Udavam Karangal Presents Phenomenally Professional Play “Unforgiven”

By Venugopal Menon

The annual, customarily exceptional fund-raising event of Udavum Karangal presented on Sunday, October 29, 2023, at the Kalyanamandapam of Sri Meenakshi Temple, was a notch superior than ever before.  Under the gifted guidance of Dr. Padmini Ranganathan and Rajan Radhakrishnan, a team of dedicated artists and volunteers worked tirelessly for months to stage a phenomenally professional English play, titled “Unforgiven”.

The yearly pledge of this Houston team is quite resembling a reparation, a respectful offering to the divine service the establishment across the globe has undertaken.  The altruistic organization based out of Chennai, Udavum Karangal, translated as “Helping Hands”, is the brainchild of its Founding Father “Pappa” Vidyaakar, and his commitment to help the orphans, the destitute and likewise needy human beings.  It was back in 1983, when rescuing an abandoned, dehydrated, groaning boy was brought to Vidyaakar who tenderly embraced the role of his guardian – and never looked back.  Rest is history.

With the help of generous philanthropists from all over, Udavum Karangal is able to save and offer new lease of life to nearly 2,000 unfortunate persons from newborn babies, and children to adults who are deprived, forsaken or abused.  Individualized care is provided as needed, from nutritious food, rehabilitation, education and aid in getting them established in life.  The institution has short or longer residential care, healthcare, educational facilities, disaster management, guidance, counselling, as more services are being added as more needs evolve.

And about twenty years ago, as if by heavenly intervention, a celestial sparkle seemed to have flashed from Thiruverkadu, Tamilnadu all the way across the earth and landed in our space city, Houston, designating one of our own ‘kind and capable hearts’ as the ‘intergalactic guardian’ of Udavum Karangal.  Divine destiny entrusted Padmini Ranganathan, the mastermind with an insatiable ability to help, lead and generate results, enthusiastically taking over the overseas responsibility – and once again, rest is history!

Back to the backbone of the event!  Unforgiven!  Why such a title, the very antithesis of helping hands – Munificent to Miserable; Reverential to Revengeful!  Why?  The very purpose, I am guessing, is challenging the audience to introspect, contemplate and come to their conclusion how such contrasts – from the serene alcoves at Udavum Karangal, Chennai to the fictional sets of KM of MTS in ‘Unforgiven’ – let your minds soar and explore!

About the play, ‘Unforgiven’, I may re-title it “Unparalleled”, on precisely what evolved on stage.  Those who have attended the event needs no explanation. Those who didn’t, missed a Broadway play in Meenakshi Temple.  The narrative is all about a heinous, convoluted crime, where the culprit gets away through legal loopholes. The plot points at various characters as the villains, as the spectators are drawn through their own detective prospects and come out winners or losers, as they can conveniently conclude.

The whole theme revolves around a couple of murders, apparently happening on the sets as we watch, but don’t worry – no fear of any nightmares. They were discretely ‘diluted’ by the deft directorial prowess, but the suspense was carried through the entire show, even after it was through.  The first scene was in a police station, obviously Indian, but organized better.  Raju Vanguri – the yesteryear genius who along with everyone’s long-lost friend Anil Kumar crafted ‘Potato Chips are called French Fries Here’, stole the evening even before it started, as the ‘pant-pulling’ constable Naidu, until inspector Shakthi Rathode roared on to the scene, with her flawless script delivery and body language.  Never recognized it was Surabhi Veeraraghavan – quite a natural!  And then comes she! The ‘Helen Hayes of Houston’, Alpa Shah as Durga, the suspected villain, teasing the audience, if to love or to loathe, until proven beyond a doubt.  Then a surprise entry, the NextGen sensation, beautiful inside-and-out Varsha Vasu, a superstar of tomorrow!  Mahesh Shah, who wiggled in next, must have been an actor even in his mother’s womb, the way he squirms on the stage, appears as the night owl Natwarlal, a crook just the same as the politician he played last.  Dear Srikanth, my friend, nothing is beyond him, donning the role of a chef, needs no uniform, nor a ladle to scoop, neither to ‘cook his character’.  Yogi Patel deserves a pat and certainly chances in the future.

As the scenes change, the lawyers take over, and from then on, it’s all downhill for us the audience.  Their conversation in the far corner was kind of overshadowed by Shivi Pava, the Advocate Assistant, who even as an unnecessary appendage did even better than the lawyers.  Don’t let my praise give you hope, Shivi, that call from Tollywood may never come.  Then come the titans. No words to compliment the veterans, Vishi the professional who can shine in any role, and my good old friend Kas Saranathan, lawyer Parameshwaran, the enigmatic ‘best among equals’, quoting Sydney Sheldon, the attorney par excellence, the Rajat Kamal award candidate from Houston stages.  Court scenes follow – the accused in the cage, the witnesses shifting places on their stand, and the attorneys reaching at each other’s throats.  There were some tense moments when Charanya, as prosecutor Neeti was aiming at the jugulars of her male opponents, but none among them had a clue, who the real executioner was.  The judge at the lower court, Prabha Bala, didn’t seem to care, but in her sleepy, stubborn style, declared the fastest verdict ever, in the history of the courts!

As I thought it was over and could get some dinner, it was just the beginning.  Durga went to the higher court, presided by experienced, Honorable Judge George Willy, who put the attorneys in their places and after the passionate back-and-forth diatribes, ‘Mother’ Durga was exonerated, absolved, freed.  Poof!  Judge declared that she may go back to her ‘Sanctum’.

Still not over.  After the curtain draws, they bring on a jungle on to the stage.  Apparently, Durga’s backyard, I had to believe! The scene explodes – histrionics double dose, here we go again.  Those who left early, missed it all!  The epilogue was about Lakshmi’s rape-murder, that you may come in late in the beginning.  If your curiosity lasts that long, come back next year. On time.

It was way past snack-digestion and dinner for my queasy stomach!  Someone whispered loud, it is not intermission, yet.  Of course, it is justified that the several artists in front and behind the screen owe to be acknowledged, applauded and admired.  It was done, elegantly, though a bit elaaaaborately.  The intricate and interesting story and dialogue by Houston Chandramouli, mesmeric masterpiece stage setting and decoration by Nalini Kannan, faultless sound and stage control by Partha Krishnasamy, innovative and pleasing live music by Mahesh Iyer, assisted by Anirudh, magical make up by Lakmi Pawa that erased the real ones, and enchanting play back by Mahalakshmi Krishnan, the immaculate spectacle was pure delight.

Huge accolades to all the talents, offering such a marvelous, Houston proud show, and in support of a most worthy, humanitarian cause – Udavum Karangal.