The life of India’s most successful theatre production, in three acts by Anupama P Shenoy

It’s not every day that a play written by an Indian writer does as many as 8,000 shows in nearly a dozen Indian languages. All The Best is arguably the most successful play ever produced in India. Eight years after the original was first staged in Marathi in Mumbai, the play is still going strong wowing audiences in languages as varied as Sindhi and Tulu.

The play is based on a simple theme: “The disabled can love too.” The plot is simple, but the script hysterical. Marathi playwright Devendra Pem’s light-hearted love story revolves around four characters: three physically challenged young men (one deaf, one blind and one mute) all of whom are in love with the same girl. The play opens with the deaf and mute characters discussing a phone call from their blind friend. He has invited a young woman to their apartment. As the play progresses, it becomes obvious that all three characters have a soft corner for this special guest, and they all try to woo the woman in their own funny way.

Such was the play’s popularity that in its very first year at least three casts simultaneously performed at different venues across Maharashtra, finding acclaim not just among the urban elite of Mumbai but in the interiors as well. Sometimes they performed 90 shows a month in Mumbai alone. “It was like having a steady job,” says Sanjay Narvekar who played the deaf role in the first cast. “I would leave home in the morning for a matinee performance and get home late at night after the last one.” 

Slowly All The Best began its life in other languages. The Gujarati version performed around 25 shows a month for three years—about 750 shows altogether. The Hindi version still runs strong though only on weekends and has done about 350 shows. There have been 70 shows in Sindhi and 90 in Tulu.

Mahesh Manjrekar and Mohan Wagh, producers of the Marathi original, even tried an English version. Songs were incorporated with the idea that the audience would like a little music. But that changed the pace of the play instead. It didn’t work, but still ran for 35 shows, more than what most plays do these days.

By end of 1997, producers from South India came knocking on Pem’s door. He would explain the script and structure of the play to them in Hindi and then hope they would do a good job of it. Pem himself directed the play in many of the translated avatars and claims he must have worked with at least 500 actors until now.

Now there is talk of it being turned into a Hindi film. Jackie Shroff wants to make the film with himself, Govinda, Salman Khan and Manisha Koirala.

I played on the misunderstandings that occur between them because they have no common language

—Devendra Pem

The cast:

Devendra Pem: The original playwright and director of All The Best. This was his first script for professional Marathi theatre.

Sanjay Narvekar: Critically acclaimed theatre and Hindi film actor. All The Best was his first professional commercial play. Won the Natya Darpan Award in 1990 for his role in the play.

Kedar Shinde: Actor, writer, theatre and television director. The only actor in the history of this play to have performed all three male roles with the very first professional cast of All The Best in Marathi.

Arvind Joshi: Renowned Gujarati playwright. Has scripted Ba Retire Thai Che and Darpan Ni Arpan which was later serialised as Darpan. Has adapted All The Best in Gujarati.

Mansi Joshi: Theatre and television actress (Saaya on Sony, Gharwali Uparwali on Star Plus). Plays the female part in the Hindi version of All The Best. Has performed in playwright-father Arvind’s plays, which explored father-daughter relationships.

Sharman Joshi: Plays the deaf character in the Gujarati version. With his debut film Style he is making inroads into the Hindi film industry.

Vikas Kadam: Theatre and television actor. He was part of the original one-act play as the deaf character. He also played the mute character in the Gujarati and Hindi versions. 

Feroz Khan: Actor, theatre director and producer noted for his plays Tumhari Amrita and Saalgirah, co-founder of Prithvi Theatre. He produced All The Best in Hindi.

Vrajesh Hirjee: Plays the deaf role in the Hindi version. This play was “the best thing” that happened to his career. It gave him credibility and mileage as a good actor and landed him with film and television offers.

