San Francisco — Tom Stoppard premiered his drama “Indian Ink” in London in 1995 and presented the American premiere of the show with director Carey Perloff at the American Conservatory Theater here 15 years ago.
Now, the acclaimed playwright has once again collaborated with Perloff for a reworked version of the play — which is set in 1930 and offers a fresh look at the British occupation of India through the eyes of a young British poet and the brilliant, complicated Indian painter she falls in love with.
Indian American actor Firdous Bamji is a marvel as the artist Nirad Das, a man whose flighty mannerisms veer toward the comical but who quickly shifts to a serious, cerebral tone as he expounds on topics as heady as the history of erotic paintings or the definition of “rasa.” “Rasa is the emotion conjured up by what we see, read, hear, taste or feel,” Das explains.
Opposite Bamji is Brenda Meaney as Flora Crewe, a willowy poet who is encamped in a small Indian town as she recuperates from an unnamed ailment. The two spar and quarrel as a growing romance takes form. Violinist Arun Ramamurthy and mridangam artist Akshay Anantapadmanabhan contribute an original score and live music.
“Indian Ink” plays at the American Conservatory Theater through Feb. 8, with several InterACT events such as an audience exchange and wine tasting series planned.
Although the three-hour play itself doesn’t completely satisfy on a dramatic level — tensions never rise to a boil, and the audience is cheated from seeing a love scene and a death that are both critical to the story — Stoppard is to be commended for his grasp of the Indian political context he interjects into the drama.
In one scene, black-tie-wearing British aristocrats in the fictional town of Jummapur dance at a party on an evening in April 1930, on the very day that Mahatma Gandhi makes headlines by completing his historic salt march to the sea. When a character wonders if anyone in India even knows or cares about Gandhi’s action, Flora quips, “Well, they’ve heard of him now.”
In another scene, local Theosophical Society leader Coomaraswami (Ajay Naidu, lively and hilarious) swings between fawning deference to ‘firangi’ Flora and spewing a rash torrent of Hindi abuses at his Indian underlings.
Bamji’s character is the soul of the play, and his performance is fascinating. Born in Mumbai, Bamji attended the prestigious Kodaikanal International School before moving to Bahrain and later to South Carolina with his family.
It was at Kodaikanal in the sixth grade that Bamji started out as an actor; later on, attending college in South Carolina and earning a degree in journalism, he also sang in a rock band.
In addition to working with M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable”) and fellow cast member Naidu (on Naidu’s directorial debut “Ashes”), Bamji has appeared on American TV shows including “Law & Order: SVU” and “Law & Order” and many films.
His work in the film “The War Within” earned him an Independent Spirit Award for best supporting actor in 2006. Onstage, he has played leading roles in works by Tony Kushner and Eric Bogosian. Bamji also played Anish Das, the grown son of Nirad Das, in an earlier production of “Indian Ink,” as well as a character in another Stoppard play, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” Bamji is also a busy voice actor who has narrated the audiobook editions of 16 bestsellers.
In 2007, Bamji received widespread acclaim for his work on Simon McBurney’s award-winning “A Disappearing Number,” which told the story of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan and his mentor, Cambridge Don G.H. Hardy.
Stoppard and Perloff said in a statement that they had tweaked the play to focus more on the romance between Das and Flora than on the politics of the era.
“I think time has caught up with this play in a good way,” noted Perloff. “Today, the notion of cross-cultural love affairs, and the complexity with which colonized peoples inevitably end up taking on the characteristics of their colonizers, are things we actually know about.
“In the 15 years since it was done, the relationship between Flora and Das has become much more interesting and complex, because these ideas are more in the world than they were then.”
Bamji observed: “It’s about falling in love, and how you recognize someone.
“The trappings fall away. The human being-to-human being connection defies culture, defies language.”
Visit ACT-SF.org or call (415) 749-2228 for information on “Indian Ink.”