‘Unlike cinema, a theatre audience cannot be passive’

Mahesh Dattani | 55 Playwright & Author
Mahesh Dattani | 55 Playwright & Author
Photo: S Radhakrishna

Edited excerpts from an interview

You mention how being on stage had been your biggest fear. Is there something else that frightens you as much today?
I think all artistes have a fear of being judged. The successful ones are those who overcome that and don’t let their own inhibitions come in the way of their creative exploration. Our fears are our fetters that tie us to mediocrity. In that sense, I too am tackling that fear constantly. I can say, though, that there are moments when I have risen above those fears, and I know those to be the most exciting moments of my career.

What are the challenges of writing a play in English for the Indian audiences? Have the semantics changed now?
I am happy to note that the concept of purity of language has vanished. It means greater creative potential. Today, the challenges lie in capturing the rhythms and characteristics of individual speech rather than an assumption of correct language the writer may have. This is more akin to artistic exploration than when I started out, where the fact that I wrote in Indian-English was idiosyncratic and so whatever attempts I made at capturing the music of speech, distinct from character to character, was lost. If you look at Indian English as one canopy, then the focus on nuance is lost. More and more people use fractured syntax, dangling sentences (I do too in my day-to-day speech) and I think that reveals more of who we are than sanitised, cultivated speech.

Do you think the theatre in the country speaks to the audiences?
Yes, it does so more than it did 30 years ago in the English language. Perhaps in other languages it may be the other way around.

You write that looking back at Dance Like a Man, Morning Raga and Where Did I Leave My Purdah, you feel a part of you has come to rest. Why do you say that?
It is because, like my characters, I have danced my dance, sung my song and played my part (all three plays use these as metaphors for freedom and expression). So now I might work better with my gaze rather than my voice.

What led you to choose dance, music and drama as metaphors?
Because I can relate to them. I studied dance for six years in my late teens and early twenties.

Could you take us through the process of developing your last production, The Big Fat City, from an idea into a stage production?s
It has been quite a journey. It also strained my relationship with my producer Ashvin Gidwani, but eventually it is out there and that is all that matters. It started with my idea of using text messages to show what the characters are really thinking so the audience has the immediate privilege of knowing more than the characters on stage. The play is an amalgamation of three Mumbai stories that come together with one dramatic incident. The corporate couple paying off loans for their flat, the out-of-work television actress with a high maintenance lifestyle, the small town girl looking for a break in films, there-is-more-to-it-than- meets-the-eye kind of format. All are in some ways people that I know in the big fat city. Ashvin loved the concept and commissioned me right away. We had differences in casting, but eventually it all worked out fine. I feel Achint (Kaur) has done a wonderful job with her part and so have the others.

Why did you choose to employ dark humour in The Big Fat City?
Some of the events are deeply tragic, and yet I wanted dramatic irony at play. Questioning our value system was important and I felt given the gravity of the ending, dark humour was perhaps the best convention.

What inspired you to write Where did I Leave My Purdah, a tribute to the great actresses of company theatre? What were your points of reference?
I was, in fact, looking for a real life performer/diva to base my story on. Lillete (Dubey) and I once had an informal chat where she brought up the fact that we know the world of theatre so well. I immediately shared my own thoughts on this. My reference was Zohra Sehgal, but there were others too, including Lillete herself. The way she speaks with her set designers and sponsors and her secretary Rupali have all been used as reference points in the play.

What were the challenges in penning characters for a play that is a tribute to the actresses of company theatre?
The greatest challenge is to resist the temptation of making it biographical. They all led such fascinating lives. At the same time, my service was to drama and to create fiction. All three works, Dance Like a Man, Morning Raga and Purdah are inspired from real life artistes, but they’re not biographies.

Me and My Plays Mahesh Dattani Penguin 256 PP; Rs 299
Me and My Plays
Mahesh Dattani
Penguin 256 PP; Rs 299

You have also written for films. What are the aspects of writing for film that you find challenging and liberating?
The fluidity in action is the first liberation. That you are not bound by convention. But my work in cinema has also liberated me from the contrived conventions of the stage. For instance, in theatre you are bound by the need to look at the unity of time, place and action. However, in cinema you can use images side by side, juxtapose them. Since there is a greater scope for exploiting images, one can be less verbose. That way, while writing for film is easier than writing for theatre, one has to come to terms with the fact that it is a director’s medium. The writer may or may not be the creator.

At times, the writer might not be even near the end product. How does a writer then retain his vision and write in a way that enhances his vision rather than diluting it? I am yet to find a clear-cut answer to that but one has to accept the fact that in a film it is the director’s vision that shapes the end product.

What are the challenges of being in a system that is not particularly encouraging of professional theatre?
The biggest challenge is finding actors who have the training and professionalism necessary for the stage. Talent alone is not enough. Then there are the other issues of funding, a dedicated theatre space, among others. The other challenge is to bring in an audience that is willing to come to a common ground. In theatre, so much works on imagination. Set designs, actors can transport the audience to a space to a certain extent but the audience needs to be willing to come half way. Unlike cinema, the audience cannot be passive.

Who do you think are some of the promising names in the Indian English theatre today?
Anupama Chandrasekhar is already making waves in the UK with her plays Free Outgoing and Disconnect. There is Irawati Karnik, Ramu Ramanathan. Here, I would also like to add Abhishek Majumdar and Anuvab Pal amongst others who are coming up with significant works.

Your play On a Muggy Night in Mumbai is the first Indian play with same sex relations as its central theme. However, it went unacknowledged and the depiction of gay men was critiqued to be stereotypical. Do you plan to write another play on the theme?
I just might. I have written a short story already on a cyber romance between two ‘mature’ men.



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