Faezeh Jalali Interview with Ayushi Shah
In this series on young, contemporary women theatre practitioners, Mumbai Theatre Guide speaks to Faezeh Jalali, whose play SHIKHANDI has been appreciated, and was nominated for the Mahindra Excellence In Theatre Awards (META) this year. Faezeh, predominantly an actress, found an outlet as a director with plays like JAAL and 7/7/07. With SHIKANDI she has worn the writer’s hat as well and playfully turns the eponymous character from the Mahabharata into a symbol of gay pride. Not many people may know this, but this petite actress-writer-director, known for her calisthenics on stage, has also been actively involved with protests against the indiscriminate axing of trees in the city for the Metro. Here she candidly speaks of what it means to be an artiste who is socially conscious and the importance of being good.

 By Ayushi Shah

Ayushi Shah (AS): Is it important that your plays must have a message?

Faezeh Jalali (FJ): For me it is important to create something that can impact the audience's thought without being preachy. It is about telling stories that matter to me. Till now I haven't done any work that does not speak to me. At the same time I know that theatre is a not a place where people come to be preached at. They come because they want to be entertained. So it is important that my storytelling is also visually engaging. As an artiste I don't have the time to purely be an activist. Instead I try and become a theatre activist. That way I can put my art to use - to say the things that are important to me.

AS: When did you decide to become a director?

FJ: In my 20s, I only wanted to become an actor. Today I enjoy directing and writing as well. I never imagined doing these things back then. I have realised that over time you find more of yourself by doing more. It is a combination of elimination and discovery. Like, in my 20s, I have done a lot of things! I have been a gym trainer, a school teacher and so much more. As you walk down the path, a lot about who you are, and what you want, is revealed.

AS: Do you think that your world view has evolved over the years because of your work?

FJ: Definitely. I am glad you use the word ‘evolved' and not ‘changed'. We are evolving because at each stage we are learning. Even at the most basic levels you learn what not to do. One of my first plays as a director was JAAL written by Annie Zaidi. It is a story about a river by a village which is being exploited by a corporation and the villagers decide to take the law into their own hands. Even when you side with the villagers, you know that it isn't right when somebody gets lynched or killed. Personally, I want my work to entertain, but at the same time I do want it to say something more. The audience should have something engaging to hold on to when they watch my play but it is vital to speak on behalf of people, or give a voice to those who are unheard. That said, I do understand that every person has his/her own space in theatre that I immensely respect. I feel strongly about what I do but I don't feel strongly about the fact that other people should do the same thing.

AS: How do you decide on a new project? Where does the motivation come from?

FJ: More than me searching, I feel the subjects find me. In my head if I feel strongly about a story, then I want to tell it. Like with 7/7/07 – I had no idea about Rayhaneh Jabbari. I am ashamed I did not, actually. Somebody sent me a link and asked me to read her letters. Even when we were auditioning I had no concrete idea of what I wanted to do. As we got further into the process, things came to me, like, it would be awesome if there are seven women. If you are open to things, it all eventually falls into place. With SHIKHANDI on the other hand, I think I just heard someone, somewhere, talking about a female character from the Mahabharata who was like a tomboy. I started reading the Mahabharata and that is when I realised it was Shikhandi. JAAL, one of my first directorial works, was part of The Writers Bloc festival. Rajit Kapoor of Rage and Shaun were asking other people and I kept hoping that they would ask me. And they eventually did. I do believe in the slightly spiritual nature of art - the process is different for every play but it all ultimately works out. If at all someone asked me to write a play and gave me a deadline, I don't think it would be a spiritual experience (laughs). It would rather be an anxiety-driven experience. If SHIKHANDI or the new play I am working on had a deadline, I don't think I'd ever be able to write it. I started writing SHIKHANDI in 2014 but the final draft was only ready in 2016. In fact I initially wrote it as a one-woman show in 2010. From the time you start imagining the idea till it is actually on stage – that process takes time and patience. I do believe that both SHIKHANDI and 7/7/07 happened when they were supposed to happen.

AS: What does theatre mean to you?

FJ: It is something I really enjoy and want to continue doing. It is a place where I find the most joy and freedom to express myself. If I am acting in a play that someone else is directing or in a film or a web-series, I completely give in to the director, and strictly play the role of an actor. I know how frustrating things can be for directors. I try not to make it difficult for anybody. But when I am in my space as a theatre director or writer, then I want it in a certain way. That is why I expect a lot from my actors. Also because I have a very high physical fitness level as well. My actors often joke that ‘What you have in your head and what we can actually execute are two different things.' (laughs). I am in this space mostly because it gives me the most expression.

AS: How in your opinion should we measure a play's success in this day and age?

