Nona means ‘lie’ in English,” says Kerala director Jino Joseph about the title of his latest Malayalam play, “because, nowadays, we are living in a world of fabrications, from misinformation and fake news to beef bans and anthems in cinemas”. Nona has been shortlisted for the prestigious Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Award 2018 (META) and will contend with nine others from across India in categories, such as Best Production, Best Director, and Best Script. Joseph won in these categories in META 2015 for Mathi, which means sardine (in Malayalam) and used the humble fish to explore the effects of capitalism on a village in Kerala. Mathi also got lead actor Renji Kankol, a former fish seller, a Best Actor. As he prepares to bring Nona to Delhi in April, Joseph talks about the underside of liking your country.
How does it feel to be back on the META stage?
Winning the META in four categories was a very big achievement for me. My parents were agricultural labourers in a remote village in Kannur and I grew up with theatre. The ’80s and ’90s were good times for professional and commercial theatre in Kerala as temples and churches would have plays and I used to participate in them. I never thought major awards were for people like me. The META gave a twist to my theatre career. In Kerala, only two or three people have got this award earlier.
You work with non-professional actors in your plays, including Nona.
For Nona, I have selected a rural theatre group from Calicut district of Kerala. The performers are beginners, who have created a group called Black Theatre. The actors are daily labourers, farmers and some work in small shops. I used to teach but am full-time into theatre now.
What is the narrative in Nona?
Prashant is the hero-cum-villain of this play. His father is a very poor labourer, who works hard and has his own political views. Prashant has studied and now set up an advertising agency. He has put forward a proposal to the government to make a film to spread the word that India is shining. His proposal has got approved and he starts pre-production work for it. In the beginning of the play, Prashant draws a map of India on the courtyard with the help of tribal people. When they ask for wages, he says that this was a part of helping the country so they did not have to be paid.
What is the role of Renji Kankol, your Best Actor from Mathi?
He plays a magician. Prashant has two aides — a magician and a goon. In the beginning, when Prashant tries to organise people for the shoot of the ad film, he fails. This is when the magician enters the picture and he shows some tricks that enchant people. Slowly, people get attracted to him and Prashant gets an entry into their minds. The magician tells the public, ‘If you stay with Prashant collectively, he can make bigger magic for you’. He is an illusionist who makes people believe.
How have you recreated rural Kerala in Nona?
Nona is big and heavy when it comes to sets and technical aspects. The entire stage is like a sloping platform that moves in different directions carrying the cast of almost 25 actors. The platform is also a moving one, turning up and down with the actors. When it goes up with the characters, we can use the lower portion of the platform. We are using four or five hens in the play. After drawing the map of India, Prashant appoints his younger brother to restrict all the hens and other animals from entering the map. The problem starts there.