Mahesh Dattani needs no introduction. Suffice it to say that the release of his new book, Me and My Plays featuring his latest works triggers this conversation. By Sayan Bhattacharya.
From the time when the whole discourse around Indian writing in English stridently centred around authenticity to today when English has been accepted as another Indian language… in fact Dance Like A Man has been even translated in Odiya, how has the journey been?
There are a lot of things that we take which is good that we just assume that you know writing in English is no longer an oddity that you are not a curiosity. But when I began it definitely – see, I didn’t understand the politics of language. I wanted to do theatre and I wanted to write and I wrote in the language I knew well, which was Indian English. Its only after my plays were noticed that’s when I was invited to certain talks and that was where the question about why do you write in English came up and this whole thing about it is superficial and you can’t really get the fragrance and root of the Indian culture right writing in English and stuff like that. Those things kind of put me into wondering as to what am I doing. Fortunately for me, my passion kind of overroad that and I continued doing what I am doing but even so, having said that Indian English is accepted as an Indian language and the positive sign that it is being translated into other Indian languages is good but there is still this whole thing of definitions of vernaculars and English, and English and bhasha, whatever way you want to look at it, basically it just shows the mentality may not have changed so much in the academia although we as Indians express ourselves in English and we conduct discourses in English, the bulk of our academic work is in English, it’s still considered as an alien language which it isn’t. I think it needs its time, people will accept the fact that it’s an Indian language just like Urdu is an Indian language; that too had its colonial origins, it’s not native to India. God knows what language is native, Sanskrit is native to India, you can even ask that question and I am sure anthropologists and historians differ on that as to where it came and all that stuff. So I think I would rather leave myself out of those debates, that’s not my job, and quite frankly, I care very little about what kind of status people want to give the language.
It is like English draws upon so many sources, not just Greek and Latin but also Sanskrit and Hindi and French for sure, I am sure from other languages as well. That is seen as an appropriation but if we appropriate the language, it is seen as a symbol of our colonial past. In a sense that is also locating us in the colonial past. It is not seen as language appropriation, whereas language is appropriated and very few instances where language has been thrust upon people and it may have worked for a little while but ultimately it is organic.
But isn’t it paradoxical in the sense that our academia draws so much from Western theorists…
Precisely, in fact that seems to be more the problem is that with the Western theorists it is the language of the colonials hence they would always see it as a colonial language. But they don’t understand that the language is porous, that there is so much cross-pollination that you are not really looking at the complexities of languages, of its origins. It is like English draws upon so many sources, not just Greek and Latin but also Sanskrit and Hindi and French for sure, I am sure from other languages as well. That is seen as an appropriation but if we appropriate the language, it is seen as a symbol of our colonial past. In a sense that is also locating us in the colonial past. It is not seen as language appropriation, whereas language is appropriated and very few instances where language has been thrust upon people and it may have worked for a little while but ultimately it is organic. Now it’s a language of choice. English is a language of choice for many Indians who don’t speak it as a first language but choose to speak English for whatever reasons.
But we continue to call our other languages regional…
I don’t know about these regional versus English and vernacular versus English. Every language has a region, it’s attached to a region. The fact that we are speaking English in Jaipur, in Delhi or Kolkata, it is regional.
What does it mean for a writer to have his compilation of his works out?
Well, it’s good. I mean, there is a sense of accomplishment for sure. For playwrights, it’s a little scary because in the theatre you are used to fluidity, you are used to changing things. If I direct a production of one of my plays now, I might want the liberty of changing things but having it published sets it in stone in a way and that can be a little daunting.
How does it set it in stone?
Because people use that as an index, they’ll say, but in the original text, it is not so. Then you lose the fluidity. Theatre relies on that fluidity.
There are references, which may be overlooked, for instance when Nazia tells her husband that, “You want to control my life, you want to tell me what to do, but I am not going to let you do it because there are so many women in theatre that allowed that to happen and allowed men to destroy them and I will not allow you to do that.” That is obviously that is inspired from Gauhar Jan, whereas with Zohra that is not the case, the men in her life didn’t ruin her, I mean, I am sure she has had her share of vicissitudes.
