Rage’s Writers’ Bloc provides new ground for what they themselves call an endangered species – the Indian playwright. It is certainly cause for celebration that such
a forum has opened up for new playwrights, and one may reasonably hope that the quality of playwrighting will improve.
The festival was a very enjoyable theatre experience. From the excellent platform performances, to the installation art inspired by the plays, the festival gave the impression of being efficiently, and tastefully, organised. Among platform performances, Kishore Kadam’s poetry reading effortlessly transcended language and was enjoyable purely for the sense of timing and showmanship he brought to the reading. Faezeh Jalali’s rope malkhamb was another memorable performance, and so was Mumbai-based band Minority Report’s unplugged session.
These are some of my thoughts on the festival during the first fortnight at Prithvi. +
Epilogue: Uncertain Journey Into Other Worlds
The festival opened with Epilogue, written by Maia Katrak and directed by Rajit Kapoor.
Epilogue revolves around the themes of the transformative power of human relationships, and the transcendent human soul. The play opens with the protagonist trying to cheer his family up at his own funeral.
The play details the travails of the dead protagonist as he attempts to change the lives of his family. He is aided in his efforts by two soldiers, also dead, and stranded in the middle of heavenly nowhere by some ingenious metaphysical occasion. (One small question: Why were they soldiers again? Was it a bad intertextual pun because they were stranded in no-man’s land?)
While the basic premise of the story was outlandish, the tepid direction and tame acting let the play down. The visualisation of the play, apart from the few moments with the soldiers, was completely at odds with the script. Perhaps the play would have benefited greatly from a little irreverence.
Also, one got the impression that the otherworldly device was simply one of convenience. What could have been a penetrating device, turned into a charming novelty, never rising beyond mere plot detail. The defamiliarizing device was used neither to shed light on the world as the playwright sees it (as Dostoevsky does with characteristic poignancy in Bobok), nor to satirize it (as Brecht does to hilarious effect in The Good Person of Setzuan when gods who descend to earth). The play seemed to reaffirm the motives, actions and conventions of the world of the play, which in turn were not too far removed from the world outside. The play remained completely familiar, and the otherworldly device remained an uncertain gimmick. In this respect, one could argue the director was faithful to the script by remaining realistic.
The soldiers, played by a superb Neil Bhoopalam and Mukul Chaddha, provided the only respite in the play. The writing in these parts too was extremely funny, and employed some delightful non sequiturs. The set for the soldiers’ scenes, a stylized representation of a diabolical-looking machine, with gears and clockwork, presented interesting possibilities that were largely left unexplored.
On the bright side, the play was genuinely funny in parts, and the actors had the audience eating out of their hands.
Aaltoon Paaltoon: Rites of Passage
If the outlandish Epilogue was acted out with the blandest realism, the realistic Aaltoon Paaltoon benefited greatly from actors who enlivened the stage with some reasonably high-pitched energy levels.
(These thoughts come with the rider that I don’t follow Marathi, but the actors being more than engaging, I could more or less follow the action.)
Aaltoon Paaltoon, written by Irawati Karnik and directed by Adwait Dadarkar, is about two characters who meet at an old-fashioned dresswala’s shop. Niranjan, played by Subodh Khanolkar, lives at the shop, and Rama, played by Leena Bhagwat, takes shelter in the shop on a rainy night.
The tension between the two characters was maintained superbly by the actors, and Subodh Khanolkar delivered one of the better performances of the festival.
A coming of age story, the play revolves around the chance encounter between Niranjan, a rather naïve young man, and Rama, a troubled and forlorn mature woman.
The play, marred by unimaginative direction, succumbed to many unpardonable clichés. The lovemaking scene between the characters was suggested with almost comical reticence. (In spite of my Marathi, I believe this wasn’t so much a textual feature, as it was a director’s interpretation.) Moreover, the play fell apart in the scenes when the action shifted out of the room, and showed a flashback of Rama with her husband. The encounter between Rama and Niranjan may have assumed greater proportions, and remained open to multiple interpretations, had the room been the only setting, and the husband only a figure in Rama’s story.
In spite of the nondescript direction, the play manages to do well, because of the actors, and what looked every bit like a tightly woven script. If the play failed it was only in creating the sense of hazard that every chance encounter implies, the kind of unpredictability and impending disintegration that rites of passage are meant to symbolise.
