Sahitya Akademi award-winning playwright Mahesh Dattani has written and directed THE BIG FAT CITY for Ashvin Gidwani Productions (AGP). He talks to Mumbai Theatre Guide about the play, living in Mumbai, the pitfalls of play writing, the merit of an exercise regimen and of the inspirations behind his various plays.
Deepa Punjani (DP): The city of Mumbai has been an inspiration for your latest play THE BIG FAT CITY. You have been living here after your move from Bangalore. How do you view your relationship with Mumbai? Do you like living in Mumbai versus Bangalore?
Mahesh Dattani (MD): Yes, it's almost seven years since I moved to Mumbai. For a while I had a foot in each city. Now Mumbai is the only home I have and yet I am a stranger to this city. Which is not a bad thing at all. Distance is a good thing for a writer. Bangalore is way too chaotic for me now. I do miss my home city but that city does not exist anymore as I once knew it. Anyway, I embrace the change of home. I also embrace the different aspects of Mumbai. If the city at times is one big sewer, I adapt by becoming a sewer rat. When the city is filled with beautiful art exhibits or some uplifting dance event, it brings out the aesthete in me. I think this ability to adapt connects me to the city in a dynamic way. Yet I will always be an outsider because I choose to be.
DP: What was the starting point for THE BIG FAT CITY?
MD: I lived in Lokhandwala for a good three years. It was in a milieu of aspiring actors, musicians, filmmakers, corporate executives recently transferred to Mumbai. A very motivated lot of young people waiting for the right move or contact to take them a step closer to stardom, fortune or that penthouse in Oberoi towers. Success has to be worn on one's sleeve, so one always aspired to graduate to Bandra. What they say about New York city can be tweaked to fit Mumbai. I can say, in Lokhandwala, everyone is looking for an apartment, a role and a lover. And when they have these then they are looking for a better apartment, a better role and a better lover. It is in this mobile, culturally and morally flexible class of people that I found inspiration. After all, there is a certain honesty even in their pretentions. Their objectives are clearly defined and so are their obstacles. When I gave Ashvin Gidwani the concept note and told him that I wish to write about this, he immediately drew out a contract and signed me on. He could see its commercial potential and I could see its potential for black humour.
DP: Writers go through their individual process of developing their ideas. Tell us about yours.
MD: It varies from play to play. For example DANCE LIKE A MAN was inspired from the story of my dance Gurus in the late eighties. Though the play is a work of fiction, the Gurus were the starting point. FINAL SOLUTIONS was actually inspired from a workshop improvisation conducted by Alyque and Pearl Padamsee in the late eighties. It took me almost two years to develop that into a full length play, but at the heart of it, is the ten minute improvisational piece done by Pearl's group of actors. 30 DAYS IN SEPTEMBER was commissioned by Rahi, an NGO that provides counselling services to survivors of child sexual abuse. They were keen I write a play on the subject. I spent a week in Delhi and elsewhere talking to eight survivors of incest. The play in many ways is based on the truth of each of those stories and the triumph of the human spirit over any attempt to quell its dignity. WHERE DID I LEAVE MY PURDAH was inspired from the life and times of one of our finest actors and I knew Lilette Dubey would essay that character on stage. Lilette's own larger than life persona found its way into the creation of that character. THE BIG FAT CITY is in a sense, a breakaway from my previous writing processes. Although I lived in Banglaore through my formative years as a playwright, I wasn't inspired to write a play on it. Not when it was a garden city and not when it became a pub city or now a tech city. In spite of its potential I never took it on. With THE BIG FAT CITY I think my true inspiration is my own hard earned solitude which Mumbai allows me to nurture. Hence the comic mode. Distance can really activate your funny bone! Also I like working with Ashvin who is the only full time, exclusive theatre producer we have in English theatre in Mumbai; the rest are actually directors who have taken to producing. Working with Ashvin is definitely helpful for me as it allows me to think within the constraints of commercial theatre. Some people might feel that the art is compromised but I see it as another creative opportunity to leap into the exciting unknown. To me, the city of Mumbai is also about a happy marriage between art and commerce.
DP: What have been the highs and lows of play writing for you?
MD: For me, the best thing about play writing is that there are no highs and lows. However, there are pitfalls one must look out for. One has to overcome laziness. You know when you are lazy because it affects your writing. It is this constant vigil to save your creativity from the depths of mediocrity that truly taxes you. The irony is that the less you worry about mediocrity and genius, the closer you get to your creative potential. So you are constantly trying to find the right balance between being cautious and allowing yourself to get into areas that take you away from your own vigilance.
DP: Which playwrights have inspired you?
MD: Almost every play I have read has been an inspiration. The playwrights I read in my formative years were truly an inspiration. Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Elkunchwar, Girish Karnad, Tennessee Williams, Neil Simon, Chandrasekhar Kambar... I am also a practitioner of theatre (I have directed more plays than I have written, which comes as a surprise to many in Mumbai). My practice helped me to understand and appreciate the craft and genius of these playwrights.
DP: Among all your plays to date, which do you view as a personal favourite?
MD: I am really not interested in the end product at all. To me it is the process. Once the process is over, the play no longer exists. So I hate all my plays equally. Right now I am enjoying the creative process of putting THE BIG FAT CITY on stage. As a director I am excited with the challenges that face me. So currently, this is my personal favourite!
DP: I have observed that fitness is important to you. Do you follow a regimen? Has it contributed to your success as a playwright?
MD: Absolutely! The brain is such a complex organ and to a writer, the body is a support system to the creative potential lying in the areas of the brain that go beyond the cognitive. I start my day with Tai Chi or Yoga. In the evenings I take a walk by the sea. Both my Tai Chi and Yoga give me a sense of discipline with my body and mind. My chakras are active and my chi is swirling. I feel that many a times after a class. I know when I am balanced and when I am off. On a good day I feel on top of the world. I strongly believe that happiness is made of good physical, mental and emotional health. Writing brings about its own tension. It is possible to really abuse your body beyond repair by merely sitting in one spot for more than five hours a day. Creativity brings about its own imbalances. A regimen helps you counter that.
DP: You have conducted workshops on creative writing. What's the best advice you have given to aspiring writers?
MD: The best advice that I give to writers and actors is to listen. Listen with your heart. That involves all sensory perceptions. A writer, especially a playwright, must absorb. The rest will happen. Almost like the theory of Karma. What you take in is what you send out. And what you send out will come back to you. It is a constant cycle of receiving and sending.
DP: Which is the last best play you saw?
MD: STORIES IN A SONG, directed by Sunil Shanbag. I have seen it three times. Let me know about the next show and I will see it again!
DP: Are you working on something new?
MD: Yes. I am in the process. I have two projects in fact. One of them is committed to Ashvin Gidwani Productions.