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Jul '19 & Jan '20



Staging of the Homo(text)ual Ethos in Mahesh Dattani’s On a Muggy Night in Mumbai

Anil Pradhan, M Phil Scholar, Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, West Bengal



This paper analyzes Mahesh Dattani’s On a Muggy Night in Mumbai (1998) to understand the complex representation of conflicts in interpersonal relations vis-à-vis non-heteronormative sexual subjectivities. The play problematizes constructs of gender fluidity and bisexuality, highlighting the negotiated realities of non-normative sexualities in India. The turmoil of the characters – their pain, frustration, and revolt – is portrayed by Dattani using innovative stage techniques corresponding to the mental ‘spaces’ of the characters in multi-levelled stage constructions, infused with encoded spatial symbolism through a ‘staging’ of what I call the ‘homo(text)ual’ micro-politics of such negotiations. This fusion of the physical and the spatial produces the ‘space’ intended by Dattani to showcase the existential dilemma in a world of uncertainty vis-à-vis (homo)sexuality in the play. This paper attempts to interrogate this artful portrayal of the subaltern homosexual ethos in the play, vis-à-vis dilemma and anxiety in the context of the Indian urban society.

Keywords: Dattani, homosexuality, Indian, theatre, Mumbai


Several of Mahesh Dattani’s plays have portrayed on the stage the marginalised ‘invisible’ issues of the patriarchal heteronormative Indian society by playing out a very subtle gender politics depicting the internal dilemma of the ‘marginalised’ and ‘otherised’ subaltern characters. Specifically in Bravely Fought the Queen (1991), On a Muggy Night in Mumbai (1998), and Seven Steps around the Fire (1998) the questions of identity, sexuality and gender occupy the centre stage, discussing with varying layers of complexity the socio-psychological identity crisis of the non-heteronormative characters torn between the social ‘masks’ that they are forced to put up and their natural (and socially unacceptable) sexual desires, their conscience, the implicit social stigmatisation, and their negotiations. On a Muggy Night in Mumbai especially deals with the complexities and the dynamics involved in gay relationships in an urban setting. The play presents a group of well-to-do homosexual characters in Mumbai, their changing mutual relationships, their revelations, self-delusions and self-discoveries. Asha K. Chaudhuri claims that it is “the first in Indian theatre to openly handle gay themes of love, affliction, trust and betrayal, raising serious ‘closet’ issues that remain generally invisible” (51). John McRae furthers this point, adding that “it is not simply the first play in Indian theatre to handle openly gay themes of love, partnership, trust and betrayal” but is also a play “about how society creates patterns of behaviour and how easy it is for individuals to fall victim to the expectations society creates” (45). Furthermore, the complex dynamics of the relationships that the characters have with one’s own identity and with the others is dramatized in the process of staging the same. This paper attempts to bring to the fore and understand the utility of the various stage directions, motifs, symbols, devices and other metaphors employed by Dattani in this play to effectively ‘stage’ what I term the ‘homo(text)ual micropolitics’ of the ‘homosexual’ ethos and reality portrayed vis-à-vis the complexities in the lives of the non-heteronormative characters and their inter-relationships in the play.

The narrative of the play goes as such: Kamlesh is a well-to-do fashion designer living in Mumbai where he is entertaining a few guests. He confesses that he is still in love with Prakash, a man who, on the other hand, has apparently moved on and ‘gone straight.’ Thus, he has called upon his ‘gay’ friends to help him in his crisis. The characters in Kamlesh’s party represent the varied faces of the LGBTQ+ community: Sharad, who is also Kamlesh’s former paramour, is the flamboyant gay man who doesn’t care about how the world views him; Bunny, his antithesis, is the clandestine homosexual man who plays a happily married father on a television sitcom as well as in real life; Ranjit, the diasporic gay man who is happy to be abroad rather than being in India; and Dipali, the lesbian, who is the sensible woman. Later in the play, Kamlesh’s sister Kiran come to visit, and there is a revelation – she is set to marry Prakash, Kamlesh’s former lover. The already complex situation becomes even more confusing, as the characters are pitted against exceedingly problematic issues. Kamlesh is unable to reveal the truth about himself and Prakash to Kiran and end her tenuous happiness. The play’s ending hinges on a chance happening – the sexually unambiguous photo of Ed and Kamlesh is discovered.

