When the lockdown was announced in the country, Vasudha Gehlot was exactly where she wanted to be. Living with her boyfriend in his flat in Mumbai, out of the reach of her family in Udaipur, she tells the camera during a blissful first week, “Mere liye toh perfect lockdown hai.” She writes her first short story a few days later and has her first argument with her partner. As time passes, Gehlot begins to pale. She says to the camera, “At the end of the day, yeh mere ghar nahi hai …”
She is a fictional protagonist of an online performance series, titled 21 Din, 20 Raat, but Gehlot is not a figment of imagination. Mumbai-based theatre practitioner Sapan Saran conceptualised her and an array of other characters after interviewing more than 50 people to understand one of the hidden aspects of the lockdown — the emotional toll on individuals. In 2018, Saran was the co-writer of a National Theatre of Wales production, Sisters, which was drawn from interviews with Asian women from Wales and India.
With theatres across the world shut due to COVID-19, 21 Din, 20 Raat represents an effort by theatre actors to create a performance during a changed time. The performance can be viewed on 21Din20Raat. In an email interview, Saran, co-founder of Tamaasha Theatre and writer/director for 21 Din, 20 Raat, discusses the play:
Was there a personal trigger behind the project to understand the emotions of other people during lockdown?
My father, who is 68, happened to be visiting me and the lockdown meant that he would now be with me. He falls in, what has been defined as, the high-risk category. The emotional murmuring started there. By the time the lockdown was formally announced, all my friends and relatives were constantly expressing fears, doubts, desires, questions — with neither empirical nor logical answers. They were in fact philosophical questions rooted deeply in emotions.
There was a lot of political, statistical and scientific documentation happening all around us. However, there wasn’t enough emotional documentation. Therefore, Sunil Shanbag (co-founder Tamaasha Theatre, Project Head for 21 Din, 20 Raat) and I felt a need to do this.
Where did you find your main protagonists?
I was investigating along simple lines of queries such as ‘How differently do you deal with the idea of death that comes inevitably attached with this virus, when you are 65 and when you are 22?’
More specifically, the writer’s character, played by Sudhir Pandey, is inspired by several older academics/writers I know. That character became the philosophical backbone to his episodes. He could ask fundamental questions about existence. The maid, played by Shilpa Sane, represents the independent women from the huge working class population of Mumbai — feisty survivors, unlike their middle-class counterparts. Nisha Dhar, who plays the banker, is herself a Kashmiri and there’s a subtle but important reference to her worrying about the state of affairs in her homeland. She is able to connect with the lockdown in Kashmir for the first time, at a purely personal and emotional level. I also reached out to relatives in my village in Rajasthan. These were important lived experiences. Some of the people were interviewed over a period of time to track their transitioning emotions and thoughts.
Tell us your experience of being a long-distance theatre maker.
We discovered our process as we went along. There are roughly six phases that I now know: research, writing, directing, shooting, editing and uploading. Typically, I write an episode, run it by Sunil (Shanbag). We discuss the text and shooting approach. Then I send the script to the actors. Directing conceptually has worked for this project. The actors need to understand the larger idea and the unspoken thought.
Initially, we sent actors some references for camera angles/set design. Then actors took over. Nagesh Bhosale found a spot on his terrace and made it look like a village house. Ajeet had to look for corners in his house and Manjiri had to create a makeshift pooja room. It’s wonderful that most theatre actors immediately understand the importance of a project and pitch in wholeheartedly. Satyam Sai has edited the series on Adobe Premiere. We decided to keep the editing to a minimum to maintain the spirit of the raw self-recorded footage we had.
What were the challenges and hiccups in this process?
The most exciting and challenging part of the project is that we are all living in the time we are documenting. This meant that the actors, like everyone else, are also dealing with their own realities. Somebody has a tight window to shoot – two hours a day, while Kailash Waghmare is in his village in Jalna is in a low phone network zone. And somebody’s relative has tested positive for COVID-19.
Sensitivity is key. Understanding that this is a people’s project and not a commercial endeavour is important. Like in our theatre, we decided to work with what we have and make the best of it.
One of the essentials of theatre is proximity — between artistes and between artistes and audiences. How did you tackle this for 21 Din?
I honestly think this project would not have been possible if we were, in our heads, trying to create an online version of theatre. Instead, the conceptualisation of 21 Din was led by a deep desire to document. I think what the project organically developed into was some kind of docu-fiction. Like documentaries, we were interested in looking at ‘real’ life, with a focus on the inner lives of people. I felt if I had the liberty to fictionalise, then I could create characters that embody the thoughts and ideas of several ‘real’ people.
Across the world, theatre is grappling with the changed rules of society when gatherings will be discouraged for some time. Is 21 Din a trailer to the new kind of theatre we may see?
A few days ago, Delhi-based theatre director Amitesh Grover shared a post on Facebook of a theatre in Taiwan that is currently functioning. It brought a smile to my face. While there is an overwhelming amount of work happening online, my mind actually tends to move towards the offline experiments. The Hungarian orchestra that aired concerts from cars. The streets in UK that brought people out to dance, all spaced by social distance markers painted on the road. These are the experiments that excite me. When I step down to buy groceries, I cross a maidan and I can’t help thinking what a marvellous stage this is. An open space surrounded
by buildings on all four sides.
21 Din is not the kind of theatre that we will see. However, it is an artistic documentation of human emotions created by theatre practitioners at a unique time in human history.