Mallika Shah Interview
After training in the US and Mumbai, Mallika Shah has been busy working in the theatre in various capacities—actor, educator, communicator-- and has written and directed her first play I KILLED MY MOTHER/IT WASN'T MY FAULT, that tells the story of a young woman, going through one terrible day, when nothing seems to go right for her.

 By Deepa Gahlot

Mallika had gone to the US to study oceanography when fate took her down another path. “I was very young then, and SUNY Geneseo was a small university in a small town, where there were no people of colour, which is very rare. I wanted to get out of the bubble of a few South Asian friends and explore. I also found the aptitude in oceanography lacking, from what I had thought. So, I switched to English Literature major and did theatre on the side."

She had acted in a school play as a child, but had not been exposed much to theatre before, so, she says, she did not realise how different things were in Mumbai till she returned. “Over there," she says, “it was all very streamlined even though it was a very small theatre department. Initially, I wanted to be an actor, and I moved back to India, thinking it would be easier to do it here. In the US, there was not much representation of Asians, the way you see it now in films and TV. New York intimidated me, I didn't know how I would survive there. So I came back, worked for an NGO for a while, and then I joined Drama School Mumbai (DSM). Over there, it was being told what to do—it was a very American style of doing theatre, classics and proscenium, not very experimental. DSM was so physical, so new, so devised—I had no idea of all these things before. I only vaguely know of using the body to get to emotions, and using emotions to get to the body, so actually doing that all day long for a year was something else. It was good to learn what theatre is all about, what makes theatre.

“I had a very westernized upbringing, but was also a very sheltered child," she says, explaining the origin of the angst-ridden protagonist of her play. “When I moved out of my family's umbrella, I became more politically aware, which is what the play is about. Her angst is not baseless, it stems from something, even though she is privileged. Which is why I had a scene with an auto driver, to confront someone who does not have what she has. But, just the knowledge that someone else has it worse, does not mean your pain is less; in fact sometimes, it can exaercerbate, you can become numb in a sense. If I have nothing to be upset about, is my sadness, my despair not valid at all? Who is there to listen?"

The unusual and catchy title of the play came up when Mallika thought about what the woman says most in the play, which was “It wasn't my fault." The ‘I killed my mother' half of it was to express the severing of the relationship between mother and daughter, “even if it means for a moment in time. The play is not entirely from a personal space, though. There are things that happened, certain thought processes are personal, but not everything that transpires is real. Events have been fabricated and twisted to make the narrative of the day happen. The fights with many family members, get put into the role of the mother. It's just that intra-generational gap that seems to come up so often these days, some people tend to manage it better. My parents are very willing to grow with me and connect with what I connect with, but that is not true for everyone."

After she had worked for a while with various groups, Kathasiyah, the Bangalore-based performing arts company, took up her play for production. She also had a grant from DSM. "I had the idea sitting for a year and a half, but I would not have known how to bring it to the stage without that grant. I asked Sunayana Premchander ftom Kathasiyah to mentor me and she came on board as producer. Meghana AT was staged manager, movement director...and we share a great creative camaraderie. Then we auditioned actors and technicians. It was an amazing group of people who are coming in from very different paths. They are all young, about the same age as me, they knew I was doing this for the first time and the faith they had in me was so reassuring. It was all open and flexible, more a devised process than me directing them all."

Mallika has ideas buzzing in her mind for her next play, but she wants to keep this one working for a long time "giving it the longevity it should have." She is not shutting down acting or writing opportunities in the OTT space, but, she says, "Writing and direction are much more fulfilling and use a lot more of my skills than acting. I like to take something from thought to final product. I believe in theatre. I want to help and support and to be a part of it, rather than just create. Which is why I am working with schools and with Bhasha Theatre, which is partnering with groups to help them perform their shows. But of course, we desperately need more venues."

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