In terms of the stage directions, the stage setting divides the stage into three acting areas as such: “The first is a small flat, beautifully done up in ‘ethnic chic’ fashion,” which belongs to Kamlesh and represents the private open world; the second area is “a completely non-realistic set comprising three levels [and] is black and expansive” and where “characters are immediately suspended in a ‘shoonya’ [void] where they are forced to confront their inner thoughts;” and the third is Kamlesh’s bedroom which represents the private secret world (Dattani 49). Furthermore, the private space of the bedroom that serves a key role in the play “is hidden behind a gauze wall, giving it some mystery and secrecy” (Dattani 49). Locating the space of the play in the multi-layered landscape in the urban setting, the setting suggests that “the backdrop of these three acting areas is the Mumbai skyline, engulfing the created world of Kamlesh, the secret private space of the inner thoughts of the characters” (Dattani 49). The multiple levels of stage seem to have been constructed to represent the various levels/layers/settings of the minds of the characters, pointing towards both a physical and an encoded spatial awareness. In this context, Tripti Karekatti notes that “the play keeps ‘space’ at the centre through playing on its different tangible versions (seat, home, bedroom, neighbourhood, Mumbai the city) as well as not so tangible versions and metaphors (surroundings, den, bubble, corner, inside, world outside and ‘outcaste’)” (3-4). Also, in an interview with Kuhu Chanana, Dattani has commented that he has used the spatial levels “to denote shifts in time and sometimes to highlight tragic moments” (128).

In the opening scene in the first act, the clear suggestion of a just-concluded sexual liaison between Kamlesh and the security guard of the building introduces homosexuality as a key theme. The set is dimly lit and the audience begins to discern a couple in the bedroom, realizing that they are witnesses to an intimate and tender moment of love. The lights gradually grow brighter, and we are able to see a man’s figure, while the other remains yet invisible as a silhouette – symbolically representing the closeted existence of homosexual men in contemporary India, especially when considered in the context of the criminalised status of same-sex sexual activities under Section 377 of the IPC when the play was written and staged. In this context, Prakash Bhadury and Sanjiv Kumar point out that “the depth of experience is communicated through the stage setting in which the combination of the silhouette and the indoor present an outline of the condition of Indian gay people as a whole to the audience” (44). Soon, the viewers come face-to-face with a middle-aged man – a security guard – being paid for sex. This is what Chaudhuri calls “the shocking start” to the play (49); it gets complemented by the use of the stage lights to slowly make the ‘invisible’ in the silhouette ‘visible’ and correspond to the play’s tactic in subsequently revealing the various complexities in the lives of the characters as the dramatic narrative advances. Furthermore, the lights’ fading out and fading in have been used to denote change of scenes and shifts to the different levels of the stage accordingly, to aid the implicitly palimpsest-like mode of representation in the play.

The window in Kamlesh’s room is used, in a symbolic manner, as a portal through which the gay characters in the room view or gaze unto the outside world – of the heteronormative. They are often seen to be disgusted and concerned with the problems of their neighbour, the diamond merchant, when they see the wife indulge in extra-marital sexual acts with the milkman. The homosexual ‘internal’/’closeted’ world is seen to comment upon and critique the hypocrisy of the heteronormative marriage in the ‘outside’/’open’ world through the window. The window also functions as a point of/for revelation from where the photograph of Prakash and Ed (in an intimate posture) flies out of the ‘closet/room’ into the outside world and reveals their private secrets to the people. In this context, Bipin R. Parmar notes that “the opening and shutting down of window is very symbolic” in the play as it portrays the stark and tragic reality that divides the two worlds of the public/open heteronormative and the closeted/hidden homosexual (129). Subsequently, because the main characters can look at and comment on the outside world from this side of the window, the audience too finds itself looking outside from within and vice versa. The stage, thus, becomes a window of its own, allowing us to peek into the closeted homosexual world.