But that’s not specific to a compilation. If a play came out as a single book, that is also set in stone.
That is right. I was talking about being published in general. Compilation, I don’t know, I mean I have had two volumes being compiled and each one sort of –it almost seemed like an attempt of fossilizing me (laughs). This is his ouvre, this is what he’s achieved, but then wait, I am still productive, so there’s more and more and more… so in that sense, I feel triumphant that I have defied being compiled (laughs).
Coming to some of your specific works, I watched Where Did I Leave My Purdah a few months back, and I had a couple of observations. Firstly, I could get the fact that despite all the darkness and the gloom that the characters go through, ultimately there is this celebration of theatre and celebration of cinema, coming in the centenary year of Indian cinema. So was the play keeping that in mind?
Aah! That’s an interesting observation! I never thought of that.
Because of the partition, so much of the talent from cinema went to the other side. For instance, someone like Manto and partition forms the crux of the play. So I was making that connection…
I don’t know about the celebration of cinema, but it definitely is a celebration of life and of theatre. In the play, theatre stands for; it is a metaphor for life. I guess you are right… although there is the personal trauma of separation, of loss, of violation and everything on account of the partition; it is still a celebration of life.
There is an incident I had witnessed but that will be off the record! For me, more than anything else, it was to show how astute observation is of people. When he says, “I’ m not gay” and she goes, “Bechara, you don’t even know that you are gay!”
Celebrating theatre actors; veteran theatre actors like Zohra Sehgal… what kind of research and what kind of references did you have in mind?
Well, I used Zohra and there was Nati Binodini in a very oblique way, of course. There was also Lillete (Dubey) herself, she is a living legend herself and a diva! No less than Zohra Sehgal in that way, I guess. These were the references; a little bit of Gauhar Jan and there was all that stuff which I read and everyone sort of points a finger at Zohra; it is very simplistic to draw those conclusions. Zohra is one of the inspirations.
Could you talk about Binodini, and Gauhar Jan specifically? What aspects of their lives drew you?
The fact that they were very early in our tradition of theatre and these were women who stood out as performers by their sheer talent but at the same time, had to face marginalization in some way. Like with Nati Binodini, it was marginalization on so many accounts; first of all, being in the theatre, being a woman, being a low caste… at the same time, they were stars, who had a fan following, who had appreciation. Gauhar Jan, her pictures appeared on matchboxes and every household had her vinyl records, which came out with HMV. All of them led life in retrospect in their old age. Zohra is the one I have taken inspiration from, where there is a celebration of life; even at 101 she is celebrating life whereas, I don’t know about Nati Binodini, but Gauhar Jan had quite a miserable ending. There are references, which may be overlooked, for instance when Nazia tells her husband that, “You want to control my life, you want to tell me what to do, but I am not going to let you do it because there are so many women in theatre that allowed that to happen and allowed men to destroy them and I will not allow you to do that.” That is obviously that is inspired from Gauhar Jan, whereas with Zohra that is not the case, the men in her life didn’t ruin her, I mean, I am sure she has had her share of vicissitudes. I know you want specifics, but that is not the way inspiration works for me. It is hard for me to say that this is a reflection; it is a spring board rather than anything.
With the exploitative relationship that Girish Ghosh shared with Binodini…
That’s right. I am sure that’s true of Gulab Bai also, that all of them were vulnerable when it came to personal relationships because of their public stature and their resultant loneliness in their personal lives, so in that sense, in some way, maybe they brought it upon themselves; the exploitation.
