Neeraj Shirvaikar
Neeraj Shirvaikar is a Marathi playwright and director who came to prominence with the success of his stage adaptation of A PERFECT MURDER. Currently, five productions that he has worked on are running in theatres, including directorial venture AAMNE SAMNE and the latest, PATRA PATRI, where he worked on performance text and set design. In this conversation, Shirvaikar talks about direction, the need for more progressive writers and designing theatre sets, among other topics.

 By Neha Shende

How did you get associated with PATRA PATRI?

Vijay (Kenkre, director and actor) sir thought of making a theatrical piece out of (Dilip) Prabhavalkar's writing. I have worked with both in the past. They thought I would be the right choice to adapt it. When I read it, I didn't think it should become a full-fledged production. The current format in which they present it, that is apt and entertaining. They liked the idea and asked me to also do the set. They generally know how I think. It's about the craft of a playwright. There are good writers who write excellent dialogue, but the play may not be as theatrical as one would want it to be. But if you already have good dialogue, you need a person who understands the craft of staging a play. I think that is why they approached me.

How was the process of adapting the writing to stage?

It is not a proper adaptation. This was more about cracking the form. Before that, it was about editing. Because the original book has 10 long letters. Some of them are also outdated in terms of the cultural context. I think it was written about 10 years ago. You have just two actors who are reading. So, the process for me was more about cracking the form, which is why I was happy to do the set. The visual aspect and the show flow go together. It was interesting that they weren't going to fully perform. They were going to become the characters, but not placed within the story. I didn't want to change that because the whole charm of the performance is two old friends writing letters to each other. I thought, maybe as the story progresses, we change the form. Because when you tell an anecdote, you tend to enact it in front of your listener, sometimes words are not enough. It was about identifying those moments.

You have worked on all kinds of comedy. Do you think certain topics can't be joked about? Is there a line you draw?

Everything depends on the context. When I am writing a comedy, I never decide on the style of comedy. No writer ever should. Mostly they don't. But inside every writer there is a deep-seated anger towards society and the system. It comes out under the guise of comedy. We all deeply care about some subjects, but I don't think that is necessarily where we should draw the line. Unless in the story, within the context, it is happening in bad taste. But if I am trying to make a bigger statement, then I don't think sensitive topics like religion are off the plate.

How do you go about the process of set designing?

It depends on the script. I wanted PATRA PATRI to have a very comforting, nostalgic feeling. In the book, there are many caricatures and cartoons, slightly reminiscent of the Mario Miranda (Indian cartoonist) style. Every 4-5 pages, a cartoon or illustration pops up. That really enhanced the reading experience for me. I wanted to give my audience that experience. A cartoon is basically satire. The play has this cheeky humor that Prabhavalkar has used in the original writing, which I have kept intact. I wanted to create the impression that this is like a caricaturist cartoon poking a finger at society. Visually, I wanted it to feel like it is all set in this big cartoon box. So that was the thought behind making the set. I made the illustrations for the set pieces. I scribbled a lot. I think I used 60 percent of all the images that I made and sort of arranged them to make this house with the Mumbai backdrop.

Sets for A PERFECT MURDER and YOU MUST DIE were similar because they were both murder mysteries. Some murder mystery sets are very dark, which I find weird, because the people living there don't know someone is going to be killed there. They need to feel like livable homes.

Both these sets had alcohol bars. Do you enjoy having that feature in a set?

The bar is generally a necessity of the story. The original material for both these plays is quite Western, set in the 40s. It was a very commonplace thing for them to have a bar in a big, grand house then. Also, it's a playwright's device. When you have a couple of drinks in a character, they are going to be a little more uninhibited, say things they otherwise wouldn't have.

In PATRA PATRI, you wanted the production to look like a cartoon. Did you have any inputs for the body language of the characters?

Not for the body language. Because Prabhavalkar sir being him, is going to explore. This type of play, the advantage is that as they have more shows, it is going to change in bits and pieces. I have assisted Vijay Kenkre. So, he as a director, has a lot of influence on the way I think. When he was on stage, he needed someone to look at the performance. That was me during the last couple of days. But if you are talking about the holistic vision, it is what both of them devised.