ACT 1

Devendra Pem: I was basically interested in acting when I wrote this script. I had attended Vaman Kendre’s workshop of acting where we were told to improvise a scene around a young Indian woman and a man from Uganda who were stranded on an isolated island. In the beginning, they avoid each other until they absolutely need some sort of human interaction. I played on the misunderstandings that occur between them because they have no common language. For example, she would say a word that meant something abusive in his language and he wonders why the very first word addressed to him is an insult. None of us knew how his language was spoken so we just improvised on some nonsense syllables that an Indian would consider odd so it was easy to get the laughs.

That’s when I realised that if I wrote a play based on miscommunication between people, it would make an interesting story. I decided to delve into relationships between people who are unable to communicate with each other. When there is misinterpretation you have a funny scenario. I thought I might as well add a blind man to the team. But the hilarious parts of the play are the interactions between the deaf and the mute characters. That the deaf man adds his own meanings to what the mute acts out is what brings the laughs.

Vikas Kadam: I worked on this play in 1993 when it was a one-act play written for the Indian National Theatre competition. Devendra Pem had written and directed the play. He was a mathematics graduate from Kirti College but he was just helping us with our entry (MD College) for this competition. He could have sold this play to any producer, but he chose a bunch of fresh actors. Actually, I was a complete fresher at the time. The others had a few plays to their credit, but I had only one. Bharat Jadhav played the mute and Ankush Choudhury played the blind one, while I played the deaf part. Deepa Parab played the female lead.

Devendra Pem: For almost ten years, I wrote for intercollegiate competitions. I never thought of writing for commercial theatre, television or films at the time. Also, I didn’t get the offers and I don’t think I realised my own potential. In addition, I like the enthusiasm of fresh young actors. I’d rather have hard working and talented fresh actors in my play than any so-called stars.

Vikas Kadam: For two months we focused only on rehearsals from sunrise to sunset. We were determined to win the competition. I spent a month just getting my opening line right! Some friends helped us find places for our rehearsals; most of them were really dirty. Every morning Devendra would come back with a fresh script. He worked on the script like I’ve never seen any other writer work. He deserves credit for the success of this play. Other than the competition, we performed the one-act at theatres like NCPA and Prithvi who invited us to perform there.

Devendra Pem: One night after a long and tiring rehearsal, I was waiting at Dadar station. I was hungry so I called out to a vendor selling ginger sweets (aalepaak) but he did not respond. A bystander then told me he’s deaf. Out of curiosity, I went up to him. That was a big help. His story was identical to my character’s. He could speak clearly but could not hear at all. Those who had read the script claimed that deaf people are mute too. I met doctors to confirm that this was a myth. But meeting the vendor proved that my script was factually correct.

Sanjay Narvekar: I had directed a one-act called Saat Chyaa Aat Gharaat for Ruia College in Mumbai when Pem staged All The Best at the competition for MD College. I had graduated from Ruia by then but would direct plays for them. That’s when I first saw All The Best.

Vikas Kadam: The competition was held at Rabindra Natya Mandir (Mumbai). Just before the show Ankush, who was playing the blind part, had a really upset stomach. He could barely even stand. But he rushed to the doctor for painkillers and performed all the same. We stood third. I still remember the shocked expression among the audience because they expected us to win first place.

Sanjay Narvekar: That’s where Mahesh Manjrekar (director Vaastav) and Chandrakant Kulkarni (director Bindhaast) noticed All The Best and just knew it would make a great full-length play. They offered me the deaf character’s role while the rest of the cast remained unchanged. Two months later, we performed commercially.

Devendra Pem: As a one-act, the play ends with a scene where the girl gets the three young men to realise their potential: to pursue a career, be independent and find their dream girl. Before she leaves, she wishes them luck. The last line of the play is ‘all the best’. The one act was so popular, it had great reviews and won accolades. So people knew of All The Best. So with the full-length, the title was maintained. The only difference is that the young woman helps them with their careers.

It was running well in Marathi. So when it was translated to Gujarati, the name remained and it brought in a full house. Then came the Hindi version with the same name. That too went well with the audiences. The title remains unchanged in every language. Generally, if a title is popular producers maintain it.