The private world of the homosexual characters in the play are seen to dwell in the constructed space of Kamlesh’s room where they are free enough to project their real selves and their desires without any fear or embarrassment. When the guard returns to the room in a later scene, Sharad tells him “Yahan kuch bhi bolne mein ya karne mein sharam nahin rakhte […] Hum log sab bahut besharam hain” (Dattani 60; [‘One does not feel ashamed in saying or doing anything here […] We are all very shameless people,’ translation mine]). The representative of the heteronormative world in the guard, who indulges in sexual acts with Prakash just for monetary gains, peeks into the world of the ‘otherised’ non-heteronormative and is seen to be embarrassed, in an agential inversion of the shame that the gay individuals are almost always subjected to by a homophobic society. The use of bi-lingual dialogue in the conversation also adds to the class-based realism intended in the play where the upper class status of the gay characters provides them with a comparatively better agency than the one available to the guard.

Nonetheless, the private world of the homosexual characters slowly reveals the complex inter-relational disputes, betrayal, and discontent in their own lives in the subsequent scenes. Deepali is seen to reprimand Prakash for exploiting the guard “as a sex object” and proposes in a judgemental tone that “men should get a dose of their own medicine” (Dattani 63), bringing out the reductionist tendencies of presuming licentiousness of gay men within the LGBTQ+ community. Also, as the plot advances, intimate aspects of the complex relationship between Kamlesh and Prakash, in the past and the present, are revealed. Prakash, who prefers to be called Ed, had walked out of the relationship with Kamlesh due to his inability to face the world tagging him as ‘gay’ and the consequent stigmatisation that he would have to negotiate with. Kamlesh informs that Prakash “was ashamed of the relationship” and that due to the intense heartbreak, “for the first time in [his] life, [he] wished [he] wasn’t gay” (Dattani 69). However, this desire to be something that one is not is seen to be magnified and realised in the character of Bunny, who denies his ‘gay’ identity and believes in a ‘camouflage’ tactic to fool the world (and also himself) by pretending to be ‘straight’ and getting married with a woman and continuing to have same-sex affairs. Ironically enough, he plays the role of an ideal husband and father in a daily TV serial.

In a later scene, to help Kamlesh overcome the break-up with Prakash/Ed and to alleviate the depression he suffers from, Sharad tells him to tear the sole photograph of Prakash he had while standing by the window and to chant a mantra: “This city and God are witness to my vow, I break all ties with Prakash” (Dattani 73), similar to, but contraty to, the ones they could hear from the heteronormative world of a marriage ceremony below their flat. Kamlesh opens the window and faint shehnai music is heard; however, Ranjit complains that he is “letting all that filthy hot air” inside (Dattani 73). The music of the shehnai and the ‘hot air’ metaphors add to the mugginess of the entire setting which can be understood as symbolic agents of the intrusion of the heteronormative world in that of the non-heteronormative characters, where the window acts as the ‘entry’ point. The contrast implicit in this scene is that “one marriage is going on with social gaiety amid colours and music down stairs and upstairs apartment is witnessing a break up of a gay marriage with the chanting of parallel mantra” (Bhadury and Kumar  46). Kiran’s entry into the room adds to further tensions as she, as a representative of the heteronormative culture, is unaware of the fact that the person she is about to marry, Ed, was once in a relationship with her brother Kamlesh and also is fooling her by acting as a ‘straight’ heteronormative ‘man.’

The second act opens with the shift to the second level of the stage and depicts a flashback of the interaction and conversations Prakash and Kamlesh had had when they first met in a gay cruising area in a park. The scene fades out and Kamlesh enters his room, in the present time, and the earlier conversation amongst the characters continues. Soon, Kamlesh is seen to comment that Prakash/Ed has changed, that “[Prakash/Ed] says he is heterosexual now” (Dattani 85). This curious possibility of asserting that one can change one’s sexual orientation as and when one wishes brings to the fore the utter hypocrisy of Prakash, which in the end ruins the lives of both himself and also of the siblings. In this context, the most interesting ‘staging’ of the homo(text)ual ethos of the play is executed in the scene where the complicatedness of the Prakash-Kamlesh-Kiran relationship is played out in the form of a complex interactive dialogue structure which involves the three characters occupying the three different levels of the ‘shoonya’ or the ‘void’ space and the subsequent interchanging of their places in a circular manner. The action of this scene finds the three characters conversing with each other in an alternating and co-ordinated manner where they exchange their positions and recollect their past memories: Kamlesh discussing whether he must tell Kiran about Prakash’s homosexuality and his clandestine affair with him; Kiran suggesting him to be ‘closeted’ and later enjoying a dance with Prakash; and Prakash responding simultaneously to Kiran that he is happy to be with her and to Kamlesh that he wants to break up.