The structure of the play, so intricately woven, play within a play, time, moving back, forward, did you ever feel that you were packing in a lot into one single play? There is partition, theatre, these relationships; the mother- daughter, the niece-aunt, there is so many things happening at a multi-dimensional level; the veteran theatre actress who is not being respected in cinema, so one could draw a strand out of that as well…
That’s true. You are right, there is quite a bit packed in there. But if you are looking at an 80 year old character who started living life at the age of 19, then you are bound to have the highs and lows, many other complexities, relationships and things. I think that all artists’ relationships are very complex because there is this constant conflict between… because your professional life is also your personal life, that you put yourself not only in your relationships but also in your work. So, those lines get blurred and for somebody else, it might be too much to handle or cope with.
Another interesting element I felt was the thing at the end – the gender fluidity, breaking gender rules has been an interesting refrain through your body of work and here, Vinay’s character at the end, crosses his legs and stands. How did you think of introducing that little detail there?
Actually, I just used that to show how sharp Nazia is. There is an incident I had witnessed but that will be off the record! For me, more than anything else, it was to show how astute observation is of people. When he says, “I’ m not gay” and she goes, “Bechara, you don’t even know that you are gay!”
Going to 30 days in September, the way you deal with sexual abuse there and it’s very complex in the sense that pleasure and pain, the way they interlink in very complicated ways. The whole recent discourse around sexual abuse, I have personally felt that we are talking too much about law but law may not be the only language to talk about-
Certainly not! Law is there for justice and to prevent these kind of violations but that’s not the story, is it?
True. Section 377. We are talking about review petitions and how homosexuality can be legally decriminalized. We are not talking about pleasure, we are not talking about desire, we are not talking about my right to have sex the way I want to and which if the state monitors, is an infringement of my rights. Do you have a critique of the way the whole discourse around sexuality has developed?
Well, I don’t think that even if that Section is repealed… does it really make a difference? Because it doesn’t mean that people can live openly. It’s society isn’t it? I mean, what you said about the right to live your life the way you want to, or the way that is akin to your nature, that can only come with social recognition and social acceptance. So the law is not going to bring about that. In fact, the law is a reflection of that social rejection of anything apart from the norm.
From the time when you made Mango Soufflé to now, do you think it would have been easier for you to get the film released and get a better audience reception?
Oh, ya! Now because it has become sensational and for those reasons it should be released, but I remember when it was out; PVR refused to screen it in any of their cinemas and they backed out at the last minute because they obviously didn’t even know what the film was about when they booked the release dates. Then when they saw the film or came to know through the papers, they said, “We are not going to release it.”
And so they actually called the Vice chancellor of Bangalore University, I don’t know why he was not on the Censor Board, because they said, “Sir what do we do with this film?” So we had another screening with the censor board and the VC and he was a friend of mine, you know. He said, “Oh! Yes! I know the play and have read the play, congratulations it’s very well done” and all that then he just turned, “What is your problem?” (laughs)They said, “We don’t have any problem.”
And you faced some censorship problems as well around that period?
You know, not really, because I think it’s probably the way I handled it. I sat with the censors at the Karnataka Censor Board when they saw it and they were very polite and they said because I’d just a couple of years before I had won the Sahitya Academy Award they were just confused as to how to handle this, one of them even said it’s very sensitively handled and they said, “The only thing is are you okay with leaving out the kiss and the swimming pool scene because they are nude over there?”
And I said, “Tell me one thing, is it in anyway insulting women, is it being derogatory to women, those are the reasons why you would object to an explicit scene, right?” And I said that it isn’t right and it doesn’t in anyway become derogatory to men because men in the nude is not, man doesn’t lose face in that sense (laughs). So I used that tactic and that sort even made them more confused as to what to do with that scene. And so they actually called the Vice chancellor of Bangalore University, I don’t know why he was not on the Censor Board, because they said, “Sir what do we do with this film?” So we had another screening with the censor board and the VC and he was a friend of mine, you know. He said, “Oh! Yes! I know the play and have read the play, congratulations it’s very well done” and all that then he just turned, “What is your problem?” (laughs)They said, “We don’t have any problem.” They finally gave it an A because of nudity, I was okay with that because I knew in any case it’s never going to be shown on television.
