Vikram Phukan Interview with Deepa Punjani
Playwright and theatre critic Vikram Phukan is opening his new play THOSE LEFT BEHIND THINGS at The Cuckoo Club in Bandra (W). Here, Vikram talks about the play's sensitive subject, its motivation, and of how he negotiates the roles of a theatre-maker on the one hand, and its observer on the other. Vikram has been involved with stage writing for several years and has been reviewing theatre, and writing about it for newspapers like The Hindu, among other publications. He is a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) and is a working committee member of the Indian National Section of the IATC. He has served as a jury member and has been on selection committees for significant theatre festivals in India.

 By Deepa Punjani

Deepa Punjani (DP) : You spent over a year working on THOSE LEFT BEHIND THINGS through ups and downs. Now that the play's premiere is round the corner, how do you feel?

Vikram Phukan (VP): I feel a little relieved now that the finishing line is finally in sight because, for various reasons, it had been a shifting target for some time now. Uncertainty is part of any artistic endeavor, but I also feel that sometimes you should take the time you need to find your feet in a project. Of course, there are lessons learnt, and monumental things to change about my approach, but it has been a valuable experience. In my case, I was lucky to have two committed actors, Rushab and Gandharv, who gave substantial time to the play. We started out with a 'stream of consciousness' monologue of a fictional asylum seeker. It is now a two-hander with so many elements of theatre. Much of that was worked out on the floors. 'The Actor is Present' is an important idea that we've tried to present in the play, which foregrounds the labour and processes of actors.

DP: The play touches upon the crucial subject of asylum seekers that has gained a renewed meaning in our times of intolerance towards immigrants who often have no choice but to leave their countries. How do you tread the lines between reality and fiction in your own exploration of the subject?

VP: The play is fictional, but it has echoes in real-life experiences that only come to us via the sensationalism of the media. It is a series of imagined vignettes, but that is something the actors completely divorced themselves from as they tried to get into the shoes of those who have lived through those experiences. Flitting across time zones and geographies, as most refugees do, can result in extraordinary change, but when we zoomed into the minutiae of individual lives, we discovered subtleties that lay between the lines. We have attempted to capture those ephemeral moments that give us great evidence of a person's character. In the process, a personal narrative does emerge that speaks of resilience and vulnerability, equally.

DP: What led you to this particular choice of subject in its own particular context?

VP: When I lived in Nottingham circa 2004, making sense of the UK's beguiling mix of multiculturalism and insularity, one incident in particular had a lasting impact on me. An Iranian Kurdish refugee, whose application for asylum was in danger of being rejected, had painstakingly stitched his eyes, ears and mouth shut, threatening to set himself on fire if he were to be deported. The drama played out just a few houses away, with the media in full attendance, and I watched it unfold both in the flesh and on television. While the extreme measure was a desperate plea for clemency, it also spoke volumes of the man's gumption to simply survive. I was an immigrant myself, albeit on a work visa, whose position in the country was secured by sheaves and sheaves of paperwork, so it was a stretch to fathom the persuasions of those who could simply tear up their passports at will. Negotiating a borderless world can seem like a bewitching notion, but thoroughfare comes at tremendous personal and material costs. That incident imprinted itself in my mind. The script was written more than ten years later in 2014.

DP: We have had various plays about asylum seekers and displaced people. No doubt the subject remains vital, but how do you see yourself escaping some of the more persistent cliches that bog down subjects like these?

VP: While the play has become as real for us as a piece of documentary theatre or a testimonial, there is also the distance of observation and analysis. We don't have to present the story necessarily to call attention to a plethora of issues, and therefore, I feel, without that agenda at the back of the mind, we can present rounded individuals who are not just victims, but people of agency. Victimhood in theatre is something I struggle with even as a watcher, specially one which seems emotionally manipulative and showcased to generate pity. We have attempted to sidestep this completely.

DP: This may well be your second big project after THE GENTLEMEN'S CLUB. Does that make you nervous?

VP: Well, it is certainly big for me for very personal reasons, although I don't know how it will be received by audiences. All the plays I have been part of, from STORIES IN A SONG with Sunil Shanbag that has done a hundred and twenty shows to LIMBO with Manish Gandhi, which only did three shows, have been important to me. THE GENTLEMEN'S CLUB is such a fun family-like setup with Patchworks. At the end of the day, you need to approach your own work with honesty and conviction.

DP: You have maintained a passionate interest in creating theatre as much as writing about it. How do you see yourself and your work as a maker of theatre on the one hand, and as a reporter and a reviewer on the other?

VP: Well, it's an ecosystem in which these roles have to taken up so I do see myself continuing to write about theatre. I came upon this world as a member of the audience. The thing I did for years on end was watch plays, and then I started writing about them. Sometimes, at festivals, where there is a profusion of great works, like the Edinburgh Fringe, which I religiously attended when I was working in the UK, it struck me that I was living my life almost vicariously through actors and writers and characters. So, creating work for the stage was a natural progression. Of course, beholding a beautiful moment on stage might take just a second, but the labour that goes into creating it, is quite another thing.

*Deepa Punjani has been writing on theatre and performance for close to two decades. She represents the Indian National Section of Theatre Critics, which is part of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) that has over 50 participating countries.

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