'Postcards from Colaba' Is A Play & Heritage Walk Immersing You In Mumbai's Queer Past

Stills of actors immersing themselves in their roles.
'Postcards from Colaba' is an immersive play uncovering the hidden corners of Bombay's alternative history.Manthan Naik, Atul Kamble

A theatrical experience that breaks the mold has come to the fore. This innovative play by Vikram Phukan is shining light on an underground queer scene that once thrived in Colaba. 'Postcards from Colaba' is an immersive play uncovering the hidden corners of Bombay's alternative history. Styled as a heritage walk, this performance piece blends narrative and location to create a multi-sensory experience that brings the past vividly to life.

For many decades, Colaba has been the epicentre of a thriving queer scene. Its legacy stands as a symbol of Bombay's subterranean indulgences and its fabric weaved through chance encounters and unwritten testimonies that form rich archive of lived experiences. Postcards from Colaba draws on these stories and brings them to life in a manner reminiscent of a heritage walk across vintage Bombay.

The genesis of this performance can be traced back to Phukan's involvement in the Indo-UK poetry residency, ‘Language is a Queer Thing’, organized by The Queer Muslim Project and the British Council in collaboration with VERVE Poetry Birmingham. This residency inspired Phukan to explore queer narratives through a different lens which has culminated in this extraordinary play.

Postcards from Colaba takes the form of a walking play, guiding the audience through the Fort area and beyond. As actors perform monologues along a kilometre-long stretch, what might initially seem like a heritage walk gradually reveals itself to be an intimate, conversational theatre experience. Phukan emphasizes the fluidity of the performance, where there is no fixed space for the audience. Instead, the actors engage directly with viewers.

The play features a series of anecdotes, each rooted in the queer history of Colaba. One such story, 'Dulce de Leche', recounts a romantic excursion that culminates in the bittersweet realisation of a love retraced and relived. Actor Sahir Mehta's portrayal is heightened by the immersive gesture of handing out sweets to the audience. 

The nature of the play is further enhanced by pre-recorded voiceovers and narrations played through participants' headphones. These auditory elements provide additional context to the acts, deepening the audience's connection to the stories being told. Each location, from the National Gallery of Modern Art to the Gateway of India, serves the unfolding drama.

The characters and stories featured in the play are a blend of historical figures and fictionalized accounts. Among the notable figures is filmmaker Riyad Vinci Wadia, whose groundbreaking work, including the short film ‘BOMgAY’, is considered one of India's first gay-themed movies. The play also pays homage to theatre personality Sultan Bobby Padamsee.

Phukan and his team undertook extensive research, delving into the political and cultural atmosphere of queer subcultures in Mumbai in order to accurately portray the experiences of the community. 

Phukan maintains the delicate balance of staying true to the essence of the original stories while ensuring the anonymity of the characters in some cases. The play avoids overt romanticisation, striving instead for a more objective narrative that honours the lived realities of the queer community. This approach allows the stories to resonate on a deeper level.

As the play progresses, each location becomes a character in its own right, adding depth and dimension to the narratives. The performance concludes with a conversation with Phukan at Indigo Deli, in the touristy bylanes of Colaba. Over spoonfuls of dulce de leche, Phukan sometimes shares additional anecdotes and reflects on the journey of creating the play. 

Postcards from Colaba has evolved since its inception, transitioning from an English play to a bilingual production with select scenes performed in Hindi. Phukan is also working to enhance inclusivity within the cast, reconfiguring scenes to involve more female or non-binary actors. This ongoing evolution ensures that the play remains dynamic and relevant while continually reflecting the diversity of the queer community.

Through this play, Vikram not only preserves the legacy of Bombay's queer community but also inspires a deeper understanding and appreciation of the diverse narratives that make up the fabric of this remarkable city.