This exchange represents the various inter-relatable and inter-relative mental dilemmas of the key characters. The multi-representation of minds through the dialogues is efficiently paralleled and portrayed in the non-reception of self- and inter- investments of Kamlesh and Kiran in their respective desiring for the single person- Prakash/Ed.  Similarly, Parmar also notes that “in the plays of Dattani, multi-level stage plays a vital role” as “it helps in connecting the past with present and also contains certain symbols which indicate inner workings of the minds of the characters” (86). In this context, Dattani fuses the past into the present and oversteps the limitations of time by two methods. The first is the flashback method (when, for instance, Kamlesh goes back to the time when he first met Ed) and the second is the simultaneous action in a particular scene at one time but with different characters in different parts of the set, juxtaposing the two conversations to achieve either comic or ironical effects. In this context, Ankur Konar avers as such:

The flash back technique puts side by side the time-in-clock and the time-in-mind that makes a comparison between different moral values separated by time. Different zones and levels on the stage indicate the different psychological impasse of different characters because it is only through psychological actions and reactions Dattani makes us visible the true representation of society. (10)

Sometimes, what Dattani dramatizes is also a case of history constructing subjectivity through the memory of one character and the oblivion of another. Effectively, the theatrical techniques used by Dattani reinforce the multi-layered perception of subjectivity and in the process achieve a decentralisation of subjectivity, granting the subject the freedom to make himself/herself and the freedom of self-invention. In this understanding, what makes the scene even more representative and complex is the cyclical structure the three characters follow while replacing each other at the three levels of the ‘shoonya’/‘void’-space, in the process projecting how their desires both inter-connect and dissociate keeping in mind that one pairing is homosexual while the other heterosexual. What adds more to the complexity of the structure is that two of the players are siblings. Kamlesh and Kiran’s desires, fears, and realities merge in a confused direction leading to Prakash/Ed, as both acceptance and disavowal and the accompanying complexities arise from his self-denial and hypocritical existence. The act ends with a return to the present time and a “blackout while a wedding band can be heard from the window with hooting and whistling from the crowd” (Dattani 94). As such, the motif of the window returns to haunt the fragmented world of the nono-heteronormative characters, as represented in the room, by acting as an interface of the contrastive existences of the homosexual and the heterosexual realms.

The third act opens with Ranjit shutting the window to save the room from the intrusion of the external disturbances (of the ‘heteronormative’), complaining that “those wedding people must have tampered with the junction box to get more power for their lights!” (Dattani 95). His accusation that “they are using our electricity to light up their silly wedding lights” (Dattani 96) is also symbolic of the injustice meted out to non-heteronormative individuals at the expense of the continuity of heternormative hegemony. This increased discomfort and stuffiness in the room resulting from the stealing of electricity and the malfunctioning of the air conditioner are symbolic of the negativities resulting from the intrusive agency of the heteronormative society into the world of the isolated ‘gay’ heterotopia placed within its reaches. The atmosphere inside the room turns muggy and full of suffocation. The noise, the music, and the din indicate a lack of peace symbolic of their inner turmoil. As such, the ‘gay’ characters are forced to meet in the ‘darkness’ of a ‘closeted’ space.