FJ: It's hard to say because while watching a performance I have my own biases. As a theatre person you tend to catch things that others usually don't notice. When I am watching a play I often wonder why I am not enjoying a certain part when everyone else is laughing. We're more attuned to the truth of movements, so we really can't help but notice the nitty-gritty. From the audiences' point of view I believe that a good play evokes joy. It doesn't matter how sad the play is, we must perform with joy – something I always tell my actors. For example, even between 7/7/07 and SHIKHANDI, I know people who have liked 7/7/07 more, though SHIKANDI has been the more popular play. So, it's really hard to say what the definition of a successful play is. I may not enjoy a play which is spectacular and huge, but somebody who is watching it for the spectacle, will really like it. As watchers we watch differently. Say, for me, if a play is not visually enticing, I shut off. Someone else may hold on to the words, and some others probably enjoy the design. My mother for instance, who is an avid theatregoer, told me that even though she liked my two recent plays, she did not understand them the first time around. On the other hand, my other friends did. So, there is no absolutely definition of success. Perhaps materialistically it could be about how well one would do at the box office or about how many shows one has managed. That is important as well because at the end of the day you have to run your plays.

AS: What is the definition of success for your own plays?

FJ: It makes you happy when someone appreciates your play or sends you an email. But I have also realised that not everybody is going to like what you do. That being said, my own practice has also taught me a few things. Like sometimes we are so quick to dismiss something as horrible. Having seen the other side I now think of how much work the group must have put in, or that maybe it did not work for me, but there are other people who may like it. When it comes to my own work, except for SHIKHANDI, most of it has never been 'popular' in the conventional sense. Sure, we have had our share of shows outside Mumbai and housefulls, but there have been people saying that they did not like it or why this. It's important to take critical feedback as much as the compliments.

AS: To what extent is theatre a political act?

FJ: To the extent you want it to be a political act. It's not fair to say that theatre should be a political act, because to some people it may not be. It is subjective. Some people may be political, but don't want that to be reflected in their work. As the creator it is up to you.

AS: That is true. But even though you may not be making a conscious political statement, can you escape the politics of it?

FJ: Well, a teacher of mine once said, ‘Everything is politics' and I remember how I strongly disagreed. But it is hard to escape it. Maybe if you don't think about it, it may or may not come out as strongly. A script is like a painting. I may see the reds more, somebody else may focus on the cow. It boils down to what you allow to simmer on the top. I don't know if you can escape it or not, but you can probably avoid it.

AS: What does a rehearsal day look like?

FJ: Actors in pain (laughs). A lot of physical exploration and lots of improvisation. Not too much talking.

AS: Who are the people you turn to before you open your work?
Nobody really. The only people who see it before are Argya (Lahiri), who does our sound design and Shaun, who records. The people I trust most are the actors. In fact I don't even allow visitors to our rehearsals. An actor has to really be able to let go and perform. In terms of timing, if it is getting too long, the company and I are able to take a call. Other than that, Argya also gives out pieces of feedback when he is watching, which is really good. Often times if we are critical enough of our own work, most things are taken care of.

AS: How long did you work on doing the reasearch and how much time do you usually spend on the rehearsal floor?

FJ: All my rehearsal processes are really long – three months or more. I want my actors to have the text inside their bodies, something that can only happen with time. The more they read the script, the more we can improvise around it. This drastically cuts down the construction time because the foundation is really stong. But if you want to create a vocabulary, like training for Yakshagana, or saying the English text over the Indian Koodiyattam gestures (SHIKHANDI) you have to give the time. I often tell people that the process begins right from the audition where you start reading and discussing. The more time your body gets with the text, the richer is the final outcome.

AS: A passage or a scene from one of your plays that you think about often.

FJ: A scene close to my heart is from THE TRESTLE AT POPE LICK CREEK directed by Rehan Engineer.It was a long time ago but it is my favourite role so far. The play is about a girl who races trains. There is a scene where I have to run full speed across the stage. I remember thinking of nothing but running, like it was a marathon.

AS: Which plays are on your bookshelf?

FJ: I have not read many plays but I find myself liking contemporary Indian writing. I read more books than plays. I have been reading Elif Shafak's books of late and recently finished The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. The Essential Rumi is another book I have started.

AS: What play are you working on next?

FJ: The next play I am hoping to direct is Vinit Bhalla's A FARMING STORY. It won the Sultan Padamasee playwriting award in 2016. He had written it around the time of the Syrian refugee crisis.

AS: Your most important life learnings.

FJ: Be good. It's so important to be good. The experience of you working with someone is more important than the work itself. We are so caught up with our own worries that we sometimes forget that every person is going through so much. How you say things, and how you allow people around you to grow makes all the difference in this world. It is the opportunity to establish a human connection that makes us all in the theatre so lucky. As a director I try to recognise each person's way of being. Like I know that some people need to be shouted at. But the minute they know that your interest lies in their growth, they believe in you and work towards being better. This is something I learnt as a teacher. You realise how different people learn differently. Even when we are rehearsing I take the person aside and ask them if they're okay. Because something you say can stay with someone for a really long time. To be empathic is paramount, especially when you're leading someone.

Quick questions:

Mumbai or Delhi
I love Mumbai but I've begun to like Delhi.

Ebrahim Alkazi or Habib Tandvir


Prithvi or NCPA
For the people, Prithvi. For the space, NCPA

Training or spontaneous
Spontaneous training

Silence or laughter in the aisles
Both depending on the state of mind.

Coffee or fresh lime soda
Fresh lime water – sweet and salty.

Mahabharata or The Game of Thrones
Mahabharata, anyday!

*Ayushi Shah has a Bachelors Degree in Mass Media with a Major in Journalism. She has worked in various media and in public relations. She enjoys theatre and has acted in and directed inter-college festival plays.

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