"Urban theatre is an orphan"

Jun 17, 2013, 07:31 IST | Kanika Sharma

Award-winning playwright and director Mahesh Dattani is set to present a play, The Big Fat City starring Achint Kaur, Nasirr Khan, Pooja Ruparel and several others. Kanika Sharma caught up with the man who has seen 25 years of Indian theatre shift form and shape

A lot of brouhaha was stirred up regarding the two Chashme Baddoors. So, we took a cue and cackled over Sai Paranjpye’s bro-com. (David Dhawan, really?).

Amidst the guffaws of Ravi Baswani and Rakesh Bedi’s tomfoolery, what tugged at our heart was a period where three men lived in a room, minus a TV, telephone (forget mobile) and spoke English with an Indian ‘accent’.

During those times, an unusual Indian playwright etched characters that waxed eloquent in the colonial tongue but incongruously was about two Bharatnatyam dancers. “I was thought of as a bit of a freak,” admits Mahesh Dattani, the first Indian playwright writing in English to win a Sahitya Akademi award for his book Final Solutions and Other Plays.

A 2006 frame of Mahesh Dattani in the city. Pic/Rane Ashish

Today, with the world spinning under his feet, he shares, “I was in my mid-20s then, and there were people like Chandrashekara Kambar (Jnanapith, Sahitya Akademi and Padma Shri awardee), Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad revered and writing plays. But all of them were one generation above.”

Words for today
So what about the Baswanis and Bedis of today? Dattani enthusiastically notes, “Now, there are lots of young playwrights, aspiring and accomplished, who are incredibly talented.” Still, with the doubts in our head poking at us, we asked -- isn’t most of the new writing in theatre coming mainly in English?

Actors Shashi Bhushan and Achint Kaur discussing the script with Mahesh Dattani

“Most writers don’t have a choice when it comes to the choice of language in which they write,” sparks Dattani. “You acquire a language when you’ve studied and cultivated yourself in one or that in which your parents brought you up in. That’s why for most of urban Indians, English is a natural choice,” he explains.

So, what made him choose the Queen’s patter and why Bharatnatyam, we asked. “There was a reservation but maybe, it was not so much about my choice of language rather the choice of subject -- Bharatnatyam dancers,” says Dattani. Explaining the daring tint to his experiment, “With my generation, we had a hangover of the language which we were trying to overcome. 

Actors Achint Kaur (left) and Shashi Bhushan during rehearsals of The Big Fat City

But with this generation, there is a hangover of globalisation. It’s a term used very loosely now. Once, while in Bengaluru, people referred to Hip-Hop and Break Dance being India’s street dances. Now, people don’t see these dances and say that it’s street dancing from the US. What about people dancing on streets during Ganpati Visarjan?”

To affirm this, he shares, “Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar is the kind of writing I would really like to see come up. I recently read the translation and Kundalkar has such a natural approach to his milieu. It’s not a traditional story but equally Maharashtrian and urban.”

Tide with theatre
Dattani’s career has included eight plays and four films among which many have found a permanent inlet into campus theatre, university syllabus and professional handy plots. With his most recent play, The Big Fat City making a city debut, we were intrigued about how he weaved questioning realities on stage. “My initial plays had a lot to do with family. Even in Where Did I Leave My Purdah, there were two sisters. This play is entirely new. It’s about mid-career professionals and the concerns that affect me as a human being,” he says.

Ivan Rodrigues during the staging of the play in Bengaluru

Maybe his migration to Mumbai, seven years ago is the stimulus, we wondered. “This is the only home I know but I’m still an outsider so this play is not about an insider’s experience. I’ve tried to look at the shallowness in relationships in a metropolis,” adds Dattani.

Talking about the lighter tone of the play, the 55-year-old shares, “While Ashvin Gidwani (Producer) and I were talking, his colleagues at work commented that death in the play is not taken seriously. Just like that, we started talking about black comedies and realised that this is the first. Cinema has had black comedies like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro but there is nothing of note in theatre.”

The Dattani Dossier
Indian Theatre:
Here, there is meagre state funding, which you can’t complain about where many face dire situations. Even the US is not flush with funds — there are only regional repertories that can reward a sizeable income but mostly otherwise people get a pittance from theatre and have to wait at tables and take odd jobs.
Audiences: He who will scream loudest will have the biggest audience.
Working on the big fat city: I wanted to team up with a producer like Ashvin Gidwani. I am sure this play will go many places with at least a 100 shows helping me reach out and
think, differently.
Future of theatre: The urban theatre is an orphan. Trends such as collaborations are very encouraging to watch. I have seen some brilliant Indo-French,
Indo-Japanese plays.

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