Devendra Pem: All The Best is my first commercial play. Prior to that, I was writing only for intercollegiate theatre competitions. It received acclaim and awards as well. Soon after, Mohan Wagh approached me for a full-length script, which I directed as well. Bharat (mute), Sanjay (deaf) and Ankush (blind) were the very first team. Our first performance was held at midnight on 31st December 1993 at Shivaji Mandir, Mumbai. We were all freshers, only the banner was a known name.

Sanjay Narvekar: In the beginning we were tense since this was a novel idea. We were wondering if the audience would understand and accept the play. The lines were unusual. The dialogue wasn’t what the audience would expect. For example, if I were asked my name, I would reply, “I’ll get you a glass of water,” or something as unrelated. During the first performance we were very sceptical, but the moment the audience laughed at our first joke, we felt a sense of relief.

Devendra Pem: The structure of most plays is simple—lines delivered by one person after another, but in this play, although the structure is similar there is no real conversation between the characters. When one asks a question, the answer is completely on a tangent and has no relation to the question. If it were to happen in real life, it would drive you crazy.

Vikas Kadam: The first few shows didn’t do too well, but I heard that people would come backstage to encourage the team. They loved the play and promised to spread the word. So they did. It was then written about and the crowds began to throng the theatre. If people are assured that a play will entertain, it becomes successful.

Devendra Pem: It took me a while to realise we had a commercially successful play in hand. But Mohan Wagh was certain even during the initial rehearsals. He deserves credit because he took the risk to produce it. He also thought it better to use a strong script with young actors, instead of stars who would have date problems. Also, that way they could perform more shows.

Sanjay Narvekar: While playing the deaf role, I had to initially keep reminding myself not to respond to the sounds around me. I would almost react naturally and would then have to smartly hide it with some other gesture. After a while, I got into the skin of the character.

(Enter Kedar Shinde)

Kedar Shinde: In the very first year that All The Best was staged, I joined the team due to unusual circumstances. Ankush wanted to take up an acting offer for a day. Producer Mohan Wagh refused him leave. So he approached Mahesh Manjrekar, who agreed only if he could find a replacement and vouch for his acting ability. At midnight, after his last show, Ankush turned to me for help. The next show was at 4pm. But I gave it a shot because I vaguely knew the dialogues, having worked on its technical aspect.

We stayed up through the night. Ankush recorded his lines on a cassette for my reference. By afternoon, I had learnt my lines. I learn by rote quite easily, but I was playing the blind guy and didn’t know the movements of the other actors. Before the show, they briefed me on the sets. There was no time for a proper ‘standing’ rehearsal. My first performance happened in front of the audience. It was smooth.

In a few days Ankush called me again to fill in for him. Soon after, we would perform alternately. After a while Bharat was getting married. So I played the mute guy for a few shows while Ankush played the blind character.

Later, Sanjay wanted to take an off. He’s a brilliant actor. So it was a challenge to take over from him. Fortunately, I did just fine.

Vikas Kadam: Kedar is the only actor to have performed all three roles. He was our senior in college and helped us with music for the one-act, despite his own entry in the same competition. His play won first place.

Kedar was always interested in writing and direction, never acting. But eventually he performed about 400 shows in the one-and-a-half-years that he was with our team.

Kedar Shinde: I remember a time when I had to fill in for Sanjay, which happened rarely. My own production, Maharashtra Chi Lokadhara was scheduled for a show at Indore. He said he would fly me back in time for the 4 o’clock show. I was supposed to board the 10am flight, which finally took off at 3pm. I called Mahesh about the delay and bit my nails to the cuticle through the 50-minute flight. At exactly four, I walked out of Santacruz airport and jumped into a taxi. They had just sounded the second bell when I got to Rangsharda, Bandra. I went on stage in the same clothes and without any make-up.

Sanjay Narvekar: Ankush was delayed for a performance once, since he was shooting. Twenty minutes to the opening, he was still on his way to the venue. After 20 minutes he called to say he was stuck in the traffic and would be at the venue in half an hour.

