The Bollywood version

This Cyrano de Bergerac has a nose like a bhindi, and Roxanne retires to an ashram. Michael Church on the National Theatre's Bollywood make-over

Hollywood, Bollywood; the first Indian talkie, made in 1931, proved as lethal as The Jazz Singer had been in America three years before. But here the victim wasn't silent cinema: what India lost was a unique theatre tradition. Performing in squares and fields to audiences of thousands, without benefit of electric light or amplification, Parsee players from Bombay delivered legends and love stories in a broad, swashbuckling style. When the cinema poached their stars, and hijacked their stories, a folk art went under.

This culture clash is now being replayed at the National Theatre, in an unusual collaboration between expat and resident Asians that will wind up in a nicely symbolic way - with a tour of Indian cities. The prime mover is Kenyan-Asian Jatinder Verma, who has directed his Tara Arts company in a string of culturally hybrid projects. Last year he set Moliere's LeBourgeois Gentilhomme in the 17th-century French colony of Pondicherry.

Verma had long wanted to do that perennial paean to the outsider, Cyrano de Bergerac, but Anthony Burgess's English version - not to mention his subtitles for the Depardieu film - kept standing in the way. "It was superb. I felt daunted when I read it. Only when I decided to set the play in North India - and realised the wealth of imagery I could draw on - did I have the courage to carry it through."

He set it in Thirties Jodhpur, and made Cyrano - who wrote dim-witted Christian's love-letters in the French original - the prompter in a touring theatre company. Out went Rostand's grenadiers, with their fateful summons to war: in came some no- less-embattled thespians, whom the new film studios were swallowing alive. This Christian was to die, not on the field of war, but for real during a film shoot: killing himself in despair at his new-found professional inadequacy.

Verma did a prose adaptation, and invited Ranjit Bolt - an Anglo-Indian from Manchester - to render it into verse. The result is a fascinating blend of English, Urdu and Hindi. The story is now Asian to the core. When Kishan (aka Christian) is suddenly forced to declare his love for Rukhsaan (aka Roxanne) without Cyrano-ji's ready-made words, she crushes him with a culinary metaphor. In contrast to Burgess's heroine - "You offer skimmed milk when I ask for cream'' - Bolt's says: "This is plain roti. What I'm asking for is a shir mal." The famous nose is likened, among other things, to a bhindi.

Tragedy strikes as the strolling players attempt to film the bedroom scene in a work entitled Yusuf Rajah. "Pray! I would not kill thy unprepared spirit."

"Talk you of killing?" (Yes, an Asian Othello.)

"The handkerchief which I loved so and gave thee, thou gavest to Cyrano..."

"No, Cassio!"

"Cut! What's this tamasha? You're not on stage now. Yey film hai! It's film! No prompting. It must flow! We'll have to do another take. Prasad, 500 rupees off your fee!"

A nunnery being an alien concept in India, the grieving Rukhsaan retires to an ashram. And where Burgess's Cyrano sums up his woes as writer and lover in a Gallic aphorism: "Moliere has genius; Christian had good looks", Bolt's puts his in Hollywood terms: "Kishan had beauty, and Prasad Bombay."

In an early rehearsal, led by the Indian theatre director Anuradha Kapur, at which the lovers' wedding hits an unexpected rock. Should the priest be Muslim or Hindu? Since this is a mixed marriage, since such ceremonies can only take place in a civil court, and since the text calls for a religious ceremony, the group are at a temporary impasse.

As Naseeruddin Shah, playing Cyrano, points out, the real danger for the Indian tour lies in making the priest - whichever creed he cleaves to - laughable. "In India, people protest about the smallest things." Well, he should know: as the director of a theatre group in Bombay, he recently had a production of Julius Caesar hissed off the stage by local Shakespeare pedants.

Shah is also a very big fish in the Bombay film pool. He can now be seen thereplaying a corrupt policeman in a film called Dakkar. "It means 'The Clash', in which my lecherous character finally meets his match in a lot of biff-bang-wallop. For years I was typecast as the young rebel, then I was the mature idealist, but now I'm the villain, which is much more fun."

This 45-year-old actor had leapt at the chance of a six-month stint with the National, despite his producers' warning that it would be financially catastrophic. "Even if I do lose money, what the hell! I've always been regarded as an oddball in Bombay. I do what I want to do."

His crimes with Julius Caesar had been to redistribute some of the soliloquies as conversations, and to infuse the "Friends, Romans, countrymen" scene with verisimilitude. "My reasoning was, why would Antony say, 'lend me your ears' if everyone was nice and quiet already? So I had the crowd baying and screaming, and Antony repeating the line at least six times, and it was still swallowed up in the din. The trouble is, that line is all some of these so-called Shakespearians know of the speech. One teacher came back afterwards and said she would not permit her students to see the production. Shakespeare is more sacred in India than he is in Britain."

He cut his teeth on the films he saw at his school run by the Irish Christian Brothers. "Citizen Kane, Westerns, Mickey Mouse - I was captivated by the whole thing. When I was 12, I decided I wanted to become an actor, but everyone told me to forget it - I wasn't handsome enough." He presents his profile - a beaky satyr. "That is one reason why Cyrano has such meaning for me personally - these looks of mine have both caused my torment, and fed my fire to succeed, just as his do for him."

The turning point in his life came, with exquisite appropriateness, when he encountered Geoffrey Kendal - father of Felicity, and leader of the intrepid English rep company eternalised in Merchant Ivory's Shakespeare Wallah.

"I saw him perform, and went backstage to meet him, and there I realised that I, too, could be an actor. He had shown me the way. He said he considered himself a missionary, not an actor, and that is how I regard my own work. I owe my career to him, and I dedicate all my work to him. I hear he is unwell now, but I would be so happy if he could come to this production in London."

Should we expect to cry at the National, as we did at Depardieu's film? "I really hope so! It certainly jolts me, when I perform it. It's such a relief to have to produce real, raw emotion. Hindi films are all manipulated emotion, synthetic. A real person in one of those movies would look out of place."

How will it play in Bombay and Bangalore? "They will enjoy it as the funniest tragedy ever written. Making you laugh while bringing a lump to your throat is a formula which Indian drama also follows. It will feel quite familiar to them."

n 'Cyrano' opens today at the Cottesloe, National Theatre, London SE1 (0171-928 2252. It tours to Crawley (16-18 Nov), Warwick (21-25 Nov), Lancaster (27-29 Nov) and Bradford (5-9 Dec), before its Indian tour

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