You have said you like to keep performances raw during rehearsal. Why are you not very insistent on actors following exactly what you have written?

In 2010, I was acting in plays. It was SAKKHE SHEJARI directed by Sai Paranjpye. During the rehearsals, I acted in whatever capacity I could (laughs). But in front of an audience, it was different. When we perform the same play in Baroda, Ahmednagar and Dadar, some niche things may not get across to audiences in one or the other city. As actors, we needed to improvise. When the curtains open, in the first few lines you get what the energy is. And then that affects how you are going to tackle this show. The changes are not North and South, but yeah, it does change. And I was very comfortable as an actor when I didn't have to say the exact lines. So, within the framework of the provided story, I think actors should be given a little leeway to meander.

You mentioned devised performance. Have you done a lot of it?

I taught theatre for two years and that is when I tried to get my students to do devised theatre. They did well. That was my brush with devised theatre. Professionally, I haven't forayed too much into experimental theatre. Economics is one reason for it. I don't usually do television or film. I earn my bread and butter from theatre. I made that choice early in my career.

The last experimental production I did was SAD SAKHARAM in 2022. At the time, I knew this writer, Yugandhar - he is a very good friend now. There was a reading of the play at Awishkar. And I loved it and I said, "Give it to me." He readily agreed. I said, "Don't readily agree, listen to what I want do with the script." Because it is a very abstract play. I can't tell him what a scene will exactly be like. But I can tell him what themes, colors, feelings I see, the process I see. For me it felt like a devised performance because the actors were improvising. Of course, strictly speaking, in a devised performance, there should be actors who are also writing and directing. But yeah, SAD SAKHARAM was as close as I have come to doing devised theatre.

How did you know that you wanted to primarily do theatre and not other forms of storytelling?

I was doing my graduation in Belgaum, where I was acting in a theatre group. They were doing GHASHIRAM KOTWAL, I had no idea who Vijay Tendulkar was at the time (laughs). When I acted in that play, it was just so fulfilling. There is some magic in theatre. I can't really explain, they say, theatre is the medium of absence. We don't really have everything. Like Ratan Thiyam (playwright and theatre director) said, If I am talking about the moon, I don't really show the moon. I talk about it and the audience sees it in their mind. Whereas, in a film, you would actually show the moon. But nothing you show can be remotely as beautiful as something that you can imagine. So that is the charm of theatre. I discovered more playwrights like that. Tendulkar, then Mahesh Elkunchwar and Shafaat Khan. I also learnt play writing from Shafaat Khan. And there were all these foreign playwrights: there was Tennessee Williams, of course, Shakespeare and all the greats.

To me, something about seeing your words performed gives this feeling of being understood. Because I don't always direct the plays that I have written. When a director gets what I wanted to say without expressly telling them, when the actor expresses that in their own way, and the audience responds the way you hoped, it's very fulfilling. When everything just hits the right notes, it's like a symphony. That is something that you don't get in other mediums.

Writers are often in love with their characters, directors, with their actors. You have said that you see past performances to cast actors. Can you talk about actors you love working with?

In SAD SAKHARAM, Siddharth Bodke was a revelation. But initially, I didn't want him. I thought it's a take on SAKHARAM BINDER, he looks nothing like the character. He is a sweet, good-looking guy. I was looking for another actor who looked hard and tough. But Yugandhar said the way he had conceived it, the actor should not look like a 'Sakharam' on the face of it. I had this heart-to-heart talk with Siddharth. I told him, I didn't know the sort of theatre he had done before. He had done some TV serials.

I don't have anything against melodrama. In fact, I have written a melodrama for which I am looking for a producer. But I am scared of certain schools of thought that have come into theatre. In many ekankika competitions, their sensibilities are very surface level. They give more weightage to the subject rather than the content of the play. It's not an essay, it's a story, it needs to have content. AAMNE SAMNE, for example, is about live-in and marriage. It is an age-old subject, but what I want to say about it, I will write differently. I am scared of this ekankika-type sensibility, where everything that the character is feeling they will say up front as soon as they enter on stage. That is not the type of theatre I like to do. I like to work with someone who is layered. Someone who can convey more with less dialogue.

