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‘My plays are what they are’

Mahesh Dattani is in town for a series of events — a five-day acting workshop, an adda session on his plays, a screening of one of India’s first gay films and the launch of his book, Me and My Plays. Metro spoke to the Sahitya Akademi award-winning playwright, a while ago, on his plays and his experiences of cities and theatre. Excerpts:

You once said that “the audience have to finish in their own heads what the playwright began”. What is it that you start in your new play, The Big Fat City?

The Big Fat City is not a family drama in the mould that I am used to writing. It is a breakaway play for me. It is, in fact, three stories set in the city that merge on one eventful night.

Mahesh Dattani and (top) a scene from his play, The Big Fat City

The play is an outsider’s perspective of Mumbai. I moved there from Bangalore several years ago. In a strange way, it’s the only home I have now and yet I am a stranger. The city too feels strange to me at times and most familiar at others.

The play seeks, in a comic mode, to reveal who we are when we are faced with adversities that compel us to act. The choice of our actions, reveal our true nature. We all wear masks — social masks, professional masks, attitude masks. What is interesting is when the masks drop unexpectedly and we show our “true colours” so to speak. I think this was brilliantly dealt with in Life of Pi .My play is more of a black comedy and takes those choices to surreal levels.

Black humour is a difficult genre, especially if your audiences are not too familiar with it. Plenty of situations require a degree of sobriety and decorum. Death can never be taken lightly in real life. Yet, in black comedy, it is possible to offer a psychological distance through comedy of dark subjects.

What do you mean by Big Fat? Would Calcutta also fit the bill?

I think the name sort of sums it up — you can look at fat as obese or fat as enormous or large or grand. The city resonates differently to different people — some people see it as exciting and glamorous, some see it as ugly in some ways.

In my romantic image of Calcutta, the city is not as flashy or showy as Mumbai. I think Calcutta and also Kolkata is a city that offers an urban side to Bengal. It belongs to Bengalis primarily and rightfully represents the sophistication of old-world Bengal.

However, Mumbai is a city for aspiring people from across the country. It is only after I moved there that I considered myself a professional dramatist. Dance Like a Man celebrated its 470th show recently. I have had more audiences seeing my plays than many films! My plays Where Did I Leave My Purdah and 30 Days in September had a phenomenal run. This is possible only in Mumbai!

How did you begin writing plays?

When I started my theatre group Playpen in Bangalore, my initial productions were plays from the West. At some point I wanted to direct plays that reflected my own milieu. So I tried my hand at writing plays. The first play I wrote, Where There’s a Will in 1986, was received with great enthusiasm. So that encouraged me to write Dance Like a Man and so on....

How confident were you of the success of The Big Fat City?

My producer Ashvin Gidwani loved the concept. This is the first play I wrote especially for Ashvin Gidwani Productions. Usually I write for Lilette Dubey’s group. The play opened (last year) in Mumbai and the response has been very, very encouraging. I am confident this play will do well.

In The Big Fat City you use screen projections of mobile text messages to reveal the inner thoughts of the characters. What do you think of this use of technology in theatre? Is it really necessary?

Technology is a part of our lives and has entered theatre a long time ago. We live in a world where we use technology almost every moment, so I think it is a true reflection of our times.

Is writing in English an advantage or a disadvantage? In India does it make your plays accessible to a particular class of audience? The humour in The Big Fat City has struck some as that of the “insulated” affluent who don’t have to worry about EMIs etc….

One doesn’t write in a language thinking of its advantages or disadvantages. One writes in a way one can be most expressive. There is no rule that you have to write in a language that is popular. This play is about pretensions. The very assumption of people that affluent people don’t have to worry about EMIs is disproved in the play! (I can’t reveal more of the plot).

Do you sometimes wish to write in a regional language?

Sometimes I wish I could write in Hindi (which is not a regional language).

As a writer in English do you also have to keep your Western audience in mind?

No. I keep my urban Indian audiences in mind. If I were to keep Western audiences in mind, I would write about poverty and not affluence in our culture.

Do you find the current Bengali theatre scene encouraging?

I’m happy when young Bengalis read my plays and speak about the themes with passion. Many colleges in Bengal teach my plays which is a sign that Bengal is opening up to arts and theatre from other parts.

How do you see your role in theatre? Which is your best, most perfect play till date?

I have an ongoing affair with theatre. I love every aspect of it. I am happy to be creative and productive. But I am also happy being a mentor and guide. That is the reason I like to travel to universities and conduct workshops.

I don’t think any work of art is “perfect”. Perfection requires a certain frame of reference with which we judge things and grade them. Art does not encourage such a frame of reference in my opinion. My plays are what they are!