The play further stages the homo(text)ual in the episode where Deepali tells Kiran that Sharad “wants to be straight” in order to indirectly reveal Prakash/Ed’s reality; as such, there seems to be a ‘staging’ or ‘acting’ of a play-within-a-play where the reality is fictionalised in order to further enforce the irony of the reality. Sharad is made to confess by Deepa that he wants to ‘turn’ heterosexual in order to make Kiran ‘see’ the hypocrisy of Prakash/Ed and thus save her and Kamlesh’s life from disaster. While Kiran expresses shock and comments that such a change of sexual orientation is impossible, Prakash/Ed is seen to be clearly at unease. He gets defensive and comments as such:

Look around you. Look outside. Look at the wedding crowd! There are real men and women out there! You have to see them to know what I mean. But you don’t want to. You don’t want to look at the world outside this … this den of yours. All of you want to live in your own little bubble. (Dattani 99)

Thereafter, Prakash/Ed encourages Sharad to go forward with his wish by asserting that the ‘gay’ man is ‘unreal’ and conversely the ‘straight’ man is the ‘real.’ The (real)ity of homophobia is exerted to defend the hegemony of heteronormativity. When Sharad further continues to retell Prakash/Ed’s story as his own, he emphasises on the fact that he wants to turn ‘straight’ because he thinks that power is inherently linked to and is the domain of the heteronormative ‘man.’ As a reaction, Bunny, the erstwhile hypocrite, has a cathartic realisation and by the end of the play, comes to terms with the damages he has already incurred due to his masked sexual ‘acting,’ and his confession stands as testimony:

I have denied a lot of things. The only people who know me – the real me – are present here in this room. And you all hate me for being such a hypocrite […] I have tried to survive. In both worlds. And it seems I do not exist in either […] I have never told anyone in so many words what I am telling you now – I am a gay man. Everyone believes me to be the model middle-class man. […] I believed in it myself. I lied – to myself […]. (Dattani 103)

This ethos of the hypocritical existence of closeted gay men in India is brought out by the staging of the homo(text)ual reality in the play. Dattani believes that “majority of people in the society lives in a state of ‘forced harmony’” (Vishwakarma 116), are trying to become what they are not, and subsequently represent themselves as what they are not. Under the terms and conditions of a homophobic society, non-heteronormative individuals are forced to live disharmonious lives. This is portrayed in Prakash/Ed’s sustained committal to hypocrisy. Interestingly, when Kamlesh ‘plays’ into the acting and says, rather ambiguously, that he now loves Sharad again, Prakash/Ed becomes jealous, takes Kamlesh into the bedroom, and tries to assure him that whatever he was doing was for the sake of their love and that he would marry Kiran in order to continue with a clandestine extra-marital affair with Kamlesh, unmasking his cruel hypocrisy. Furthermore, this self-delusion arrives at its worst when Prakash/Ed warns Kiran that Kamlesh has tried to make a pass at him and not to believe Kamlesh if he claims that he is gay too. In a way, the play-within-the-play is successful in staging the homo(text)ual complexities involved in the relationship axes in a better manner, reflecting upon the realities of contemporary Indian society.

Meanwhile, the photograph of Kamlesh and Prakash, which had flown out of the window into the heteronormative world, has been returned to where it originally belongs by none other but the ‘closeted’ guard, who advises the ‘gay’ characters in the room against such openness regarding their sexuality. Kiran has seen the photograph and criticises Prakash for his hypocritical closeted existence. When he shows that he is not worried of disclosure about his reality in the external world because of lack of recognition, Kiran ruffles him up and instils fear in him. In addition to the window as a theatrical motif/device, Dattani has used the photograph to symbolically highlight the identity crisis in the play. The photograph that shows Kamlesh and Ed hugging each other “cheek to cheek, pelvis to pelvis, Naked” (Dattani 71-72) had been ‘hidden’ by Kamlesh in the bathroom behind the mirror (reflective of their closeted relationship); Sharad discovers this photograph and takes out to show it to the others present. Thereafter, as the debate over his sexuality and relationship with Kamlesh intensifies, Prakash, as a reaction, becomes suicidal and attempts jumping off the window (See Dattani 109). During this process, “an explosion of fireworks” and “a riot of coloured lights” are seen outside and “loud screams of delight and whistles” are heard, which momentarily “stuns” him (Dattani 109-110). The motif of the window becomes even more symbolic and presents a stark, inter-opposing view of two worlds – one of chaos and the other of joy – representative of the realities of the Indian homophobic societal scenario. In this context, McRae comments that “very few dramatists are able to give this sense of a whole society touching the participants in the on-stage drama” (45). These agents of intrusion heighten the inner turmoil of the saddest thoughts, churning an existential dilemma. Ed, in utter shame and disgust for life, completely breaks down and asks: “Where do I begin? How do I begin to live?” (Dattani 111). In this context, Satya S. Dowerah comments that “Dattani in the play foregrounds the grim reality of the homosexuals. There is always a tussle in the minds of these people as they are torn between desire and recognition” (40).