It was a full house so we couldn’t delay the play for long. So Bharat and I started slowly, improvising to buy time for Ankush. We decided to bring down the curtains with a blackout after a while. Forty-five minutes later, I was about to signal for a blackout when backstage buzzed with his arrival. The audience had a great time. For us, it was a new experience.

Devendra Pem: If only one character was mute, deaf or blind, the script would not have been as funny. The beauty is that all three characters are “not normal”. That’s why actors enjoy it so much. Once they understand their characters completely, they can spontaneously improvise on stage. That makes every show a unique experience for them.

Kedar Shinde: I thought I was absolutely miscast as the blind character. I didn’t expect the audience to accept a skinny person for a wannabe model. I had to be really convincing. (Laughs)

Eventually, I realised that the actors don’t matter as much in the larger picture. I was accepted because the script worked like magic.

The mute character was a difficult role. It’s the most challenging role among the three. If I had to choose, this would be it. It’s a real high when you perform a challenging role well.

Personally, I enjoyed the deaf character. He gets the laughs because he’s rambling endlessly. His reactions are delayed. But I can’t excel Sanjay in this role.

Having said that, Bharat, Ankush and I were a great team. We have great chemistry since we’ve been good friends since college.

Sanjay Narvekar: I am really afraid of mice. When I was a baby, a mouse ran across my stomach, leaving behind nail marks. I have found them repulsive since then.

During a performance at the Sahitya Sangh, Girgaon one afternoon, a mouse ran past the stage. I instantly climbed on to the grill, which was the backdrop, but the audience didn’t realise that something was amiss.

At the end of the play, when we would bow down to the audience and wish everyone ‘all the best’ (sticking out our thumb), people would toss chocolates on to the stage to show their appreciation.

Kedar Shinde: The mute character only uses sounds and gestures all through the play. But I clearly remember Bharat talking to us even while playing mute. Ankush and I could clearly hear him swear on stage. It was unclear to the audience, of course. He would say, ‘Aaila’ but the audience would hear it as ‘Aaaiya’. It would make us giggle.

Vikas Kadam: This play works because the actors are young and fresh. It creates a chemistry that works with the audience, making it more believable. The script is undoubtedly brilliant. I think he (Pem) deserves credit for the success of the play.

Devendra Pem: I don’t think that I was responsible for the success of All The Best. I found good actors and good producers, and we had enough time to rehearse.

Sanjay Narvekar: I focused only on All The Best for two whole years. After 1,000 shows, I knew it was time to move on. I performed my last show in Konkan (either Ratnagiri or Khed) in 1994. I was feeling really bad, but I had to grow as an actor. I would be so busy I had no time for anything else. I would get many offers but I didn’t have te time to commit to something new. It was getting mechanical.

Kedar Shinde: The best part was performing without a ‘standing’ rehearsal, yet making it a wonderful show. It gave me tremendous confidence as an actor and now helps with my writing and direction. I was able to learn what ticks with the audience.

I left the play in early 1997 to start my own production with Sanjay, Ankush and Bharat. Now if my actors need to take leave, I just fill in for them. I don’t have the problem of looking for last-minute substitutes for anyone.

Devendra Pem: Another version of the same play is in the offing with three young girls falling for the same man. It sounds unbelievable but I have found talented and energetic actresses who I’m sure, will be able to pull it off. I am also experimenting with the idea of using older men instead of young men. Of course, the script has to be different otherwise it will sound unrealistic.

(End of Act One)

ACT TWO

Arvind Joshi: I liked the refreshing appeal of this play when I first saw the original Marathi version. The simplicity of its story line and its powerful presentation were responsible for its success. It was well written, well directed and well performed. More importantly, all the elements just fell into place. That makes a play successful. The performances were excellent and the script was strong. There were fantastic punch lines.

Everything fits perfectly in all the versions be it Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, English or Sindhi.

