In October 2010, Elyse Dodgson, director of the Royal Court Theatre’s international department, playwright and dramaturg Carl Miller and I arrived at the Jindal guest house in Vasind, in India’s Maharashtra state. Staying with us were 12 Indian writers whose work we’d read but had not yet met. It was an exciting, curious, daunting moment: in three months we would be expecting them to deliver 12 new plays, and in some senses that depended as much on us as them.
One of the first discussions we had centred on the Royal Court’s artistic director Dominic Cooke’s dictum that there are two questions a playwright must address before they start to write: what is a play now (a question of form)? And who are we now (subject)? These questions resonated through the workshop. In an early session, the writers were asked to list the urgent subjects facing their society that they felt were important to address. The results were wide-ranging, surprising and gave an extraordinary picture of the diverse forces at work within contemporary India: Maoism and the red corridor; migration from villages to cities; the clash of modernity and mythology; the influence of western-style celebrity, especially an obsession with youth; “honour” killings; the emotional isolation of modern living; the homogenisation of culture; political corruption; religious identity; low value of life; loss of ethnic identity. Someone mentioned the Gulabi gang (a women-only vigilante group, who wear pink saris and smash up liquor shops because they don’t want their men drinking).
We then asked the playwrights to bring in newspaper cuttings with contemporary stories: these included reports on the plight of street children; the ongoing Bhopal compensation case; female infanticide; the case in which a male student killed himself after being secretly filmed having sex with another male student; the cheap-rates offered to westerners for Indian surrogate mothers. From these the playwrights began to identify subjects they felt drawn to and to investigate ways of telling their story.
There was much amicable debate. Were we trying to impose a template of a play on them? Could we honestly say that the concept of an “objective”, for example, is incontrovertible? No, we couldn’t, but on the other hand we found it to be a useful tool. The plays being written were for Royal Court audiences as well as for audiences in Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune, Chennai and Delhi, as well as, hopefully, elsewhere in India. Just as we had specified a contemporary Indian play – as opposed to, say, a historic, poetic drama – we were also proposing a vocabulary of playwriting. The playwrights were industrious and wanted to get on with the business of writing. By the end of the first workshop, each had created a proposal for a play and written a first scene. We met with each of them, gave dramaturgical advice, ironed out any potential problems, and said goodbye – for now.
Three months later, 12 plays arrived. Those written in Hindi and Marathi were translated. Stage two commenced. Rage Theatre Company, the creators of the Writers’ Bloc festival, our collaborators, arranged for a group of actors to be involved in another workshop. The plays were read aloud and each writer selected a scene they knew would be in the next draft, but which had problems to be solved. These were then worked on with actors who might improvise the more unclear or unconvincing moments. We all watched and discussed the scenes in their latest incarnation. It was very exciting to see the plays “living” for the first time and many memorable moments occurred: Shernaz Patel playing the ageing Bollywood actress in Siddarth Kumar’s Spunk desperate for the male lead’s, well … spunk, and its magical properties of endowing male children only; the startling image of two Kashmiri children stealing into a morgue to retrieve the football boots from their murdered friend, a victim of state repression in Abhishek Majumdar’s The Djinn’s of Eidgah; an older man risking his reputation as he and a younger man meet and become lovers on the Delhi metro in Still and Still Moving by Neel Chaudhuri.
The writers then embarked on their second drafts, which became the basis of productions in their own cities as well as being performed in January 2012 at the Writer’s Bloc festival hosted at the Prithvi theatre in Mumbai, a non-profit making theatre founded by the famous Bollywood Kapoor family and run, like all Indian theatre, on a non-subsidised basis. This, of course, makes life as a playwright extremely hard for Indian writers. In Britain, without subsided theatres such as the Royal Court, new writing would be a pipe dream. Five of these plays were then invited for the upcoming readings at the Court this month.
Purva Naresh trained in classical Indian dance and works as a film producer. Her play OK Tata Bye Bye is a provocative articulation of some of the central schisms in contemporary India: between rural and urban, traditional and modern, western and eastern ways of living, all pivoting on the contentious ground of gender politics. “OK tata bye bye” is the logo you see inscribed on the back of brightly decorated Indian trucks, and the play takes as its subject and setting caste-based prostitution that has sprung up along the side of an Indian highway. This teasing play takes as its premise the collision of two worlds, that of a young, independent-minded sex worker, Seema, who becomes the subject of a well-meaning documentary made by Pooja, an urban educated Indian woman fresh out of film school and her white American boyfriend, Mitch, whose earnest desire to engage with the subjects of this documentary teeters on the edge of voyeurism and exoticism. Pooja is torn so many ways, is she western or Indian? With whom does her allegiance lie? With a white western man, or a rural, lower-caste Indian woman? And underlying it all, the vibrant figure of Seema – refusing to be safely contained within a defining discourse – who worries away at Pooja like a brightly coloured shadow in danger of stealing the show. It is a brilliant and provocative look at sexual politics, identity and the perils of being a modern, urban Indian woman. And with show-stopping choreographic moments.
OK Tata Bye Byeregisters another conflict, that of technological power versus community; asking who is holding the camera? This theme also resonates in Mahua, a play about the enforced loss of tribal lands to a corporate mining company, by the young film-maker Akash Mohimen. As it opens, it has a timeless feel: Birsa, a tribal leader in waiting, in the village of Bihabend in the state of Orissa, commits a minor indiscretion and as a result must marry an “old” woman (she is 30!). This seems to be the set-up for a comedy, but slowly morphs into tragedy as he and his (now) beloved wife suffer the loss of their land and then of their livelihood and identities. The final act of Birsa is both tragic and merciful, underscoring the point that such powerlessness leads to impossible choices.
Back in bustling Mumbai, British-based actress and writer Ayeesha Menon is a contemporary, comic, female Indian voice. The sparkling Pereira’s Bakery at 76 Chapel Road brings the clash of traditional and modern right to the heart of a great city with a diverse cast of characters ranging from the doleful, old-man misanthropist always at hand philosophising home truths, to the young X Factor aspirant whose insistent warblings bring tensions to breaking point.
We see the forces of old and new contending with each other, culminating in the major crisis of the play, the threat to demolish the old quarter for the sake of progress, to steamroller the charm of an ancient district to make way for the sterile constructions of capital. The play captures both the centrality of family to Indian life and the frustrations of those who feel trapped by it and wish to escape the past and tradition – but, having done that, is it ever possible to recapture what has been lost?
Leftovers is set in Pune, written by Saga Deshmukh, a lawyer. It movingly details the difficulties of a family who are left behind in a city that is powering the economic engine of India. It centres on Baba, the patriarch, and his failure to fit into the new order. It is a delicately observed play about the unheard suffering of ordinary people.
Finally, The Djinns of Eidgah by Abhishek Majumdar, is set in the ongoing conflict in Kashmir and tells the story of two children. Ashrafi, a young girl, and her brother Bilal, orphaned by the conflict and struggling to grow up, find themselves in a world defined by violence. They are befriended by a doctor who seeks to steer a path between the warring sides, but the conflict proves too toxic. This play is partly magical in its incarnation of the djinns, ancient spirits which the young girl incants. Perhaps Majumdar’s riposte to our insistence on a contemporary Royal Court play, The Djinns of Eidgah merges old and new in a fusion of traditional Indian theatre forms and contemporary themes.
It is fascinating to look back at the whole process and see the way themes and ideas from the initial stages of the workshop have threaded through to the unique and original plays that exist now. Each play provides a prism through which it is possible to have a glimpse of India today. It’s clearly a great time to be an Indian playwright.