So it was only after the Vice Chancellor’s sanction that it was deemed okay?
It got an A certificate which I knew it would, it was passed for release, so it wasn’t the censor problem at all. I felt that the Censor Board was very helpful in that sense. One part of me was hoping they would kick up a fuss it would be good publicity, you know, then you sort of go to the press and they would be writing about it but unfortunately that didn’t happen they were all very nice. The problem was with the release PVR just refused and this was 2001, I think I’m not too sure.
So when PVR refused, how did you go about it?
Well it was released in some theatres but there was no publicity about it in Karnataka and I think in Bombay as well. I’m not sure about Kolkata. I don’t think it was released there. It was a mixed response, I think. The public screenings were disastrous because people didn’t know what to expect and at that time it was such an odd thing. But again predictably the international festivals sort of picked it up because of the novelty of being a gay film out of India. So it did very well in the London film festival because it was in the pick of the best, so which means they sent it for screenings in 28 theatres across UK, so it did well there. Then I attended a couple of screenings in London, they were quite well received and Italy and somewhere it won some award, I forget, I wasn’t even there. My producer just called me and said that they want to know where to mail the award then I said you keep it they he said okay.
Why do you feel so detached from the film?
I don’t know I think I was disappointed because firstly I didn’t want it for an international audience I wanted the people here to see it I feel that’s where it would make a difference. I really don’t see how it speaks to an international audience where you do not make a film on homosexuality but you make a film with gay characters. So yeah I got a little detached and I think I still am a little detached. That’s probably the reason why I haven’t pushed it and shown it to colleges. I mean it’s so easy for me to do because I am going everywhere in any case. And everyone is writing papers on the play and the queer quality in my writing and all that, sure enough they always put On a Muggy Night in Mumbai and Mango Soufflé out in front. So it’s very easy for me to do it but then I’d rather have somebody else do it because I feel I have moved on. I feel for me what I’m working currently is what interests me.
Okay, since you say that you don’t make films on homosexuality you make films on homosexual characters, what’s your take on the way Bollywood portrays this issue today? For instance I remember this interview with Randeep Hooda, just after Bombay Talkies had released and he said that if one can play a smuggler or dacoit, one can also play a gay character! So the analogy there… the film while it broke some stereotypes, created some more about the homebreaker…
Yea that’s there. Because no matter how either you pretend it’s cool and it’s like playing a cop or like all the things he said, which is fine as it is one step in the right direction. But still, why are we playing a homosexual, you know the character has other identities, other needs and wants and things. It is a very tricky thing because the minute your character is gay, it needs an explanation. Because the idea is so new to mainstream society that you can’t just have a character who is gay and is going on with some other issue. Maybe it is a story about him aspiring to be an accountant and the struggles he faces and stuff like that and he has a lover and there’s a conflict there. You can’t have a story like that because “Oh, He’s Gay!” Why aren’t we talking about him being gay.
But haven’t you felt that in metro cities the awareness has increased to such an extent that we have advertisements targeting the queer community like a Fastrack or a Vodafone commercial?
Yeah it is bound to happen because the minute they feel there’s a market there, pink money. So the pink rupee has yet to make its presence felt but they know that there is a market out there and I think this is where the gay lobby, no matter how small it may seem is really it goes to show powerful it is and it’s the kind of relentless work that gay activists are doing that we have so much sensitivity and awareness today.
You can’t do Hamlet because it plays for four hours. Your audience will not sit through it. They will walk out even before the interval, not because Hamlet isn’t a great play but the audiences don’t have that time, they don’t have that stamina to keep their attention for so long.
Yet it doesn’t really get reflected in the mainstream media or cinema.
Well you see even if you look at European cinema or Hollywood cinema or whatever where this is something which has been politically raised since the 60s, you still have very very few films with protagonists who are gay. Like you had the token black guy, the token gay guy or the token Indian.