Vikas Kadam: A year after the Marathi play was first staged, Mohan Wagh decided to co-produce All The Best in Gujarati, along with Shafi Inamdar and J Abbas. Shafi Inamdar and Devendra Pem directed it. Initially, they wanted me to play the deaf part. I didn’t speak Gujarati so I learnt the language, but not well enough to be able to deliver dialogues fluently. I gave it a shot because they insisted on it. But it was obvious to me that I would have to play the mute since I really was at a loss for words. (Laughs)

Arvind Joshi: You don’t get interesting concepts in comedies often. I find the idea of three physically-challenged men falling in love quite fascinating. Seven years ago, Shafi Inamdar approached me to adapt the original script to suit the sensibilities of Gujarati audiences. It took me one-and-a-half months to translate the original into Gujarati, by which time the actors were chosen. There were minor changes in the script.

In the original, the deaf character runs a Chinese food stall but I don’t know of any Gujaratis running a Chinese food stall. So I thought a tailor’s job would suit him better. The jokes and punch lines changed.

Sharman Joshi: I was performing at an intercollegiate competition when Shafibhai spotted me. He knew my father. So he asked him if I’d be interested in enacting a role in the play. He let me choose so I opted for the deaf one. The deaf character is more audience-friendly. I wanted more lines because I thought it would be beneficial to my career. But Shafibhai was disappointed because he thought I’d opt for the more challenging one, the mute character.

This play was important. All of us were certain, even before we started to rehearse, that it would be a runaway hit.

Vikas Kadam: The play was running house full in Marathi and was discussed in the media, so the Gujarati version didn’t have a problem. We would perform mainly in Mumbai and Ahmedabad, where people would comeup to us on the streets to say they enjoyed watching it. One night after the performance as we were taking a walk in Ahmedabad, a vendor selling film star posters came up to us and asked us if we were the actors from All the Best. We felt like celebrities.

Sharman Joshi: Initially we felt the pressure because the play was already a huge success in Marathi with 300 house full shows. Three teams would perform simultaneously at different venues in the city.

We watched them a few times before we started performing so their success was playing heavily on our minds. We rehearsed all day for two months. Our opening night had a good response. It usually gets better with more performances but strangely, in our case it was quite the reverse. It was really heart breaking.

The problem was that we were trying so hard to please the audience, and not letting anything pass by, so it looked forced. We were performing it like a serious play. Nothing was falling correctly. We were quite hassled that the audiences didn’t like the play that much. We would discuss it among ourselves.

Vikas Kadam: Sharman and I vibe well. We shared a room on our tours so we became good friends. We would argue a lot about what would work for the play. We knew that we had to make the most of every performance because such plays are rare to come by.

Sharman Joshi: After about 25 shows with a lukewarm response, we performed at Ahmedabad where people are more appreciative and more responsive than the reserved Mumbai audience. They cheer if they like something and boo if they don’t. They loved our performance. We had seven wonderful shows. When we got back to Mumbai, we felt on top of the world. We brought down our performances by a few notches. We weren’t as uptight or eager-to-please any more. We just enjoyed ourselves. In fact, we had a like-it-or-leave-it attitude and we finally received the response we were looking for. Soon after, we would alternate performances on a weekly basis between the two cities.

Vikas Kadam: After a show at Mahisan in Gujarat, I was confronted backstage by a mute couple. They were so convinced I was mute too, they ‘spoke’ in sign language. I tried as I could to explain to them that I wasn’t mute and didn’t understand sign language. They gestured to me that their son was normal, although they were mute. They were giving me hope.

Kedar Shinde: In Gujarati, I thought Sharman was miscast. He would cast well as a model. But he performed well as the deaf guy, so it worked. As the mute character, Vikas Kadam was my favourite. He would come across as genuinely mute, which the role requires. He would also look mute because he was the only Marathi speaking person among a bunch of Gujarati actors (laughs). Vikas has an element of innocence about him, in his face, attitude and behaviour. I think he was perfectly cast. In the Hindi version, I liked Iqbal as the blind character.

But I think the best team of All The Best was Ankush, Bharat and Sanjay with Sampada Joglekar, the first actress in the commercial play.

