“Can anyone tell why the Mona Lisa is the world’s most famous painting? Can one deconstruct a work of art?” asked Lillete Dubey rhetorically. The conversation is about her play Dance Like A Man, which opened in 1995, and 21 years later, shows no signs of shutting down. It has had more than 500 shows in India and abroad, and still fills up the auditorium every time it is performed.

There are very few English and Hindi plays that have achieved such longevity. Marathi and Gujarati plays hit three digits faster, sometimes in a matter of months, because of multiple shows running every day of the week. Big-ticket English theatre is mostly a weekend recreational activity.

Dance Like A Man, written by Mahesh Dattani, is a complex story of ambition and the pursuit of excellence in the world of classical dance. It also encompasses gender discrimination, father-son tug-of-war, and the fraught relation between a dancer couple, when one of them has to sacrifice a promising career to allow the other to grow. Imaginatively designed and structured in a flashback-flash forward narrative, the play has not become outdated simply because the emotions of control, envy, greed, guilt and, of course, love are not bound by time and culture.

Dubey says the play has been appreciated wherever it has been performed in the world because audiences feel so close to the story. Even today, in spite of a progressive veneer, a father would baulk at his son taking up the supposedly effeminate dance career. For women, the problem of sustaining a high-pressure performing arts schedule after marriage and motherhood persists.

“But,” said Dubey, “all the appreciation and acclaim notwithstanding, a play survives because those who are involved with it want to keep performing it.” Joy Sengupta and Lillete Dubey have been acting in Dance Like A Man from the start. Vijay Crishna took over from Ravi Dubey and Suchitra Pillai from Shivani Wazir when Dubey and her group Prime Time moved from Delhi to Mumbai. “All of us want to continue with it, and audiences just don’t seem to tire of it. It’s difficult to say why this play and not another has had a long life, but somehow everything has come together to make this one popular, and I would say the powerful script and its emotional content have a lot to do with it.”

The Hindustani one-man revue, Babban Khan’s Adrak Ke Panje, that ran from 1965 to 2001, was in the Guinness Book of Records in 1984 as the play with the highest number of performances. When it closed down it had completed an astounding 10,180 shows. The play about a man with a very large family, living off his wits and trying to dodge his many creditors made a case for family planning. Over the years Babban Khan kept making changes to incorporate contemporary references and attracted audiences in over sixty countries.

In Mumbai, however, the record for the longest-running Hindi play is held by Ank’s Hai Mera Dil, that opened in 1979 and has completed over 1,200 shows. Ranbir Singh’s adaptation of the English play Send Me No Flowers, by Julius Epstein Norman Barasch, was directed by Dinesh Thakur, who also played the lead role of a hypochondriac who believes he is going to die and wants to find a husband for his wife before he departs. The misunderstandings created are a cause of such hilarity that for forty years audiences are flocking to it, some of them more than once. After Thakur’s death in 2012, his wife Preeta Mathur, who plays the bewildered spouse in the play, has kept the production running, with another Ank actor Aman Gupta taking on the role of the whiny protagonist.

“The play has worked, I think, because of its simplicity,” said Mathur. “All of us on stage are so normal that the audience feels it is looking through the window of their neighbour’s drawing room. Also, a serious subject of the fear of death has been dealt with in a humorous manner and that appeals to people. We have had people come up to us after the show and say, they suffered from hypochondria, and after watching the play, they realised how foolish they were and how much their behaviour must have affected their family.”

Besides these, two other productions that have run for about a quarter of a century are based on AR Gurney’s Love Letters, about a man and a woman keeping a friendship going over many tumultuous years, through an exchange of letters. Both Rahul daCunha’s production starring Rajit Kapur and Shernaz Patel and Feroz Khan’s Tumhari Amrita, beautifully adapted by Javed Siddiqi, and starring Shabana Azmi with Farooq Shaikh, opened in 1992. The former has had about 600 shows and the latter more than 400. Love Letters is still running, with the two actors none the worse for the wear, but Tumhari Amrita had to close because Shaikh passed away in 2013. Feroz Khan intends to revive it as soon as he can find actors talented and charismatic enough to match the original brilliant duo.

“I believe the play has a lot of life left in it,” said Khan, who admits that the play’s huge success in India and overseas took him by surprise because it was such a spare production, with the two actors just sitting behind desks reading letters. But those letters encapsulated the country’s history and the enduring love of Amrita and Zulfi that transcended social and temperamental barriers.

“It is a play of words and nobody can remain immune to the emotions those words evoke,” said Khan, who hits upon where the eternal appeal of these all-time favourite plays lies – words.