Coming back to your plays… I was watching this interview of yours with Karan Thapar where you shared this very interesting anecdote about watching a Gujarati play and this character points a gun at the audience and you were so jolted. The audience being so involved in the play… audience today, when I go to a theatre, the intrusive presence of the mobile phones ringing and people tweeting immediately that this play sucks, or this play is going great, how do you negotiate the changing profile of the audience?
Yes, I think it just puts the pressure on us to engage the audience. I think it is good to take it as a challenge and of course it’s a challenge that has yet to be met. Because no matter whether it is my play or somebody else’s… no matter how engaging the play is there is a section of the audience who are always on their phones. And they think just because it is silent it does not bother others. But it does because you notice the screen and stuff and I think it’s just a question of theatre etiquette and basic manners. I think that is something the audience has to meet halfway.
How would you meet halfway?
Don’t use cell phones.
I mean that is for the audience, but as a playwright how would you meet halfway?
Then you have to acknowledge that the audience’s attention spans have reduced which means then you have incidents and things happening at a quicker pace than it used to and you don’t have expository scenes and you know, reflective moments which require tremendous amount of concentration in terms of depth and time from your audiences because you are not going to get them. You can’t do Hamlet because it plays for four hours. Your audience will not sit through it. They will walk out even before the interval, not because Hamlet isn’t a great play but the audiences don’t have that time, they don’t have that stamina to keep their attention for so long.
So did you have that in mind when you were writing Where Did I leave my Purdah?
Yes because I used that as irony, where I say, she keeps saying it so often that the audiences have an attention span of a sparrow. Even Big Fat City, both of them, because Big Fat City it is about cellphones and messages and things happening.
There it comes in a very direct way..
You also had to face a few problems around the word “purdah”?
Well. It is so funny. But that happened. I don’t know why.
Where Did I Leave My Veil? sounds so funny…
I was appalled when I got it on google alert, you know. I didn’t even know that they changed it and I don’t think even Lilette knew because she would have told me that this is what we have done. Where did I leave my Veil? Seriously? And then even in Dubai they changed it to Where did I leave my Veil because you can’t use the word “purdah” and then went one step further because you could not use the word Hindu or Muslim. You couldn’t use the word Pakistan and India, so you had a character saying, “When we came from the other side and crossed the border…” And when Lilette was telling me this, I was appalled that the actress had to make it up. Of course they rehearsed but they all had to find alternatives because I was not free to look at the script and offer alternatives and I think Lilette was scared that I would say that, “Keep it the way it is or don’t do the shows.” And clearly they were committed to those shows. Then Lilette also told me that it didn’t matter because people understood what was being said and what the references were.
And then even in Dubai they changed it to Where did I leave my Veil because you can’t use the word “purdah” and then went one step further because you could not use the word Hindu or Muslim. You couldn’t use the word Pakistan and India, so you had a character saying, “When we came from the other side and crossed the border…” And when Lilette was telling me this, I was appalled that the actress had to make it up.
So at which places did you encounter such problems?
Just Hyderabad and Dubai. But then it hasn’t been to other sensitive areas.
Do you think that it is time now to revisit or do something with The Final Solution in this political climate?
Yeah I know. It is amazing because recently a group in Bombay did it in Hindi. I was there with an audience, some of them, who were not regular theatre goers, maybe they were friends of the people involved. And it’s still so uncomfortable, the play to a lot of people.
That is exactly what is playing out in the current political climate.
That’s right. The exploitation of these deep seated fears.
If you could just go back into your childhood and the kind of books you grew up reading, playwrights you loved reading and films.