The play had a memorable opening pre-set, which showed Niranjan gazing at a hairdresser’s model, with a wig for practice. Throughout the play, the model is a safety zone for Niranjan, and he pretends to be busy practising on it. The closing set is similar opening pre-set, except the model doesn’t have a wig anymore, and Niranjan places a topi (which is a symbol for the games Rama and Niranjan play) on it. The closing set becomes a powerful symbol of how the encounter has unalterably changed the lives of Niranjan and Rama.
Dreamcatcher: Dreams of a Dangerous Kind
Vijay Nair’s Dreamcatcher, directed by Faezeh Jalali and Trishla Patel, was typical of the festival, but not only was it deeply ‘personal’, it was entirely devoid of political content, and utterly self-indulgent. One could even go so far as to say that it was even offensive in parts.
Stereotypes abound in the play – from the prudishness of the protagonist, to the sheer vulgarity of the younger sister. While the accents were mercifully not as clichéd as Lolakutty, they were nonetheless all over the place. For a family from Palakkad, they had surprisingly thick Tamil accents, with stilted Malayalam thrown in for good measure. (And it’s perfectly acceptable to expect accuracy from a play that sets out to be realistic.)
The binarized depiction of the sisters’ sexuality was perhaps the most offensive aspect of the play. The younger sister Vanaja Chari was shown to be a free-spirited rebellious angsty type figure, using the most obvious means – vodka in the morning, “I dance for myself, and I don’t care for the purity of your classical art” and all the rest of that. In a scene that managed to be both theatrically embarrassing and politically offensive, the younger sister was shown throwing herself on a waiter she had hardly known a few minutes ago. It isn’t the act of making sexual advances to a waiter one finds distasteful, it is the entirely artless treatment accorded to it. (One couldn’t help but think of Arundhati Roy’s humane handling of an analogous relationship, that of Ammu and Velutha in The God of Small Things. Even making allowances for the vast differences between fiction and drama, the sheer crudeness pervading Dreamcatcher was galling.) The play’s questionable politics came to the fore in showing the sexually empowered as wanton, crass and indiscriminate.
In stark contrast to the younger sister’s wantonness, the protagonist, Padmaja Chari, was depicted as being extremely prudish. In a scene as enraging as the one with the younger sister and the waiter, Padmaja was shown talking to herself in the mirror. Apart from the externalised monologue being one of the oldest (and tiredest) stage devices, the sheer cultural implications were appalling. Padmaja addresses her imaginary lover, looking at herself in the mirror, and sheer lack of humanity that made it possible for the play to laugh at her (for it was comic, and none too ingenious at that) made one wonder if it was the character’s cultural identity that was comical. At least for the audience, the accent was certainly, what made it funny.
The play, for all its attempts to signify to the audience its intellectual gravity and aesthetic formalism, failed to rise above the immediate, the banal and often, the prejudiced. The opulent red drapes, the gilded dressing mirror, the dancing childhood alters of the sisters, the spectacular gobo (as far as lighting goes, that certainly was interesting), all seemed to suggest a self-indulgence that was part of the many attempts to bludgeon the audience into accepting the play’s obvious ‘tastefulness’, and apparent transcendence over the immediate.
At the end of the play, one only had questions:
Was the play a comedy of manners? If so, what was the object of the satire?
Was it a coming of age play? If so, what was the locus of development, the actual event or its retelling? How did the characters evolve, or change?
Was it a play about a delicate inner world set against the turbulent backdrop of riots? If so, how did the riots relate to their ‘inner world’? Or was the turbulent backdrop simply a conveniently transferred epithet, a short hand?
Ultimately, what was the play trying to say, do, or create?
Centre of Gravity and The Edge: From Flippancy to Insignificance
Rajiv Rajendra’s Centre of Gravity was a clever, self-conscious take on the sitcom. A convoluted plot involving 3 pairs of lovers, the play could’ve fallen to the lowest levels of sheer boringness, but for Vikranth Pawar’s upbeat direction, and Zafar Karachiwala’s superbly ironic high-volgate performance.
The play fell flat in parts when it started taking itself seriously, for instance when lovers speak to each other – one to break up an engagement, and the other to stave off a marriage proposal. These scenes were played out with an absolute lack of irony that made one blanch at its banality.
