Early in the making of his new play, Rihla, theatre director Neel Chaudhuri had a question for his young cast. “What kind of country do you want to live in?” he asked. One of the actors replied, “I want a country with two moons. I don’t know why but I like the idea of two moons.” Another said, “I want less inequality and less harassment based on who you are.” Wearing the roles of fictional youngsters in the play, the performers are making a journey to a new country where there will be a new identity, fresh values and a space to feel safe. “They argue and fight, they mock and educate each other and they reveal their dreams, fears and secrets. Their quest to define a new world is a voyage into some great unknown, to a place they can only imagine and covering a distance they cannot fully conceive. It is also a leap of faith, for them and for us. At the very least, they will arrive to tell the tale,” says Chaudhuri. Excerpts from an interview:
With young people wanting to leave for somewhere better, is the play a comment on the state of the nation?
It was in 2016, pre-demonetisation and other issues, that I came into knowledge of this play. I was in New York and the play — originally titled I Want a Country by Greek playwright Andreas Flourakis — was being produced by the same director’s lab (Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab) where I was. At that time, I was thinking about a lot of things that were going around in the world, such as the immigration crises in Europe and Syria. There was a problem with the Rohingya immigration. I was also doing a lot of research on climate change and the movement of people in central America. I thought that people were moving across the world and, though their reasons are different, there are strange connections in the pressures and fractures that cause the crises of migration.
The play has been enacted by performers from Nizamuddin basti, who are with the Aagaaz Theatre Trust. Was it a conscious decision to cast youngsters in the play?
I felt a compulsion that the play had to be done in Hindi and that it had to be made with young actors. The text does not specify that the characters are young people but there is something about the tenacity with which they speak that makes me think that they have a long future ahead of them. People in mature stages of adulthood, I feel, are much more bitter and cynical. We modified the text a bit so that the voice of the text is young and, at the same time, they have to think maturely about larger conceptual thought.
What is the significance of the title?
The reason the play is called Rihla is that it feeds off the ancient travel narratives of Ibn Battuta (Moroccan scholar and traveller) and others. That genre of travel writing was a mix of fact, fiction, hearsay and gossip.
What is the profile of the characters who drive the story?
We worked with the idea of archetypes. One actor’s archetype was the shepherd. He is continuously trying to keep the group together because they keep arguing and threatening to collapse. He is the person who understands that empathy with people is a very important thing even if you don’t agree with one another. The Rogue is another archetype. She is mischievous and can be a bit of a nuisance. We also have the Cynic who, at any given point, is imagining the worst that can happen.
Rihla has been created within the space where it is being performed, Black Box Okhla, although you showed at Rang Shankara in Bengaluru recently. How does the experiencing of creating a play on site impact it?
We prepare plays in a little basement or in living rooms. Black Box Okhla is five times the size of a living room. Rihla being created in Back Box Okhla means we rehearsed there for three weeks before we started performing for an audience. We spent a week rehearsing with lights as opposed to one morning or afternoon.
The whole idea was to work in the space and work with whatever was there in the space. There is a kind of cavernous character about Black Box Okhla. The set that Oroon Das has built is in response to this, where it seems these people are inside some kind of a vessel. When people look at the play from outside, they see all kinds of different things, from a boat to waves. The acoustics have played a role in how the actors deliver their lines and the space gave us certain possibilities with light, which we could embrace to some degree. Deepa Dharmadhikari has designed the lighting as a play of light, shadow and darkness. I think that’s a huge element of the play.
The play will be performed at Black Box Okhla from November 22 to 24, 8 pm. On November 24, 4 pm, a discounted matinee show will be staged for students