I spoke to Siddharth about this and told him this will not be a conventional production or process because this script cannot be directed conventionally. We will have exercises and improvisations that may not make sense to you sometimes. But you will have to trust me through that. Siddarth said he was looking for exactly that. I said okay, then we will have fun. He had some inhibitions on the first day. He was doing this mistake that many actors do: they direct themselves on stage. He said, "No, if I go there, then three scenes later, I say this." I asked him to exist in the moment. Once he got the hang of that, it was such a joyride to work with him. If you see the play now, you won't believe that every word that he speaks, is written script. You feel like he is making it up. There was this actor-director relationship that I always wanted - the actor gets what I'm talking about.

There's Rasika Sunil. She did one show of AAMNE SAMNE. During the rehearsal, I saw that she is an actor who doesn't want to show everything, who wants to hide things. That is what we do as people. And even then, you know what she is going through. So, I am really in love with layered actors. They commit to the moment. There are so many Marathi plays out there, which I have been verbal about criticizing in the past. They have this somewhat similar storyline of the loving older parents and the villainous children who exploit them. Or a woman who has just had a child; if she is unsure about motherhood, that doesn't make her a bad person. It is a very real thing that happens with so many women. But if you are influenced by a sensibility that says this is bad, then to make an actor play this role, becomes difficult for me. I don't identify with that. We put up these plays and crib that the younger generation doesn't come and watch. Why should they come? You are not telling their stories.

You have worked on diverse genres. Do you think there is a through line? What is the Neeraj Shirvaikar voice?

One common theme that you may find is oppression. There is something about that, that angers me. When I say that, I don't mean on a broad level, social oppression. That is there. But I came across this interesting quote by Richard Price (American writer). To paraphrase, he said, when you are talking about war, don't talk about the tanks and the guns. Talk about a kid's burnt socks lying on the road. That is what I am trying to do. If I am talking about women, I am not necessarily going to show the stereotypical version of the drunkard husband who beats the wife. Because we know this is a bad man. I am saying that oppression exists even when these stereotypes don't exist. That is what I have tried to do with AAMNE SAMNE.

I write about things that anger me. In YOU MUST DIE, the original (entitled THE UNEXPECTED GUEST) was written by Agatha Christie. In the story, all the men in the family have mental health issues. My interpretation of it was that she was talking about patriarchy through that. But the broader theme was that someone who is in a position of privilege is getting away with murder. And then the oppressed person comes back to take revenge. So that struck a chord. Similarly, in A PERFECT MURDER, these people live in a posh neighborhood and the investigating cop is very rural. I don't do this consciously, thinking, now I will write a play about oppression, the rich against the poor. I just tell a story. And my sensibilities will come in it if I am the person I am.

You have mentioned oppressed women in your stories. What about women in theatre? There are notoriously few women directors and writers. What is your take on this gender disparity?

It is not like we have a dearth of women writers. The problem is that their take on theatre and writing is something that has been shaped by men. So even when a woman writes a play, very often I have observed that they sort of look at the world through the glasses that male playwrights have asked them to put on. Now that is present in the structure as well. Originally, there was this whole Aristotlean type of storytelling, which was a very male type of storytelling, which was taught across the world. When the feminist movement picked up steam, women playwrights in the 1940s and 1950s said this is a male type of structure, we don't really identify with this. They started writing different forms of plays, episodic plays. I have seen many female playwrights, both my contemporaries and veterans. Through their writing, you can automatically see there's a different structure, a certain freshness in that. But these are too few.

Do you think there are fewer producers who would take bets on women leads?

No, that is also not true. The producers are well aware that a play that speaks to women is the one that's going to run. You look at CHAR CHAUGHI, look at AAMNE SAMNE. There are phenomenal writers - Ira Karnik. There's a writer called Mayuri Deshmukh, who wrote a play 8-10 years ago. It was called DEAR AJJO. It was a phenomenal play. And of course, there is Sai Paranjpye. She directed the first play that I acted in. And a lot of what I have learnt about theatre, I have learnt from her. I think more progressive, free-thinking women need to write more to encourage others to follow. If you do not really dive into the depths, you wouldn't really understand what you are, what you want to say, and I think it is the job of a writer - both male and female - to reject what society has told him or her is right or wrong. We write because we want to find out. We write because we have questions.