Sohrab Ardeshir, as
The play fell precisely because it took itself seriously. One suspects the play may have been far more effective had it restricted itself to being solely a satire on the psychobabble-friendship-love-intrigue-more-psychobabble brand of plays.
Manjima Chatterjee’s The Edge, directed by Akarsh Khurana, was perhaps the most disappointing play at Writers’ Bloc. The script was banal, the acting nondescript, the direction unimaginative. This was probably the only play at the festival that did not have the audience on its side, and the unrest in the audience towards the end of the play was barely concealed.
The Excavators: Nihilistic Metaphors
Ajay Krishnan’s The Excavators is an allegorical play built around the central theme of digging. While the play is no doubt clever, it ultimately had no central binding idea, theme, force, or emotional core.
The Excavators starts off with a bare stage with actors creating everything with minimal props. While the play may have failed, the risk it takes with a bare stage, with no real textual development, renders it an honourable failure.
Apart from the self-consciousness that such a minimalist play with a broadly allegorical style may be expected to have, the play was considerably handicapped by its more apparent self-reflexivity, the motif of the play-within-the play. While one didn’t quite know how the rehearsal scenes fitted in with the rest of the play, the constant references to “normal fare”, to “experimental” theatre were very tiresome.
The central idea of the play seems disturbing. The motif of digging seems not an activity to engage with life, but a means of running away from life and its uncertain complexities. Such a shallow nihilistic central idea, when juxtaposed with many of the devices Ajay Krishnan borrows from the repertoire of absurdist theatre, seems to reinforce a common misreading of existentialism in general, and absurdist theatre in particular – that of an unqualified rejection of life.
Turel: The Personal as Political
Swar Thounaojam’s Turel, directed by Sunil Shanbag, was undoubtedly the pick of Writers’ Bloc 2. The play, revolving around the theme of individual liberty, becomes a powerful metaphor for the turbulence in Manipur. Of all the self-absorbed plays revolving around personal issues that comprised Writers’ Bloc, Turel (“River” in Manipuri) was a glowing exception. It was personal, no doubt, and was certainly more concerned with the relationship between Eigya and Luwangcha, and Luwangcha’s identity, than with Manipuri politics, but Sunil Shanbag’s nuanced handling of the play leaves us in no doubt that the personal too was political.
Kumud Mishra as Luwangcha was the standout performance of the festival, and the construction of Luwangcha’s complex identity was perhaps the most telling instance of the play’s all-encompassing humanity.
The poignant relationship between Eigya and Luwangcha – their capacity for love and friendship, the upright Eigya’s companionable tolerance of the vagabond Luwangcha – succeeded in creating a delicate world that one wished would not ever be disturbed. Not that the play is idyllic – the opening scene is one where Eigya’s grandchild is being buried – but the tragedies of the play’s first half allow the characters at least the appearance of being in control of their destinies. There is a brooding sense of loss in the first half; Eigya’s grandchild is dead, Luwangcha’s partner has left him. Yet their lives go on, unhurried as the river on whose banks their world plays itself out.
The sense of brooding loss slowly, imperceptibly, turns into menace. The characters’ fundamental liberties are threatened – like in the brilliant scene when Eigya's son bullies Luwangcha to live like a “normal woman” – and unseen forces start hounding them. A violent soundscape of explosions replaces the unhurried gurgle of the river.
The forces that intrude upon the inner world of the play, are sharply etched in the person of a soldier. The soldier, in the one scene when he appears, kidnaps Luwangcha, and rapes him. The young soldier works himself up to a blind rage when he finds Luwangcha defying a curfew, and believes Luwangcha to be armed. The soldier’s fear, and the inhuman brutalities it leads him to, are superbly depicted in the play.
The play culminates with Eigya’s death in a blast, leaving Luwangcha distraught. Nothing resolved, nothing concluded, yet everything said and done.
In Luwangcha’s unconventional identity, Eigya’s acceptance of him, and its brutal violation by external forces, Swar Thounaojam has created a powerful metaphor for the political dilemma of Manipur. Yet, at the end of Turel, what one remembered was not the metaphorical, but the immediate.
+ I missed Crab, The President is Coming, and Poornaviram, and although I watched the Marathi play Mazha Vatanicha Khara-Khura, I could not follow the action. Naturally, this review excludes those plays.