The play ends when, after an abrupt scuffle in which Prakash tries to physically hurt Kamlesh, the characters leave one by one for their respective lives and exit the room. Kiran who was shocked to see the picture at first, replaces the picture of her and Ed in the frame with that picture symbolising that she considers an open gay relationship as a better choice than a hidden one. Thus, “the picture is the most powerful and vital symbol depicting the identity crisis used by Dattani in the play” (Singh 4). The closing scene leaves Kamlesh and Kiran “holding each other” against the backdrop of the “Mumbai skyline,” as the lights “fade out last on the picture of Ed and Kamlesh” (Dattani 111), providing for a poignantly symbolic conclusion. In this context Bhadury and Kumar write as such:

All the characters on stage are suddenly plunged into existential dilemma in the world of uncertainty and absurdity of life. The height of the dilemma in the last scene is accentuated by more firecrackers and lusty yells from the wedding below. Lights are slowly fading to beckon the void while the pictures of Ed and Kamlesh and Kiran and Kamlesh are slowly evanescing from the minds of the audience before it is completely engulfed into darkness. (49)

The representation of an unavailability of any possible resolution to such complex issues, as portrayed in the play, is made starkly clear. Dattani symbolises it through the device of the lyrics of the song What Makes A Man A Man which Sharad sings as he exits the stage: “I ask myself what have I got / And what I am and what I’m not.” (Dattani 111).The closure is not actually conclusive and, as such, is symbolic more of the disruption rather than reconciliation. However, this disruption is caused due to reasons as much by internal conflicts of self-denial as by the external pressings of homophobia. In the context of the play’s ending,  McRae comments that “the fault is not just the characters’ – it is everyone’s, in a society which not only condones but encourages hypocrisy, which demands deceit and negation, rather than allowing self-expression, responsibility and dignity. (Dattani 46)

The play, thus, for the purpose of bringing to the fore the complexities of the lives of non-heteronormative individuals in an urban space, makes use of innovative staging techniques, motifs, symbols, and other stage directions so as to parallel and ‘stage’ the homo(text)ual ethos inherent in their lives. Chaudhuri rightly points out that “rather than directly preach, the playwright dramatizes and peoples the performance stage with characters one begins to identify with, facing genuine, real-life problems” (51). Dattani enables the play to speak for itself about the lives of non-heteronormative characters negotiating though their identities, desires, loves, and lives in the Indian metropolis.



Works Cited

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Dowerah, Satya Sikha. “Queering the Straight: Alternate Sexualities in Dattani’s  ‘On a Muggy Night in Mumbai’.” International Journal of English Language, Literature and Translation Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, 2015, pp. 34-42. Accessed 19 Apr. 2019.

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McRae, John. "A Note on the Play.” Collected Plays by Mahesh Dattani. Penguin Books, 2000, pp. 45-46.

Parmar, Bipin R. A Critical Study of Dramatic Works of Mahesh Dattani. 2011.      Saurashtra U, PhD thesis. Accessed 17            Apr. 2019.

Singh, Jaspal. “Mahesh Dattani’s On a Muggy Night in Mumbai: An Articulation of           Gay Identity Crisis.” The Criterion,vol. 3, no. 2, 2012, pp. 1-6. www.the- Accessed 19 Apr. 2019.

Vishwakarma, Aarti. “Marginal Themes in the plays of Mahesh Dattani.” Research           Scholar,vol. 3, no. 3, 2015, pp. 115-123.  Accessed 17 Apr. 2019.