Madhu Rye bagged the Bhuppen Khakkar Award for his play SURA ANE SHATRUJEET. Naushil Mehta, who directed Rye’s SUITABLE BRIDE, speaks to the American-based Gujarati playwright about playwriting, and other things.
Welcome to India. Do you see many plays in America?
It’s not that I don’t see plays. It’s the "many" that I can’t afford to. But I do go to Off-Broadway plays, and other inexpensive productions, and attend a Playwrights’ Group that does staged readings.
What kind of process does this group follow?
This is a group of playwrights who read and comment on each other’s work to stimulate writing. They email next weeks program to interested people and meet every Wednesday; playwrights who write, as well as actors who read. The readings are followed by discussions with author and the director and performers. A number of scripts from this platform have been produced.
How do you find the theatre in India, compared to about thirty years ago?
I haven’t really thought about it. Even when I was here, I didn’t live in Mumbai, so I wouldn’t know. But there were a couple of pleasant productions I came across.
Do you feel in India, we do not to take our drama work too seriously?
That is true for any form of literature in our country. We don’t have literary editors or literary agents in India; editors are half-writers, who put a "finish" to a writer’s raw work; and agents market the finished work. We don’t even have decent proofreaders. There isn’t enough money to be made for this extra assistance in Indian languages. So it is not taken seriously.
Is there an absence of rigour?
Gujarati theatre is lucrative now! I am delighted and envious to see Gujarati playwrights making money! We just celebrated 150 years of Gujarati theatre. However, the focus is on moneymaking instead of creating art.
What would you say about the plays you saw recently?
The plays I saw in Hindi and English were unremarkable. Gujarati plays weren’t any different; though I’d prefer them because they are in a language I am nuts about. In any case, ‘unremarkable’ or not, I have a childlike fascination for anything and anyone connected with show business.
Is that the only reason you’d prefer Gujarati plays?
I’d say they are better produced than the others and are a little more nimble perhaps because they are better financed. It’s not like I’ve seen only great plays in the US, I’ve seen ‘unremarkable’ ones there too.
Why are these plays here ’unremarkable’?
They look like a production but not like a creation.
What does that mean?
I feel, ideally, on stage a play obtains a life of its own. A number of creative minds do what they do best: script and the direction of course, but also the lights, sound, sets guys together create a tiger and let it out of a cage. It is controlled lunacy. In most plays in India, I miss that.
Did you see that life thing happening in your plays done by Pravin Joshi?
Of course, both KUMARNI AGASHI and SANTU RANGILEE were thrilling, even electrifying (laughs)! I left after SANTU RANGILEE. But I’m sure he was equally good with all my later plays. I also saw electricity in Satyadev Dubey’s and some of Kanti Madia’s plays. Nevertheless, the tiger thing happened best in the Darpana production of my play KOI PAN EK PHOOLNU NAAM BOLO TO. (laughs) perhaps because I was also doing a role; perhaps in spite of it.
Tell us about Mrinalini Sarabhai and Pravin Joshi.
Mrinalini Sarabhai and Kailas Pandya (Darpana) made me a playwright. Pravin Joshi (INT) made me famous, and Sarita Joshi brought me respect. I acknowledge that gratefully. With Mrinalini, it was a joyous collaboration of her aesthetic sense, Kailasbhai’s sense of drama and my sense of suspense. With Joshi, there was functional collaboration but the great man and I didn’t agree on every thing. He didn’t change my script but he played it with excess melodrama than I would have.
I’ve never been successful as a director, so it’s just as well that he did what he did. He was phenomenally successful.
Were you rigid about changes made by the director?
I used to be very sensitive. A cut I would tolerate but I will not let a word be changed or added by the director. I didn’t have to fight much with either of these nice directors, though. There were a couple of other directors who have mutilated my scripts but even their productions have been more successful than my own directorial efforts of same scripts. So what do I know?
Who are those directors?
The chap who did A SUITABLE BRIDE.
Hmmm... Which of your plays have most given you the satisfaction...
KOI PAN EK PHOOLNU NAAM BOLO TO, is one. Of course I think all the plays I’ve written have come out fairly well. I aim to entertain more than say anything.
Just for the record, Vikalp produced the Mumbai version of that play directed by Utkarsh Mazumdar in 1984. Now let’s move on. What is the usual starting point for your plays?
I write a play only when there is a visible prospect of it being staged. First act of KOI PAN EK PHOOLNU NAAM BOLO TO was written as a farce; then when Darpana asked to stage it, in the second and third acts it changed into a macabre murder story. And the rest of the scenes were written even as previous scenes were rehearsed daily.
What I’m asking is whether there is a starting point at all, or whether hands, eyes, faces come in and help?
The starting point is a phrase or a word or a gesture that I find interesting. Then I sew a jacket around it… so to speak.
So language is important ...
Language, yes. Or a visual. Or an intense emotion. Previously I wrote spontaneously with intensity and honesty. With time, my writing has become more deliberate than spontaneous. Not any less honest, but now I re-write a lot with the word processor.
Are you aware that one of the most prolific English playwrights in India today, Mahesh Dattani, admits that he became a playwright because he saw KOI PAN EK PHOOLNU NAM BOLO TOH?
I think he’s being generous. Whatever the case, I don’t think it has affected my writing.
Has someone else’s writing affected you in a similar manner?
The Bengali adaptation of SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR. I like Pirandello’s ambiguity, his magic with the real and the fantastic. The Gujarati writer Suresh Joshi’s short stories and the narrative prose of C.C. Mehta. There are countless writers who have influenced me. I think every thing we read, eat, see, smell or sleep with affects us and influence our thinking.
