The comic genius of tiatrist Anthony Mendes
Once upon a time (was it all really so long ago?), on Sunday mornings after every Mass got over, people streaming out of churches across Mumbai would be greeted by young men standing at the church gates distributing blue, green, and pink coloured handbills with advertisements of soon-to-be-staged tiatrs. The venues of these plays would be either the open-air theatre at Victoria Gardens at Byculla, Princess Theatre at Bhangwadi (if you’re wondering about the name, the locality once had opium shops lining the entrance), St. Mary’s High School at Mazagon, or the Rang Bhavan open-air theatre near St. Xavier’s College. Goans would grab these handbills and start scanning them eagerly on the way home. If the face of Anthony Mendes figured among the pictures of the tiatrists starring in the play they were sure the tiatr would be a sell-out and make a beeline for ‘Jack-of-all Stall’ at Byculla or other centres at Dhobitalao to book their tickets as early as possible to avoid disappointment.
Anthony Mendes embodied the best of comedy on the Konkani stage. He was a gifted comedian who could make audiences laugh uncontrollably without uttering a single word. Just a wriggle of his stick-on toothbrush moustache the moment he emerged from the side wings was enough to bring the house down. I remember how he would yank his pants to his armpits and disappear into them to the delight of the crowd who revelled in his zany antics. He was the quintessential perfect comedian: superb timing, an endearing stage presence, and yes, loads of talent. Those who have grown up in the post-Anthony Mendes era have only to see the Konkani film Amchem Noxib for glimpses of his comedic genius.
Had he been alive today, Anthony Mendes would have been celebrating his 92nd birthday in a few days from now. Born in Margao on 28 December, 1920, he made his professional debut on the Konkani stage at the tender age of 16 after passing out of St. Theresa’s High School in Girgaum, one of the Goan pockets in the city of Bombay. In 1936, after watching him perform in a local stage show, Joao Agostinho Fernandes (acknowledged today as the Father of the Konkani stage) decided to offer the young Anthony Mendes a small role in his one-act play Khapri Chakor (African Servant). Joao Agostinho was so impressed by the talent of his new protégé, he gave him roles to play in many of his other tiatrs as well, till finally he picked him for one of the lead roles in his play Vauraddi. From then on there was no stopping Anthony Mendes. The upcoming young tiatrist was a hit, his popularity began to grow, directors began to pursue him for their plays, and the rest is history.
A multi-talented tiatrist
Like another great tiatrist – C. Alvares, Anthony Mendes was a multi-talented performer. His versatility extended to acting, singing, songwriting and even playwriting. He penned scores of songs and 15 full-length tiatrs, one of his major hits being “Road to Mapusa”. His remarkable inventiveness whether it was character portrayal, writing the lyrics for his songs, or entertaining the audience, made him a hit with tiatr enthusiasts.
A big reason for the popularity of Anthony Mendes’s songs was that the lyrics were so side-splittingly funny. Consider these lines from “Taxi Driver” one of his hit solos or ‘clowns’ as they used to be called in the tiatr programs:
Taxi choloitanam fattlean kitem tum poitoloi,
Gopan eka mekak dhorun aloi-doloi,
Tea amchea fuddlea arxean cinema kitem poitoloi,
(Watching lovers in the backseat through the rear mirror is like watching a movie!)
And then feeling guilty for being a peeping Tom, he ends with the lines:
Saiba maka kurpa di, steering mojem ghott dhorunc,
Haum poitam mhunn tancam gomoi!
(Dear Lord, help me hold on tight to the steering wheel… please let them know I can see what they’re doing!”
Or take these witty lines from Burgo Mog (Immature Love):
Ho tuzo guneau, mozo guneau, kestao pettota,
Bejeam suater, vontt poleancher, thapttam suzota…
(They start quarelling – It’s your fault; No, it’s yours;
And soon lips and cheeks are swollen not from passionate kissing, but from stinging slaps!)
Another brilliant composition is the song Dadlo, an ode to the macho male and his remarkable “strength”. Anthony Mendes begins with the line “Dadlea, dadlea, dadlea, dadlea, kitlo ghott tum vortotai“(O man how great is your strength), continues with creatively conceived plaudits like “Dantanim battleancheo guddeo kaddtai” (You can remove the crown caps of soft drink bottles with your bare teeth), but ends sardonically with “Punn bailanc poitoch pochok zatai” – (But the mere sight of ladies makes you go weak in the knees).
When this wonderful actor died in 1964, just one year after the immensely popular Amchem Noxib was released, he was only 43. His sudden demise due to blood cancer shattered not only his young wife and three school-going sons, it came as a cruel shock to tiatr lovers as well. I was just a kid in school at that time, but I clearly remember the silver-throated Alfred Rose’s heart-breaking rendition of a song dedicated to Anthony Mendes just a few days after the demise of the master comedian. The jam-packed auditorium listened in complete silence, many with tears in their eyes, till he concluded his moving tribute with the lines:
Mendes amche modem jieunk, tevuim zalear amchem noxib,
Mendes bhurghech ponnin moronk, tenvuim amchem noxib.
Anthony Mendes had only a brief love affair with the Konkani stage, but till today, 48 years after he passed away, the bond Goans and lovers of tiatr share with him still endures, and it will continue to endure well into the future.
I conclude my own small tribute to this giant among tiatrists with a clip of his evergreen hit duet with Antonette – Bencdaita Pai – from Amchem Noxib.
What a song! What a delectable mix of comedy and romance…
And Merry Christmas!