bollywood ishtyle and yet remains firmly attached to its primordial connection to a literary Prem Chand. Difficult, but not impossible.

Question 2.
What made me chuckle and remain happy while watching the play?

Most of the contemporary witty references and the unflinching consistency of the 80 year old avatar of Samta Prasad actually did prevent most of us inside the audi from walking out like we did while watching Ram Gopal Verma’s Aag. For this reason, I did stand for a while as I applauded.

There were certainly some brilliant strokes of wit and chuckle-worthy play on words too. For instance, it isn’t possible to forget the way arise and arose were mish-mashed into a single wholesome serving of humour. Though we didn’t get to see it, but Kamta Prasad, I’m sure, must’ve realized the massive difference in being aroused by Rekha than by his younger sibling during their school years! ‘Yes, you arise at 5:30 and then you must also arouse me… though slowly slowly… for at least 30 minutes…’ this was Kamta instructing Samta – with a very straight face! This was surely one moment when the script and the actors transcended the mundane and reached for that elusive brilliance that every creative artist looks and strives for.

Another incident scripted into the play was probably inspired by Shankar Mahadevan. Reciting the pahada (table) of 15 in a single breathe was the task that the elder brother wants Samta to accomplish. This was another moment when most of the audience too held their own breathe or inhaled and exhaled very slowly – thus completing the cycle of communication that the play was aiming at. The ‘phew!’ at the end of the scene was in sync with a similar audible relief of the actors on the stage!

As I write this review, I find my wife getting restless at being so reluctant to give full marks to the play. Right now she is reminding me that the way Samta attempts to give directions to someone using just ‘GO’ as the audible word with a whole lot of hand movements representing left and right turns…

‘Yes,’ I say, ‘and you remember that one of the roads that must’ve turned three-quarters of a circle was rather cleverly indicated by multiple jerks of his hand and a GO vocalized for every jerk?’

‘Go go go go go go go go go,’ repeated my wife with excitement that almost replicated the applause inside the audi.

Then there was the dialogue where Samta confidently pronounces kite flying as the national game and gets quite a verbal harangue for this misplaced emotions. The point is that these pieces of brilliance in performance are mixed with sequences that go on and suck enthusiasm of an audience. This is almost like my broadband connection at home… at one moment the net functions perfectly, downloading at around 60 kbps while one is happily tip-tapping away on the keyboard busy with the more important task of writing. Then suddenly, the net simply disappears and no matter how many times you reset the modem, it remains on leave without information leaving you disoriented and no longer interested in your primary task. Though you were neither uploading nor downloading anything, a dysfunctional internet nevertheless manages to pull you away from what makes you happy! Limpid and flaccid moments in a play disorientate an audience and if they are too well populated they simply offset whatever brilliance could have been credited to it.

It is primarily because of such lifeless interludes that I continued in my state of restlessness throughout the play. Not that I didn’t like the superb emotional outburst of Kamta Prasad on the uselessness of important questions if they are not to be included in the examination paper. Yes, even I recollected my own trauma in my own school years when the exam paper reflected only a thin gloss from the list of ‘important questions’ that our teacher had given. Even we thought this was a major breach in trust between a teacher-student relationship! And yes, during the play I chuckled as the follies of my yester-years were so well communicated.

My birthday falls on the 9th of May… and every year that used to be the date when we got our half-yearly results. I even told my principal, Father Tony, once that half-yearly exams were actually not needed. We had Munshi Prem Chand’s novel ‘Gaban’ as our book for in-depth study in ISCE and I’m now sure that my Hindi teacher Mr Roy must’ve asked that principal (a priest from Malta) to read ‘Bade Bhai Saab.’ I’d actually agree with Samta when he voiced his dazzling doctrine of promotions on birthdays for all. Wow! There’d be simply so many ‘fresher’s day’ to be celebrated… and Kamta wouldn’t be so upset at Samta having ‘passed away’ every year and his wish to ‘pass away’ being held by the apathy of the entire education system!


So, was the play good or was it not so good? So what if I remained restless that evening… could have had something to do with my own bio-rhythms, you see. Truth is that despite all the hiccups and brakes and impediments, the play made me think a lot on the education system as it existed and as it continues to vegetate even today. A lot of credit does go to that master of fiction Munshi Prem Chand who could pen this kind of satire that is so relevant even today.

The life of two brothers sliding up and down the hinges of Hinglish was performed well and I’d say it is yet another triumph for Pierrot’s Troupe. Just one request: please do tweak your script a bit and make it crisper… it helps the performers too to give their best and then the audience wouldn’t just get up and walk out without giving it the standing ovation that this play really deserves.

© Arvind Passey
04 March 2011