Do you think writers have a responsibility to challenge norms in every piece of writing? Can you just have beauty for beauty's sake? Or is that less valuable?

I don't really bifurcate plays into these two categories. I am just sitting in that auditorium enjoying the play. What does get me riled up is regressive content. Even if I decide to write something like a farce only because I love it, there will be something that is aching somewhere within me. If I am writing something honestly, even if I just want a funny commercial production, I will still pick up a point. So, I don't think we need to classify plays into these two broad categories.

I think an audience that appreciates the themes in your plays must usually have progressive sensibilities. Then, if your play is successful in a certain place, are you just preaching to the already converted? How do you get through to the other side?

I'll be very honest about it. If I am performing in any echo chamber then in fact, it is an echo chamber of the other side. It is certainly not people who agree with me. AAMNE SAMNE deals with live-in relationships, and I have had so many instances of people not liking it. There was this line in AAMNE SAMNE, where the girl says, that you know I am not against marriage but before I marry, I need to live with him to understand if it is compatible, if not, move on. To all of us, it makes perfect sense. But that is the line that offends people across theatres across the globe. AAMNE SAMNE had gone to Chicago - and this old uncle passed a message with someone saying that he really hated the girl saying it. I found it so funny that someone in Chicago said that this is wrong, this is not our culture, that the girl says that. And he was okay that the guy thinks like that. In our theatres, the young or progressive audience is smaller in number.

But it's also not like there is no hope. There were instances where people were offended, but much more than that, there were older people who met me and said that that they need to look at their kids more sensitively. So many young couples get their parents along because they think the play articulates what they want to say. I have joked a lot about the older generation. If you tell them you're stupid, regressive people, they will get offended. But when you tell them in the right way, they do understand. I look at it in this spirit of reconciliation. I don't want to otherize people who don't subscribe to the same school of thought that I do.

Do you confront people you disagree with and try to have a dialogue?

Generally, I am not much of a talker. I prefer to listen. I let them talk out their bias. I don't hate them. I try to understand them. In my stories, there aren't really villains. On both sides, there are just people.

Do you think comedy is good way to ease the other side into what you are saying?

Oh yes. One of my favorite playwrights, Oscar Wilde, said, "If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you." Comedy is the best way to put your point across. If you take a grim topic and write a grim play about it, people will appreciate the effort, but they won't really enjoy the experience. It won't stay with them. But they do remember the jokes. And then that is something that changes the way they think. That is what I loved about PATRA PATRI. It's a man who actively wants to perform so-called miracles - a mass hysteria that happened a few years ago, with the idols drinking milk. And then when he goes to Africa, he sees people indulging in similar superstition and says it's superstitious and backward - the hypocrisy of it all. I was laughing when I read that.

Is there the danger that the audience will simply take a play at face value without understanding the second layer to the comedy?

People come for the story. The story, characters, and plot - that is the first layer. Many a times, people just observe that first layer. The second layer where I am trying to say something more -they get subliminally. Then there is the third layer where they get what I'm trying to say and tell me they loved it. That is what makes my day. But I think, let people come for the top layer. Then I hope the deeper meaning percolates into their subconscious.

You must have seen and worked in many theatres. Which is your favorite theatre in Mumbai? What makes a good theatre?

I like Prabodhankar Thackeray in Borivali, because technically it is one of the best, you have good sound, it has great stage visibility, so it is really well-designed like that. Practically, that is where we do more shows. But the theatre that I like the most is Sahitya Sangha. Because it has this vibe. I can't really explain, but you feel like you are in the golden era of theatre, like you are in a time machine. You feel like you are doing something important. The audience is there to really listen to you. Technically, it may not be the greatest. I also like Opera House for its grand look.

You don't have too many professional experimental Marathi troupes. Why do you think that is?

One group that does experimental theatre in Mumbai is Awishkar. They produced SAD SAKHARAM. But there isn't a lot of manpower there now. Ten to fifteen years ago, people were actively working there, it was a very lively scene. Since that is not happening now, they don't have many theatre dates. Pune has a lot of Marathi experimental theatre groups. In Mumbai, there are very few. It is also to do with the commercials. Marathi writers and directors who conduct workshops aren't actively working in the experimental theatre scene in Mumbai. With an experimental production, reaching people becomes difficult. With SAD SAKHARAM, we have done 30 shows and that is a big number. It shouldn't be, but it is.

