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Gender Bender
Text by Alpana Chowdhury
Published: Volume 18, Issue 11, November, 2010

Manasi Rachh is riveting as a 12-year-old boy in the new stage production and evokes a plethora of emotions

This year, on her birthday, Manasi Rachh gave herself a gift–a career option. “After years of dilly-dallying, I made up my mind that acting is what I wanted to do!” relates the lead actress of Sunil Shanbag’s latest play, Walking to the Sun, whose writer Vivek Narayan skilfully juxtaposes Rabindranath Tagore’s Daak Ghar with a dramatic sequence based in Warsaw, during World War II.

Twenty-six-year-old Manasi’s career option gift to herself included enrolling for playwright Mahesh Dattani’s acting workshop that, happily, was to start on her birthday. A few days later, she was auditioning for Sunil Shanbag’s play. “Sunil offered me the role of Sudha, the flower girl. But I made a bid for the central character of Amal, a 12-year-old boy who is dying. Amal’s is a poignant story of undying hope. Even as he is confined to the four walls of his room, he dreams of the day when he will be free of sickness to explore the world, to climb mountains, frolic under waterfalls and run across the green fields that lie outside his window. It was a role to die for,” explains the petite, five-feet, two-inch actress who had twice before stepped in, as a substitute, to play boys’ roles in other productions.

“‘You have to be sad-happy,’ Sunil told me,” narrates Manasi for whom working with Shanbag was like a big workshop. “He was very clear that though I had to be childlike, I was not to play the kid. He gave me so much to hold on to, emotionally, that I identified totally with Amal and everything else ceased to exist.” For the youngster who started her professional life in the ad world, this kind of precision was a complete contrast to her earlier working conditions where she would be asked to give a variation without being told what that variation should be.

That she was a good learner was very evident in the premiere show of the play at Prithvi Theatre, in Mumbai, judging by the sad-happy reactions Manasi evoked in the audience. Amal’s zest for life, his curiosity, his playfulness brought a smile to the face even as one tried to swallow the lump in the throat.

Poised at a wonderful juncture of her life, Manasi now hopes to take the big leap to the silver screen. “I’d love to, love to, love to act in films,” she enthuses unabashedly, wistfully wishing to catch the eye of a Sudhir Mishra, Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta.

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