CHENNAI: Welcome to Africa, welcome to heart of the Savannah, welcome to the pride lands.” A voice booms from the speakers, reminding us that we are in an auditorium, and not in the middle of the Savannah as the backdrop had us believe. The rehearsals are going on for V-Excel Educational Trust’s theatre production of the Disney classic, and as we watch, Rafiki lifts Simba and the animal kingdom bows in unison.
A simmering orange half circle rises above the horizon. “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba....” (Here comes a lion, Father).... “Sithi uhm ingonyama ...” (Oh yes, it’s a lion).... African beats play. If you haven’t yet recognised, these are the Zulu words in the beginning of the Circle of Life song, from the The Lion King. We watch in awe as antelopes, zebras and animals of all kinds fill the stage, facing the Pride Rock where stands a majestic lion.
“We chose to do this production because we believe that there is a lion in all of us. Lion King is a story of courage, and how Simba overcomes his weaknesses courageously, something which I see in these children every day,” says Gita Bhalla, principal, V-Excel School and associate director of the trust.
Working with children with special needs, V-Excel takes them on choir trips and theatre plays to other schools, integrating with the normal environment. “For an autistic child, to even sit in one place, follow cues, socialise and wear costumes, is an achievement,” she sahres.
The school staged The Lion King as part of their annual day programme last year, and is recreating the show today to a much wider audience. What’s more, they even got an appreciation letter from the office of Walt Disney itself! “We had written to them seeking permission and they replied sharing their good wishes for the show!” gushes Charumathi Sriram, PRO, V-Excel.
Put together entirely by over 100 students and staff of the V-Excel trust and school, The Lion King stays true to the original story with minor adaptations. “We essentially had to cut a few parts of the story to cut down on runtime,” says Neha Bharadwaj, a teacher of the school who took care of scripting and casting with her sister and fellow teacher, Puja Bhalla.
After analysing the characteristics of each student, they were chosen for their respective parts, while some wanted to do a particular character after listening to the story. “Timon and Pumba aew played by two best friends. And as for Mufasa (Simba’s father), the role is played by Abhishek Sanyal (17), who is scared of young children and heights. He has to hold a kid on his shoulder, and do the scene of death. He used to get scared of that! And now he has learnt to overcome these fears,” says Puja.
Every student has contributed tremendously to the show, from props to script adjustments and betterment. And they have gained a lot too. C Kailash (20) plays Scar, the evil brother of Mufasa, and he says that he loves the character. “I can be cruel in my role, but that actually teaches me to be compassionate,” he shares expressing his interest to act in the future.
Aquila, who plays young Simba, has learnt a lot more patience, her mother shares. “I know she is an actress because she creates a lot of drama at home,” she laughs. The girl who needed assistance earlier now needs no guidance or prompts to act on cue. “She feels more confident and assertive now. We have to call her Simba now, for her to respond!” she shares.
Whether or not you’re familiar with the original story, you will find this recreation a delight to watch. Wise old Rafiki and his philosophical lines, malicious scar and his hyena slaves, the antics of Timon and Pumba and the blossoming romance between Simba and Nala — the music and raw fresh performances match the voiceover dialogues to the T. Hakuna matata!
Watch ‘The Lion King’ at Students Amenities Centre, IIT Madras, on Jan 11 at 3.15 pm. Entry free. For details call: 24956373