Sneha Desai
Sneha Desai is among the contemporary generation of theatre makers that is seeking to bring fresher content to the Gujarati stage. Her recent play CODE MANTRA is not only a box-office hit but is also being raved about as a thoughtful and engaging production unlike most of its peers. Her dynamism is apparent in our interview with her.

 By Deepa Punjani

Deepa Punjani (DP): Tell us about your theatre journey to date. When did you first start?

Sneha Desai (SD) : I started my journey by doing inter-collegiate plays and went on to do commercial stage in Gujarati. I debuted on stage in the year 2000 with the play LAJJA TANE MARA SAM, produced by my professor in college, Smt. Amee Trivedi. The play went on to do 365 shows. I enjoyed the process and felt that I had found my calling.

DP: Who are the people who influenced you along the way?

SD: There have been too many people from whom I have imbibed several traits and an amalgamation of all of that makes who I am. I have admired some of my seniors and colleagues for their craft, sincerity, passion, ability to re-invent and their approach towards a subject and all of that has rubbed onto me in different proportions.

DP: Which have been your favourite plays?

SD: I came into the theatre scene so late in life even as a spectator that it seems I have missed out on watching some of the finest gems. Yet, RANGILO, GANDHI VIRUDHH GANDHI, MAREEZ, WELCOME ZINDAGI, 102 NOT OUT are some of the plays that I have truly enjoyed.

DP: Which is the first play you wrote? What made you write it?

SD: My first non-commercial play was MEERA (it won the “Maharashtra Rajya Gujarati Sahitya Academy Vangmay Puraskar” 2014-15 and “Transmedia Award” 2015.) My first commercial outing was the immensely successful KA KANJI NO KA. Writing was something I enjoyed at the side. After my son was born, I took a sabbatical from acting and began writing chiefly as an exercise to be in touch with the industry I loved.
Somehow my plays found takers and the audiences patronized them. It opened an entirely new line of work and joy for me.

DP: Your play BLACKOUT is regarded as one of the more contemporary plays in Gujarati theatre that speaks of a couple's uneasy relationship. While it was selected for the NCPA Vasant Gujarati Natya Utsav, did it have a longer life on the commercial Gujarati stage?

SD: BLACKOUT continues to be regarded as a cult play because it broke so many taboos on the Gujarati stage. We knew that we were experimenting with a very different subject and style of writing and hence chose to premiere at a festival. The response we got at the NCPA gave us immense confidence and we were assured that plays like BLACKOUT had a market. We went on to do 135 shows of the same and earned tremendous goodwill along the way.

DP: CODE MANTRA, your adaptation of the film A Few Good Men, is making waves on the Gujarati stage. It's also a play which you have written and act in. You have a major role in a play that is mostly male-centric. It is remarkable in a sense. When you look back at the preparation and the making of the play, how does it feel?

SD: Again with CODE MANTRA, I knew I was testing uncharted waters. It was a gripping concept and yet we had no clue if it would resonate with the audiences; if they would find it as compelling as I did. The process of writing this play has been a superb learning curve and I had a rare chance to marry art with craft. Such plays are character defining and come once in a while. For the kind of success and following that CODE MANTRA has been bestowed with, we can only give credit to the audience for whole heartedly accepting a play that has none of the trappings of a typical “social” Gujarati play.

The rehearsal period of this play was as much fun as it was a pain. I will remember it as the most gruelling, exhausting, stimulating and enriching period of my career. Being around a team of men, I was pampered and was treated as one of the boys. The team interacted beautifully and inspite of the fun and jokes they never ever undermined my say as the writer of the play.

DP: You have taken care to study military protocol for the play, but it is still in the ambit of a 'larger than life' display of characters and events. However do you think your generation is providing a better alternative to the more cliché shows in Gujarati theatre?

SD: As much as we set out to tell a story that we feel compelled to tell, we cannot, as writers, forget that we are here to entertain an audience. You need to design a product that appeals to almost every member in the audience, as diverse as they may be. It is a tight rope walk. The producer has his money at stake and the team has at stake 6 months of their lifetime which they have chosen to give to your creation. There are certain liberties that one has to take keeping all this in mind. It does not have to be a compromise on quality and at the same time you cannot afford to be to indiscriminately absurd or obtuse in your creation. The current generation of writers, actors and directors are exposed to various mediums, literature, world theatre and culture. I am sure their voice has to reflect all of this. Breaking clichés cannot be an effortful activity. It is long lasting and visible only if it is organic. One cannot consciously set out to make a different creation every time. You have to basically be different to enjoy, create, dish out, and lap up unique content.

DP: Your mantra to stay put in the commercial game of Gujarati theatre?

SD: The audiences are getting more and more vocal about not enjoying repetitive, cheap and double meaning plays. Not that all Gujarati plays are like that, but yes, quite a few are. We need to give the audience our best to sustain their continued patronage. If people are willing to give you three hours of their time on a Sunday evening, it truly means a lot. So you better treat them to something really engaging and worthwhile or risk losing a patron almost forever. The mantra is to never ever take any play or any show lightly. Out of the 800 odd people in the audience, you never know who is judging you, when and how. Quality never goes out of fashion. Give the audience a great story, tell it well, package it appropriately, and you will definitely have an audience.

DP: Your plans ahead...

SD: Theatre is a passion, a calling for me. I somehow feel obligated to work here more than in any other medium. I hope to continue writing and possibly act in some of the plays that offer scope. I wish to bring in fresh, stimulating and emotionally rich content as well as adapt stories of other writers for our audiences. Adaptation is a highly under rated art and is almost construed as copying, which is not the case. So many writers across the world have wonderful stories to tell, in different languages about different cultures. Why should our audience not have access to them? I am here to serve and stay for as long as theatre will have me. Stories in this world are finite but the narratives are infinite. In my case it is a classic case of having too much to say in very little time.

Deepa Punjani is the editor of this website.

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