Do you think well-known directors taking up the mantle of experimental will draw the crowds or does the Marathi audience now lean towards commercial plays?

Well-known directors, people who are doing mainstream theatre now, have done a lot of experimental theatre back in the 70s and the 80s. When you ask them to do experimental theatre, they would think of a Vijay Tendulkar script, for instance. But that was experimental in the 70s, not anymore. So, I think it should be people who are going through this change now. Whatever change we are going through as the country, as the world, as a society. More contemporaries need to do that. Unfortunately, in my case, I don't really have the means to do an experimental production. Then you end up writing something that can be done in limited means and I don't want to do theatre like that.

Why do you think you don't have the means?

If I must confess, I don't know how it would function - doing all the backend things, securing finances.

What is the answer? Do you think we need to have a venue in Mumbai where they incubate experimental, progressive plays?

Recently, we - Yugandhar, Siddharth, I - have been talking a lot about it. We need to have this space which is alive, where there are workshops, people coming and talking about theatre, reading out their scripts, which others are loving, hating, getting offended by, whatever. Now, what happens is, for someone who stays in Borivali, if a center like this is in Dadar, they are not going to go there daily. The answer cannot be just one center, but decentralized small pockets where students who are doing ekankikas could come and get mentored by professionals. There, you could have workshops, screenings of foreign plays, something that would shake up their sensibilities.

But even if we get someone to provide the finances, running it is going to be difficult. Someone like me can be one artiste in that collective. I can't be the manager. They say that you don't give the keys of the asylum to the lunatics. It's very difficult to find someone who will want to manage such a center without getting paid for it. I may do it for creative satisfaction. But what will the manager do it for?

Are you reading any interesting scripts right now?

I am working on my own plays right now. There's a drama, I think it's the first time that I am writing in that genre. I don't know how it will shape up, but yeah. Yugandhar is writing something too. He is a playwright that I am in love with and am jealous of. He is a good friend of mine. I identify with his sense of writing because I believe that play writing is not about the dialogue. There are too many playwrights who write these great flowery lines, create obvious conflict. But Yugandhar is someone who writes layered things, straight dialogue. That appeals to me because as a director, I get to interpret things, work with it so much more.

Can you talk about your writing process?

In the beginning, it takes time to kick off. If I write one page, that would be a good day. Somewhere in the middle, I am writing a scene a day. And towards the end, it's two-three scenes. I am awake past midnight, having 10 cups of coffee, typing away. If I write 4-5 days a week, I am happy. The first draft, I show to my wife. She is not from the industry, so she has this way of reading it very neutrally. She is also my biggest critic. I sulk for a while but then realize she is right. I make sure I hear my first draft read aloud. I understand my own play if someone else reads it. If my wife is busy, I call a couple of my friends over to read it. I don't give them story or context beforehand. When they read it like that, they are present in the moment. Then if it feels fresh, creates the desired impact, I know I am on the right track.

I am a different person as a writer and as a director. When I am the director, I have to think about how I am going to show what is written. When I am doing both, I value the interpretation of a third person. Then I consciously don't do the sets. For AAMNE SAMNE, I asked Pradeep (Muley) sir to do it. I really admire him. I have learnt a lot from just observing his sets. Something about the way he divides his space, his sense of color, aesthetic vision, etc.

Is there any set of his that you particularly admired?

There was this play called DON SPECIAL. It starred Jitendra Joshi and Girija Oak. It's a journalist's office. And he had created this 80s' printing press. It was brilliant. You are instantly in that world. Then there was a Norwegian play that I saw once. They had come to Kalina where I was studying. I didn't really understand the play, but the sets were phenomenal. They had created 2-3 circular platforms and arranged them in a geometric pattern. At some point you forgot that it was a pattern. It became part of the world of the play. Then there were images of these larger-than-life plays staged in the US with multi-storied sets. I loved those.

*Neha Shende is an avid theatre-goer and enjoys watching old Bollywood movies in her free time.

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