Vikas Kadam: Sharman and I were permanent fixtures of the play after 500 shows. Munni Jha played the blind guy for about 250 shows. Anil Upadhyay took over from him for the rest of the shows and Satchi played the girl’s part.

We were performing at Bhaidas Hall once. That day Sharman and I would just burst out laughing when we looked at each other. We just couldn’t stop giggling even though we weren’t cracking jokes. We performed the first half of the play without really looking at each other. We were, of course, pulled up for it during the interval. They thought we were playing the fool and not being serious about the play.

Sharman Joshi: I clearly recall one shocking moment during a performance in Surat. Vikas and I were facing each other on stage. Vikas was delivering his “dialogues” when he suddenly stopped and stared at something to my right. So I turned around and saw a drunk behind me mimicking Vikas. I went into a state of shock.

Vikas Kadam: The drunk tottered up to us and said, “You are wonderful performers. Now get off the stage.” Then he started singing, “Paayalia, ho ho ho ho…” (sings) Some of our backstage team members got him off stage. After a while he came back on stage, singing. The theatre authorities were summoned. They said he was mentally ill and was barred entry into their theatre. But he had managed to slip in that day.

(End of Act Two)

ACT THREE

(Enter Feroz Khan)

Feroz Khan: I first watched All The Best at the insistence of Shafi Inamdar who adapted it in Gujarati. I liked the play but never thought of remaking it. I prefer originals. Vinay Parab of Bhaidas said it would be a good idea for me to make it in English. I considered it but with a twist in the script like Amar Akbar Anthony because the sensibilities of the English audience are very different. But that didn’t work so I decided to make it in Hindi.

Mansi Joshi: I saw All The Best since my Dad adapted it and my brother Sharman was acting in it. I laughed so much, I was rolling in the aisle. A year-and-a-half later, Feroz asked me if I wanted to act in its Hindi version. It seemed interesting because I loved the play, but at the time I felt that the girl’s role didn’t have much to offer. Also, at the time I was modelling so I had my apprehensions. But then Feroz said an understudy would play my par if I were shooting. After fifty shows, there were shooting clashes so an actress called Nivedita and I divided the shows between us, so that I could have my day’s off. Now I have my dates in advance so I coordinate between shoots and performances accordingly.

For six years, I’ve enjoyed myself thoroughly. Even today I look forward to my shows. I’m never bored. I guess it’s also because we haven’t performed as many back-to-back shows as the Gujarati and Marathi teams. We perform on weekends or private shows when we’re invited.

Vrajesh Hirjee: At one performance, the audience started laughing as soon as I made my entry. I thought they were reacting to my acting. I felt on top of the world. Then Kiku (playing the mute) came on stage and he desperately tried to act out, “Boss, you’re unzipped.” I thought he was just being vulgar so I went on a tangent. After a while Iqbal (playing the blind man) made his entry. When he got the chance he muttered under his breath, so with my back to the audience, I zipped up.

Mansi Joshi: My first performance was pretty bad. It was at Prithvi Theatre and everyone was nervous. The first show usually is never a great show. There are the usual teething problems. We got into the groove only after maybe ten shows. We performed two shows at Prithvi and went to Calcutta for six shows. Personally, with each performance I’ve discovered something new about myself.

Vikas Kadam: This play taught me acting and gave me the confidence to pursue it as a profession. Before this play, I would act only because I loved it. Due to this play, people know me as an actor. So I can now depend on acting as my profession.

Vrajesh Hirjee: All The Best has made me a man of the world. I travelled all over the world and I’ve become popular with the women after the play (clears his throat and grins). It’s made a big difference to my image. More importantly, I had memorable experiences with this play. Like this episode which I will definitely tell my grandchildren because it was so unbelievable.

One monsoon, we were doing an open-air terrace performance for 150 people in Gurgaon at the Bristol Hotel. The set was readied for the following afternoon but it disappeared during a storm that night. So they set up a new one and we performed according to schedule.