Okay. Music, I was very fond of western pop music. So Beatles, of course, I grew up on the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel and also enjoyed the older Hindi films. That is probably because of my Mum and Dad because we used to go morning shows where they showed older films, like my mum’s generation of films. I have seen films like Devdas, Tansen and stuff like that and these were morning shows and these were films that my Dad had seen as a kid. It was quite interesting, I was quite fascinated by that music. So those were my tastes, nothing very fancy, deep over there. And movies, I remember I loved Hindi movies. As a kid I remember seeing movies like Hatari which I loved. I loved the wildlife, the elephants, the lions. Even films like The Ten Commandments and what not. Those were my earlier films and of course later Sholay was a cult film of my time. The 70’s. And reading, you know I wasn’t much of a reader. So to me reading came much later after my involvement in theatre.
So it happened accidentally.
That’s right. Because we never grew up in an atmosphere of literature. We never had books in the house. So reading was pretty basic like Enid Blyton, Biggles and you know, things like that. Billy Bunter and of course comics like Asterix. I think Asterix came later, I think Tintin. Tintin was quite popular then.
How do you see the English theatre scene evolving today?
It’s evolving, in the sense it is getting something. It is brewing, which is good. It is a good state to be in when things are brewing. I think something exciting will happen. I think it is yet to happen.
What is really stopping that exciting thing from happening in theatre?
I think theatre is a very complex process and again it doesn’t have the kind of… First of all it doesn’t have the kind of narrative voice. With a narrative voice you can transcend many things. Because it has an immediate voice, it terms of dialogue and action, maybe it is to do with our perception of English. We don’t recognise it yet as an artifice, like something you could write a play in English that doesn’t necessarily mean that the characters in reality would speak in English but that’s a language of the art, a language of the audience. In a way perfectly we can accept say, a film set in Bengal where the characters are speaking in Hindi. Or even in a play, which is set in Bengal where the people are speaking Hindi. That is acceptable. But English is somehow, we don’t make that leap. We don’t, that suspension of disbelief that is not met somehow. Because that is our attitude towards the language.
A bit about your scripting. When you started writing Hindi films, you were often asked to create scripts as per the demands of actresses. If you could talk a bit about that maybe and also talk about, are you working on any script now and if things have changed…
Yeah things have changed now, I guess. So it is an exciting time to do cinema. So I guess I have done script consultancy, I have done some scripts where I don’t get the credit but that is also fine. I don’t want the credit for the kind of stuff that they want. It was not as if I was the main writer. I helped them tweak it a little bit and stuff.
What is a script consultant’s work
You sort of tell them where to kick. You say that it is not working, the hero doesn’t have a graph or isn’t doing anything just seems to be like predictable and might want to think of an alternative and just stuff like that.
So you have done stuff for…
Yes. It is very big in Hollywood they call it script doctoring. You have a script doctor who tells you where the script can benefit from some restructuring or rethinking.
So in these times of 200 crore and 500 crore clubs, how do you think the scene has changed?
Well I guess this 100 crore, 200 crore is what catches everybody’s fancy but there are a whole lot of other stuff that is happening. You have Onir making films like I Am, Sujoy Ghosh making films which are commercially very successful but which do not follow the 100 crore paradigm and stuff like that. Then you have something like Ship of Theseus happening and Lunchbox and you have so many other films which are coming up. You have Aparna Sen making Goynar Baksho, stuff like that which are different, exciting and so I guess there is a lot of that happening which is good but the focus is always on the four or five stars and the movies they are making.
So what are you currently working on?
I am working on a musical and I am pretty excited about that. It is at a very initial stage and I need to get out of this touring mode and get down to serious writing.
And anything cooking in cinema?
Well yes maybe. Once I can get down to it, I might actually, there is a script I am very excited about, not written by me, which I think would make a very good film. And I think I would like to pursue that.
Finally, if you could talk a bit about pleasure? What are your guilty pleasures? How do you see pleasure?
For me you know, pleasure is lying down and watching a good movie or listening to music and not thinking of writing. That’s pleasure. That is also my guilty, because I sort of wedge out often especially when I have reached some moment where I have to do some hard creative thinking to get out of a block and that’s when I resist by sort of wedging out. I just finished reading Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue and my friend Juggi Bhasin’s The Terrorist. Right now I am reading Arvind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower.