Of the six plays of Prithviraj Kapoor available today, why did you choose to revive Deewar (1945), an allegorical play about foreigners who drive a wedge in a happy joint family that welcomes them as their guest, for Prithvi Theatre’s 40th anniversary celebrations?
Deewar was the first script (of Prithviraj Kapoor) that I read (a while ago), and I immediately felt drawn to it. But I thought I should read all the available six plays written by him before taking a final call about which one I should direct. But yes, eventually I went back to Deewar. I was fascinated by the use of allegory to tell the story of colonisation and Partition. The way the writers had placed these ideas within a joint Indian family seemed very revealing of a particular kind of politics of the time, and provided me an entry to the text in 2018. The original play Deewar, when it opened in August 1945, at Royal Opera House, faced censorship as it critiqued the British government’s divisive policies.
What are the challenges that the play posed given that it was written in the 1940s?
At the most fundamental level, the original text needed to be edited to a length (of nearly two hours) that we are more comfortable with today. The language of the original is very dramatic and, in portions, the style is almost declamatory. We had to find a way into this style without it sounding archaic. But the most difficult challenge was to find a contemporary context. I had an idea to begin with, but it was the enormous contribution of our academic collaborators, Aditya Nigam, Vaibhav Abnave, Kaustubh Nayak, and Sharmistha Saha that opened possibilities for us to connect the play with the contemporary time (the play has interludes when two sutradhars come and contextualise it for the audience). Then it was the very hard work put in by young writers Abhinav Grover and Nikhita Singh. The play reflects the narrative of the upper class in which other narratives get lost. To arrive at this understanding took a lot of reading and discussions as we wanted to see what Deewar represented in its own time.
You have woven in information about the play, its context and other details — a style you tried in Loretta (2016). Is it your way of packing in social commentary?
It was important to locate the original play within its context, and also look for its contemporary relevance. Deewar is very much a product of its time, especially since it was a strong response to what was happening in India at that moment in history. We had to find how it could also be relevant to what is happening today. Also, stepping in and out of a play is an accepted theatrical device and is used in many forms of theatre, including tiatr (a Goan musical theatre form) which inspired Loretta.
Along with the original one, you offer an alternative ending in your version of Deewar, where people from the lower strata of society speak of electing their leader.
On reading Deewar, what struck us was how often a particular historical narrative makes invisible many other narratives which also existed at the same time. So an upper-class, upper-caste narrative often does not give voice to lower-caste, lower-class narratives. This is an objective reality and we felt this was important to talk about. Once you challenge the dominant narrative, it is possible to suggest alternative outcomes, and that is what we were trying to do. I believe this makes history more inclusive and truthful.
There was much opposition to your getting the Sangeet Natak Akademi award last year. How do you look at it?
It was made clear that the decision by the Sangeet Natak Akademi to award me for theatre direction was being opposed because of the politics of my work. The Sangeet Natak Akademi stood its ground and indicated that the awards committee had arrived at its decision with care and responsibility. The opposition was thus neutralised, and the controversy died. It was that simple. I didn’t take this personally at all.
What does the award signify for you?
It’s a recognition of the kind of theatre some of us have been practising consistently and against some odds.
You have always practised a theatre of dissent. In the present climate, how do you view your role as an artist?
Dissent has a role at all times, but in the current situation the state has no patience with, and, is aggressively hostile to, anyone opposing it, or presenting alternative ways of looking at important issues. This makes it urgent for all of us to preserve the idea of dissent and not surrender whatever space that remains.
You have devoted so many years to doing theatre but cracked your way with Cotton 56, Polyester 84 (2007). How was the journey till then?
The first two decades of my career were very important. That was time well spent understanding the medium, working with texts written by very skillful writers like Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Elkunchwar and Shanta Gokhale. But I needed to find my own voice, and that’s what happened in the subsequent period. Cotton 56, Polyester 84, written by Ramu Ramanathan, allowed me to use whatever I had learnt from making documentary films and doing theatre. Since the play was based on research about the marginalisation of the mill workers of Mumbai, it had a sense of real history and people. To give it fictional form, I used a lot of techniques that I had learnt while making documentary films. Most importantly, it gave me clarity regarding what I was going to talk about as a theatre director.
You have been sharing posts in support of Naseeruddin Shah. How important is it for the artist community to speak up?
Speaking out is something we do. Our work tends to be that. We don’t have to have the same politics. When we sense something is wrong or some sort of injustice or oppressiveness, it is our duty to speak about it. That’s what some of us have tried to do through our work. Film stars have a huge following and their words carry a lot of weight. It would make such a huge impact if they spoke out. In theatre, people are creating work that questions even though you could say that more would be welcome. I, personally, would like to see more work that reflects social reality.
What do you plan in the coming years?
Four years ago, we set up Tamaasha Theatre as a new company to work on projects that widened our definition of theatre. We set up our own little studio space in Andheri, where we are trying to make connections between other performing arts, academia, research, language cultures and, to some extent, film. It’s been a roller coaster, but I don’t know how long we can sustain this financially.
I am very excited to be doing Girish Karnad’s classic text Tale-Danda (Kannada) in Hindi, translated by Ramgopal Bajaj. It deals with a very important historical period in Karnataka when Basava, the 12th century philosopher-poet, dared to imagine a society free of caste, and gender discrimination. I felt it has an urgent relevance to our time.
Deewar will be staged at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai, at 9 pm on January 8 and 5 pm and 8.30 pm on January 9-10.