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Dattani, Mahesh (b. 1958)  
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Except for Vijay Tendulkar's Marathi play Mitra's Story (1982), which is regarded as the first Indian play with a lesbian protagonist, there was not much presence on the Indian stage until Mahesh Dattani's English-language play Bravely Fought the Queen (1991). Since then Dattani has written eight screenplays and twelve other plays; one of these screenplays and four of the plays feature at least one gay character. His recurrent depictions of homosexual characters make him an important figure in South Asian gay culture.

Dattani was born on August 7, 1958 in Bangalore, where his parents settled, although they are from Gujarat and have also lived in Mumbai. His education was at a Christian institution, Baldwin's High School, where the language of instruction was English. He graduated in History, Economics, and Political Science and has a postgraduate degree in Marketing and Advertising Management.

While growing up Dattani learned the classical south-Indian dance of Bharatnatyam, which subsequently helped him to develop skills in managing space on stage. It was not until he finished school and watched some Gujarati and Kannada theater that he identified his calling. However, at the time he was a copywriter at an advertising agency.

For a brief period he worked in his father's business before forming his theater group, Playpen, in 1984. Initially they performed Greek tragedy and modern classics, under Dattani's direction. He often acted in his own productions.

Dattani's entire opus may be seen as a relentless assault on Indian patriarchy. He struck his first blow by empowering women characters in his debut play Where There's a Will (1988). In a line rich with queer suggestion, a mistress says of her benefactor, "He saw in me a woman who would father him." In his next play, tellingly titled Dance Like a Man (1989)--turned into a film of the same name in 2003, directed by Pamela Rooks--queer presence is signaled when a male Bharatnatyam dancer's father hints at a dance instructor's non-normative sexuality by commenting on the latter's long hair and style of walking.

Gender also holds center stage in his next play Tara (1990) before yielding some discreet but significant space to sexuality in Bravely Fought the Queen. This play, about two brothers trying to run an advertising agency, is the first example of a male character vocalizing, if not performing, his homosexuality on the Indian stage.

In the play, Nitin Trivedi is apparently happily married to Alka, but is uncontrollably attracted to men. The first instance of his homosexual expression occurs during his narration of an incident. Nitin's brother Jatin had once knocked over a parked rickshaw because he was drunk and had lost control of his car. Nitin was with his brother when it happened. Remembering the incident Nitin relishes his own description of the rickshaw driver as "violent-looking" and remembers his "strong black arm."

Although it is not stated explicitly, the audience is given to understand that Nitin subsequently begins to enjoy the rickshaw driver's sexual services, meeting him either at the office in the absence of Jatin or at home in the absence of his wife. The play ends with a monologue by Nitin in which he says that before marriage he was sexually involved with a young man named Praful, who had convinced Nitin to marry his sister Alka by lying to Nitin that she knew about their homosexual relationship and that she did not mind.

Gay presence in Dattani's work increases with the play Do the Needful (1997). Written for BBC Radio 4, the plot centers on the negotiations for an arranged marriage between Alpesh, a Gujarati man, and Lata, a Kannada (i.e., belonging to the south-Indian state of Karnataka) woman. As the play progresses it is revealed that the woman is not agreeable to the marriage because she loves Salim, a Muslim man, while the prospective groom is in love with a man named Trilok. Although she tells Alpesh about her love for another man, Alpesh keeps quiet about his homosexual relationship.

Alpesh's homosexuality is revealed to Lata when she surprises him and the gardener of her family having sex in the cowshed, just as she is about to run away to Salim. At first horrified, she subsequently decides that the best way to deal with the situation is to marry Alpesh, so that they can lead separate sexual lives yet keep up the appearance of a happy couple: a common compromise in a society that has criminalized non-procreative sex since 1862!

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Mahesh Dattani.
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