A shy college girl from Greater Noida in Uttar Pradesh has something to brag to her friends. On a visit to Mumbai, she found an actor from a famous television series on Tinder and swiped right. “He called me home. I went and he tried to get intimate. After a while, I felt what we were doing was not correct and told him to stop,” she says.
A 19-year-old boy has a different problem. His girlfriend in college gave him two boxes on Valentine’s Day, one of chocolates, the other of condoms. “When are you going to use them?” she asks, in front of the entire class, to his horror and embarrassment.
These are some of the conversations that theatre director Feisal Alkazi, founder of 47-years-old Ruchika Theatre Group in Delhi, has been having with young adults. “You can’t believe how many teenagers are walking on a razor’s edge in the age of dating apps. Some of them are in their 14th or 15th relationship,” says Alkazi, 64.
The play he made on the subject, Splendor in the Grass, a takeoff from the 1961 Oscar-winning Hollywood film directed by Elia Kazan on sexual repression and its repercussions, centres on a boy and a girl in the final year of high school who are in love but stay off sex. Performed by the Shri Ram Centre Repertory, the play opened in December and attempted to start an uncomfortable conversation — about the sex lives of children.
Alkazi’s plays document interpersonal anxieties in an evolving society, touching upon topics that are delicate, complex and unspoken. In Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool, Dark Place (2008), for instance, he revealed the rampant adultery in upper middle-class Delhi and challenged inherited perceptions about the sanctity of marriage. Since 2015, the Sheena Bora murder case has been at the back of his mind and he has done improvisations at theatre workshops on the idea of a woman killing her daughter to keep her away from the money.
“Many of my plays emerge from what I read in the newspapers or encounter in real life, working with students or counselling people at Sanjivani Society for Mental Health in Delhi,” he says.
Every time Alkazi is concerned about the world, he makes a play on it. “I have never done a play that I don’t think is socially relevant. I have never done a play for simple entertainment value. I am happy to go and see entertaining plays but would I spend a month rehearsing the play? I don’t think so. Theatre is, for me, a mirror to society. As a director, I ask the audience, ‘This is how I see the world, do you see it like this as well?’” he says.
If theatre is a language of conversation for him, it’s because he learnt it early. The son of the doyen of Indian theatre, Ebrahim Alkazi, and Roshan Padamsee Alkazi, he belongs to a family that has influenced how generations of actors perform on stage and screen. He was born around the time his father was blinding himself on stage as Oedipus Rex in 1954. He grew up in a house without walls, with an unbroken view of the Mumbai sea through the glass, and an open-air theatre called Meghdoot, designed by his father, on the floor above. Costumes and props were made at home and Ebrahim practised his lines for Waiting for Godot in the bathroom. “He thought it was soundproof but we could hear every word of what he said,” says Alkazi. When his parents staged performances, he and his sister Amal Allana, who became chairperson, National School of Drama (NSD) in 2007-08, would be cast in bit roles. “I was murdered child number one in Medea and a soldier in another play,” says Alkazi.
For most of 2019, he has been working on a memoir and realised that his backstory is so long that he is born only in chapter 11. He was nine, when the family moved to Delhi, where Ebrahim became director of the NSD, in 1962. Apart from immersing himself in the art and culture scene of the capital, as he grew up in the homes of artists Tyeb Mehta and Krishan Khanna and photographer Habib Rehman, among others, Alkazi was drawn into the vibrant cultural world of Modern School, Barakhamba. The school, with MN Kapur as principal, has produced some of the biggest names of culture, such as Maya Krishna Rao, Anuradha Kapur, Anamika Haksar, Pablo Bartholomew and Ram Rahman. Om and Sudha Shivpuri, the stalwarts of Ebrahim’s theatre, taught Hindi and created plays with the children. “After we left school in 1972, we said, ‘Let’s start our own group and that’s how Ruchika stared,” says Alkazi.
Does living among legends stifle a child’s voice? When he started his theatre, Alkazi had said, “I don’t want these old fogeys teaching me anything. I never went to NSD.” He launched on a spree of absurdist plays, such as He Left Home (1974), The Maids (1983) and Rhinoceros (1977). Politics was beginning to change, and Ruchika Theatre reflected this in plays such as Vijay Tendulkar’s Gidhare in 1974, about a family that won’t hesitate to kill one another for property, and Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq in 1975 about an eccentric king.
When Emergency was declared in 1975, Ruchika was staging Striptease, in which two middle-class men are killed by a woman. “After the first show, the producer said we can’t stage it any more as he feared a political backlash,” says Alkazi. Ruchika’s second play to be banned was Bhutto, based on Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s If I am Assassinated and directed by Arun Kukreja. “Coincidentally, we were to stage it the day General Zia ul Haq was to arrive in Delhi. When we were not allowed to stage the play, we went to court. The judge took one look at the script and said, ‘There is no way you are doing this,’” he says. But they staged it anyway, at a prominent Delhi auditorium, where critics and guests were snuck in through the back door and sat in the wings.
Over the last decade, Alkazi’s plays have addressed the personal conflicts of individuals. In 2017, he staged The Dark Road, based on a chapter of novel by Chinese author Ma Jian, about a couple that must kill their foetus to abide by the one-child policy. “While that play showed how state controls private lives, I believe that the personal is also very political,” he says. Alkazi’s other group, Little Actors’ Club, that works with performers above 10 years of age, explores how social issues affect children.
“I haven’t done escapist fare with children,” he says. He set Alibaba and Forty Thieves in 1997 in the commercial maze of Gurgaon malls. In 1999, he had made a play on Anne Frank. “ I thought the problem was over. In the new millennium, we wouldn’t have the kind of issues that Anne Frank suffered from. How wrong I was,” he says. At present, his children’s group is working on Anne Frank again, which, one young actor believes, resonates with the increasing Islamophobia across the world. “It is interesting to work with children in the formative years. This is the generation that will be in positions of power in future and create, I hope, a better world,” he says.
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