Do you ‘read’ plays these days?
Yes. These days and in those days. Since my school days I’ve read plays in any language. Now, it is mostly in English.
You must have some favourite playwrights?
Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller and William Inge. I was also impressed by a younger writer David Rabe’s play called BASIC TRAINING OF PAVLOV HAMMEL and by a playful one-act play SCHUBERT’S UNFINISHED SYMPHONY by Juli Bowaso, a Brazilian-American writer.
Anyone who is currently writing in America or India that you find interesting?
I’m not too up-to-date; however, there are three memorable Indian plays of all time both as plays and as theatre: the very first original Bengali production of EVAM INDRAJIT; Dubey’s Hindi version of HAYAVADANA; and the original Marathi version of SAKHARAM BINDER. I like new and green one-act plays by new and green young writers done as a festival of new plays. And I am a fan of the American playwright, David Mamet.
What else do you read?
I watch films more than I read books and I enjoy thrillers... and science fiction more than melodramas or love stories. I like comedies as well. But I LIVE in thrillers. There’s a Black writer, Walter Mosley, also a favourite of Bill Clinton’s that I enjoy. Two of his stories were made into a film Devil In The Blue Dress; I enjoy works by James Ellroy, who wrote LA Confidential; and Elmore Leonard, known for films like Jackie Brown.
I don’t understand it. I love plays by Sitanshu, Labhshankar and Chinu; more than their poetry. When I read a poem by a friend, I actually hear their voice, and it is a creepy experience. Most Gujarati poets are my friends.
What would you like to do over the next five years?
And on what conditions?I would like to continue writing plays that would be performed and not just sit in my head or in a book. Condition being that I get producers to do them.
What is your opinion about the ‘Sahityik Natak’ from Gujarat?
To call play a ‘Sahityik Natak’ is a polite way of saying, "I’ll stage it later."
What could the writers’ purpose be for writing such a thing?
Same as every other writer’s, I imagine.
Tell us about Hawaii.
I spent two semesters at the University of Hawaii at Honolulu. It was the end of the Sixties… known for the sexual liberation. In Hawaii, a kiss is customary when you meet a woman. Boys and girls neck, smooch and sit on each other’s laps in class! It is okay for a student of opposite sex to kiss the teacher on the lips. A cultural shock, but not too unpleasant, though!
Go on …
Once I gave my dorm-mate a phone message from his mother. But he had already spoken to her in the meantime, he said. "Thanks for taking the call. My mother said she liked you."
"She is a kind lady, she liked me as a son."
And he said "Or, she liked you as a lover."
It may have been a joke but for me it was a shock. I don’t know how it is there now, though.
And the Akanth Sabarmati movement.
I’d learned improvisation as a tool to stimulate playwriting in Hawaii. When I returned, I got together with poets, teachers, fiction writers, journalists. We’d take a theme and play it out spontaneously. Thus we’d get the natural vernacular of each speaker. We’d then write it as a skit. And then as a play if the spirit moved.
We also did scores of theatre exercise to know ‘theatre’ first hand. I ran the workshop for a year and then they ran it for another eight after I left for the US again.
Did the workshop "work"?
I am proud that my colleagues Labhshankar, Chinu Modi, Indu Puvar and many more have penned scores of fine, performable plays since then. Ramesh Shah has even written a film script.
Tell us more about Akanth Sabaramati.
I asked that the dialogue not be longer than two lines. The story should advance with each utterance. And one should never ever write what one wants to say. No editorializing, no philosophical pearls of wisdom. This was the exercise; high drama would come later. The thing with the Akanth Sabaramati movement was, the play would be performed before it was penned. And yet, each writer would bring his own unique creativity and perspective to it.
Who did these improvisations?
Actors, journalists, teachers, whoever were willing to act, would do them. Including those who’d never acted before. There even was a girl who had never seen a play! When enacted, one readily knew whether something worked or not.
Were these plays published?
Later, we published two collections of short plays. Many of those, including one of my own, have been making the rounds regularly.
Tell us about your PANKOR NAAKE JAAKE.
Dubey asked me to write him a play that would be impossible to do. So I combined four of my short stories glued with a prose form I call Harmonica, and that is how PANKOR NAAKE JAAKE came into being. It was great fun.
What is Harmonica?
Suresh Joshi preached that in a short story, ‘form’ was important, not ‘content’. In an effort to write a content-less short story, I ended up writing a form-less piece of prose and called it ‘Harmonica’ as it dwelt upon the sounds of words more than their meanings. I got it published and wrote a few more. One of them is, "Pankor naake jaake Pana chand bhaine khaaya ek paan" with which three short stories were threaded to form a three-act play. Indeed, a play "impossible to do". Dubey didn’t do it. Antarnatya, a Marathi group did it in Hindi. They printed the admission tickets in the shape of a leaf, a "paan", as a tease for "Paanaa chand bhai ne khaayaa ek paan".
How do you feel about the Bhupen Khakhar Award you won?Contests are like fertility drugs. Greek playwrights thrived on contests. Bhupen Khakhar award and its companion Coffee Mates award for "new" playwrights are healthy, stimulating, and rewarding. It was evident by how affectionately the entire Gujarati theatre community got involved and made it a public celebration rather than a good time just for the winners. I hope this twin contest continues forever. Like the Olympics. The Gujarati theatre can certainly support it with body, mind and money.
-The above interview is courtesy PT Notes.