In our junior college days, a friend and I had devised a make-belief game which involved long discussions on- “If we were to present a particular book or play for the stage, who could play who”. It was purely an extension of our shared obsession for fiction. We were fresh in the city college and with the newfound sense of freedom also came crisp new library cards in our pockets. Thus, we took a headlong plunge together into the tempting pool of ‘extracurricular reading’.* So, assigning different characters of a book to different people from our class soon became our favourite pastime. Naturally, it was a secret activity, as the allocation of roles often reflected not only our understanding of the original characters but also our impressions of the chosen crew and declaring the latter would not have been very wise! Our exchanges were such as:
“If you want to play Elizabeth Bennett, we will have to make him Darcy, as he is the only guy in our class taller than you.”
“Please! Him a Darcy??? Never. He looks more like Wickham. But his friend can go as Bingley, he looks like an handsome but easily impressionable idiot!”
“Well, we may think she is little snobbish but we have to accept that she is the only girl in our class who is both good looking and stylish enough to be Marguerite”
“He has such a mousy thin face and he always looks pensive. We lucked out… the Best Oliver Twist ever!”
It makes me rather sheepish now to realize that all of us were hardly sixteen at that time! Nevertheless we had quite a fun as casting directors for our imaginary production house.
Shaw‘s Pygmalion was one of our most ambitious and beloved projects. For most people, rather than Pygamalion, its more romantic film adaptation My Fair Lady (an old classic starring Audrey Hepburn) rings the bell. Those who are acquainted with Marathi theatre and literature would definitely know about “Ti fularani”, an adaptation by PuLa. Well, the major difference between Pygmalion and its aforementioned versions is that the former has a realistic tone. Basically it is a story where a knowledgeable but cynical professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins takes a bet with his friend that he will train a poor and uncouth flower girl from the streets to be posed as an enviable socialite in the most elite circles of London. This flower girl is the heroine of the drama, Eliza Doolittle. The greatest challenge of this mission is making Eliza speak the courteous sophisticated tongue of a Lady. When Higgins start working on her, Eliza’s speech and vocabulary obviously reflects her working-class lifestyle. Any strong emotion incites in her, an ear-splitting exclamation of “Ah−ah−ah−ow−ow−ow−oo!”. But Eliza soon turns out to be an intelligent learner who imbibes not only her phonetics but also the charms that will sail her smoothly among the crème de la crème. However, as Higgin’s mother ruefully predicts, this awful project of his propels Eliza away from her own roots, without making any real provisions for her establishment in the class where she is to be flaunted. Ironically, as Eliza ‘comes to life’ more refined, she starts caring too deeply for her ‘creator’.# Higgins, on the other hand, keeps training Eliza in his usual mocking, patronizing way, while being more and more accustomed and dependent to her presence around him. In such a scenario leads to an inevitable showdown when Eliza wins the bet for Higgins by successfully carrying herself as a duchess at a ball. At the end of this evening Higgins and Colonel Pickering celebrate the successful end of what they thought as a laborious project, without any acknowledgement or regard towards Eliza and her role in it. This treatment and subsequent row with Higgins make Eliza leave his place and take a refuge with his mother. With different parts played by different characters, mainly Eliza’s father Mr Doolittle, Mrs Higgins, Colonel Pickering and Freddy, Eliza’s future prospects are decided in the end. Although the felicity between them remains as before, Eliza and Higgins do not end up romantically fated with each other and this is the major point of departure that My Fair Lady and Ti Fulrani take, where this possibility is strongly hinted. It might be because I read Pygmalion first, but I always find its ending far preferable to those of its more famous adaptations. Somehow, it leaves Eliza with more dignity, even in the less fortunate of conditions. Shaw is breathtakingly unconventional in the epilogue and throughout the play does not leave a single opportunity to comment on the British class system and on women’s independence, which makes it such a fantastic read.
Hmm, after all this prevue, perhaps now I can safely disclose that I wished to play Eliza Doolittle and had single-handedly picked out someone who were to play Higgins! Let’s call this guy You-know-him. This casting had a very special reason and purpose behind it! As I said before, there were two factors that mattered in our casting decisions. In this case however, rather than the attributes of the characters as well as those of crew, enacting one particular scene mattered. I was dying, longing, pining to enact this scene with You-know-him! That scene features in the IVth Act, when Higgins and Eliza return home after a successful ball, and he totally disregards Eliza in his jubilations. In a while, Higgins is looking for his slippers, which enraged Eliza hurls at him with all her might! And this is what I wanted to inflict on You-know-him. I wanted to smack a heavy pair of slippers (possibly with soles layered with spikes) right on his face…. aargh… because he always… bloody always used to sign in the attendance sheet, a way beyond the space designated for him which resulted in disfiguring my signature. We had successive roll numbers and shared a common surname. If I could fit my nine-lettered family name in a box of 2.5*1.5 cm box, why on earth could not he?? Everyone who knows about this finds it ludicrous that I wanted to hit him with slippers for this. But honestly, what right he had to mar my signature by his? He really deserved my, well, my psychologically violent vengeance!! Ah−ah−ah−ow−ow−ow−oo!!!
* From which we resurfaced only after flunking physics and maths (and perhaps even chemistry… ouch!) in the mid-term exam.
# Ironically, because Pygmalion borrows its title from a Greek myth of a sculptor named Pygmalion who falls in love with the perfect sculpture of a woman he created, and not the other way round.