We live in times when art is gravely under threat from those who fear and censure the ideas and freedoms that underlie it. So, it’s nothing short of a feat for a director to open his play with an intimate scene that involves copious amounts of mouth on mouth action. And it takes even more pluck to have that action come to pass between two bare-chested men. Writer-director-actor Saattvic’s second independent production explores the stories of two couples who inhabit the same space, albeit at different times.
Pulkit is a buff banker who has recently acquired a bachelor pad for the sole purpose of hosting sexual trysts. The apartment’s previous occupants have departed seemingly in a hurry, leaving behind a lifetime’s worth of assorted household paraphernalia. When our gruff and taciturn banker, played by the director himself, isn’t charting mergers and acquisitions, he’s cruising Grindr for his next hook-up at the titular ‘pad’. On the app, he meets Raj, a perky nubile youngling, and brings him over. Raj is in India doing research for his thesis, a doctorate in interior design and hopes to teach at Oxford (Yes, I know you’re rolling your eyes but let’s suspend disbelief for a bit and hear them out). Raj, portrayed as an antithesis to Pulkit, is flamboyant, twinkish and garrulous, and becomes obsessed with the previous occupants whose belongings litter the flat. They then work out a ‘NSA sex in exchange for let me study your pad’ deal. Nevertheless, Raj badgers Pulkit into assisting him in cataloguing commemorative mugs and other memorabilia while insinuating himself into the life of a man who patently rejects relationships, vaguely reminiscent of that Brian-Justin dynamic from Queer as Folk.
Interspersed through this narrative is the story of the Anglo-Indian couple who previously occupied the pad. They are shown as a pair who are deeply in love even after decades of marriage with saccharine sweet conversations over bed tea (with sugar cubes of course). Jennifer, played by Kitu Gidwani, obsesses over her Hindu daughter-in-law who has mysteriously abandoned her husband and son. Fabian, played by Capt. Sanjay Nath, is trying to come to terms with his ineffectual decision-making during the Kargil war that led to the death of a number of his men. Mirroring this tension is Pulkit’s own suppressed childhood trauma about witnessing the death of his Hindustani music teacher, an event that blocks his ability to sing. The rest of the plot ambles through how these three characters confront their demons.
Saattvic has an enviable body and that classic northern visage. While this combination lends itself well to his perpetual state of undress, it is no way of indicative of his acting prowess. His performance in The Pad goes from straight-actingly stiff to emotionally flaccid (or perhaps there is a subliminal Freudian metaphor I’m unable to suss out). He is a skilled singer with a wonderful voice, attested to by his rendition of a classical number towards the end of the play. We can’t help but observe that the classical musical traumatic event has been ostensibly forced into the script to allow Saattvic a platform to demonstrate his vocal capabilities. When Saattvic’s character attempts to articulate his trauma and seek reconciliation, the effect is bathetic as the audience uncomfortably squirms through a contrived emotional outpouring.
Gidwani delivers her lines convincingly enough, although her background as a seasoned actor generates expectations for a more compelling performance. However, at the performance’s climax, Kitu’s character indulges in screechy, melodramatic hysterics, instantly diluting Gidwani’s credibility. Capt. Nath on the other hand was as stiff as a board. We are left wondering how much of this was a reflection of his military past (both in reality and in the script) and how much of it was down to lacklustre acting. Nath’s character, Fabian, also has the misfortune of battling his demons on stage in discrete vignettes involving rustic ghosts spouting Hindi and a denouement scene with a desi grim reaper. Far from showing the churn and conflict in Fabian’s mind, the recurrent use of this device further contributes to the overall bathos that marks this play. In comparison, Raj, played by Daniel D’Souza, is a breath of fresh air. He is as convincing in his campy effervescence as he is in melancholy when he is pushed away by Pulkit. Unfortunately, his is the least developed of the four characters.
Saattvic purports this to be a play about ordinary people but are these characters really so ordinary? In a bizarre scene towards the middle of the play, Raj has a telephonic exchange with his mother berating her for having bought a Roman wall, mural and all, from Pompei in an effort to cheer him up. When was the last time your mother bought you an archaeological artefact to help you beat the blues? I wish mine would buy me one of those Greek urns with naked athletes, all thighs and torsos. The director also states that ‘The Pad’ is not meant to be a play about gay people (or Anglo-Indians) and didn’t want sexuality to define these characters, instead highlighting the commonality of relationships. This is a moot point because Saattvic includes an extraneous scene where the suddenly monogamous new avatar of Pulkit throws a wobbly because Raj cheats on him. When Pulkit gives Raj a chance to fess up, Raj explains that he met someone who forced himself on him while he was inebriated. The pair then discover that the punter is someone Pulkit has slept with as well, a married Charlie with multiple identities. They laugh it off and all’s well at the pad. This little tangential scene is in fact a sweeping comment about the nature of relationships, not relationships in general but relationships between gay men. By treating it so blithely, the play normalizes infidelity in gay couples while moralizing it in heterosexual ones. Instead of seeking out presumably ‘ordinary’ characters, it may have been more prudent to conceive of characters that are authentic and capable of reflecting the real nature of discourse in relationships in their communities.
‘The Pad’ has an interesting premise and demonstrates chutzpah where others might pussyfoot. It makes me very happy to see gay characters on stage. Unfortunately, this potential is waylaid by one-dimensional characters, superfluous scenes and Bollywoodesque melodrama.