During the second half, the wind started blowing. We didn’t know whether or not to stop but then the wings of the set started swaying. Mansi and I were on stage. So we decided it was safer to lean on the walls. I said, ‘Deevar bahut badhiya hai na.’ Suddenly it started to pour. Mansi and I paused, but Iqbal walked in saying, ‘Chhat ka hole theek nahin karvaya ab tak?’ At that, Vikas came in with a bucket and said, ‘Acchha, paani kahan ikaththa karoon?’ We improvised, sang, danced and just had a good time.

Vikas Kadam: It was breezy and we were shivering. The colours of the set were running across the terrace and our clothes were stained. But we continued because the vibe between the actors was great. I think we’ve never had so much fun with improvising.

Vrajesh Hirjee: We went off stage after a while because it was raining too much. But the audience stood there faithfully. We suggested that we would perform the last scene of the play since they were waiting for so long and we were grateful to them for the appreciation. But they were willing to wait. So we performed the rest of the play in the pouring rain.

Feroz Khan: Audiences don’t like interruptions, so the performance went on despite the rain. Everyone enjoyed watching a performance in the rain. It was novel. Such things give me confidence that audiences appreciate a great play.

Devendra Pem: Feroz spruced up the quality of the production. He is technically brilliant. Three hundred and fifty shows later, Feroz has maintained the look of the play. Besides, he made the play so crisp that each half is one hour long. Sometimes, in Marathi, the play drags on to three hours.

Feroz Khan: I am very particular that the performance standards in my plays are maintained. These have never been compromised. If there is any kind of slack, we’re back to rehearsals. There is strict quality control.

Mansi Joshi: When you play the same role for long, monotony sets in. You don’t explore within those parameters. Feroz analyses our performances and guides us to do better. He has not really directed us although that is how most people perceive it because it’s his production and he is a brand in himself. He adds small touches that make a big difference to the presentation of the play—music, costumes, backdrop and lights.

Vrajesh Hirjee: I performed in nineteen plays before All The Best. But this play marked my graduation from just another actor to “here’s a new actor”. First of all, All The Best is a Feroz Khan production and it was already running on its own steam. So it attracted more people. I find it very heartening when I meet people who have seen it a dozen times. Some people at Prithvi Theatre who have seen the play often say our lines before we do.

Vikas Kadam: I know of people who have watched this play 50 times over. I met this old, partially deaf man who watched this play 70 times. I have heard him rattling out lines from the play like people repeat Gabbar Singh’s lines from Sholay.

Feroz Khan: The beauty of this play is that it runs by itself. Sometimes I don’t even know when or where they are performing. The actors thoroughly enjoy performing this play, so I can focus on my other plays. This play has a life of its own. I am so certain of its entertainment value that I tell my organisers I’ll return their money if they don’t like the play. (Laughs)

Mansi Joshi: Iqbal ad-libs a lot and looks in the wings for our reaction. We’re usually cracking up. We also have a good laugh at Iqbal’s expense during a scene where Iqbal bangs into the door and faints. We have to sprinkle water to revive him, but more often than not we drench him.

I started this once when I wanted to get back at him for pestering me. So, during this scene, I just poured the entire glass of water into his face. We still continue with the tradition.

During another show, Kiku brought in a bucketful instead of a glass; and it isn’t even part of our props. I still remember Iqbal’s expression when I said, “Maine toh sirf pani ka glass manga tha, tum toh puri balti le aye…”

Vikas Kadam: I perform when Kiku can’t make it so I’ve done only about 35 shows. In the Gujarati version, Sharman and I were permanent fixtures. The pace and rhythm of the play in Hindi and Gujarati versions is different from the Marathi, but the impact remains.

The most important aspect of the play is timing. You can’t slip up because there is no time to think. If you miss the moment, it’s gone. If you delay your line, it loses its punch. You have to be on your toes, totally focused and completely absorbed in the rhythm of the play. The lines and the music of the play have to be synchronised as well. So we would rehearse as much as possible.

Mansi Joshi: In the beginning, we rehearsed for a month-and-a-half. The deaf and dumb characters should be positioned just so that the girl doesn’t realise they are communicating while she’s speaking to the blind character. Also, the audience should not realise that the girl understands what is happening around her. In addition, there are rapid movements in the play, like changing positions and jumping around. It’s a very physical play.

Feroz Khan: I remember our first performance in the US. We took the flight from Atlanta to San Francisco with a stopover. The flight from Houston was delayed and our luggage was left behind. We not only reached the theatre late but we also had no luggage or props. Awaiting us were 2,000 odd people…

The theatre was like an old church and the play before ours had a typical 18th Century Victorian setting. We didn’t really have a choice except to go ahead with what was available. We got our areas together and the four performers just performed in that Shakespearean setting. I borrowed a mobile phone for the phone rings because all our recorded CDs were left behind.

Vrajesh Hirjee: Feroz kept calling on my friend’s phone that was lying on stage but there would be a lag in the ring. It was quite funny. The music was different. Even our costumes hadn’t come so we were wearing the same clothes that we were wearing when we left.

Feroz Khan: I called for some popular Indian music CDs. In one scene, the deaf actor speaks into the recorder and plays it later. So we had someone backstage repeating his lines. But in spite of everything, I think that was the best performance of All the Best ever.

Vrajesh Hirjee: When you perform abroad, you have to put up the sets yourself. So you pull down your sets, have dinner and take off for the airport where you spend a long time. We were tired and wearing the same clothes for over two days.

For a while during the play, I was wearing the same clothes. Then we went to the prop guys, and exchanged clothes. As the show went on, we kept exchanging clothes between the seven of us, except for the lady, of course.

A friend of mine had come in to see the play. So during the interval I pulled him backstage and took his clothes. It was a novel experience.

Feroz Khan: Twinkle Khanna played the woman’s role for our shows abroad from late last year. She was very keen to do the play, although initially I was sceptical because starry attitudes don’t work in theatre. You have to be around for rehearsals, you need that kind of commitment.

Twinkle was not unfamiliar with theatre because she has worked with Satyadev Dubey and to my amazement she has a terrific memory. She can remember dialogues by reading it through just once. She is extremely conscientious about her work and relates well with the team. Taking on a star for our performances abroad added that star value and was good for the publicity of the play. But having her perform here means a raise in ticket prices.

I want to make this play accessible to everyone so the ticket prices here are reasonable and I even offer discounts to students. I also do a lot of shows for charity because the play has such mass appeal like a show in Dubai recently in aid of the Bhuj earthquake.

Vrajesh Hirjee: I have a role that pleases the gallery. I have some damn good lines. I think every single line in that play is brilliant. In fact, even the silences are perfectly timed.

Maybe if I were given a choice, I would choose the mute guy. I think it’s a brilliant role and will definitely help the growth of any actor. I have of course grown as an actor even as the deaf character, but I would love to play the mute. It’s the toughest role in the play and both the actors playing the part, Kiku Gandhi and Vikas Kadam, are brilliant. But I would still love to do it for myself.

Vikas Kadam: This play taught me acting and gave me the confidence to pursue it as a profession. Prior to this play, I would act only because I loved it, but now I can treat this as my profession. People now know me as an actor. When they see you on the street, they come up to appreciate and encourage you.

Vrajesh Hirjee: Before every show that I have performed people come backstage to say, ‘All The Best, hunh!’ The beauty is that each one thinks he is the first to have cracked the joke. And there must have been at least 35,000 people who have done exactly the same thing. But we laugh every single time and say, “He’s so funny. All the best bola, dekho!”

Slowly All The Best began its life in other languages. The Gujarati version performed around 25 shows a month for three years—about 750 shows altogether. The Hindi version still runs strong though only on weekends and has done about 350 shows. There have been 70 shows in Sindhi and 90 in Tulu.

(Lights out. The show goes on.)

This article was first published in the April 2002 issue