About two years ago, actor and dancer Padma Damodaran stumbled upon Yasmina Reza’s The Unexpected Man in a collection of plays she’d purchased. She was familiar with the French playwright’s body of work, having read and watched her productions Art and God of Carnage, but it was The Unexpected Man that captivated her.
“Sadiya Siddiqui and I were forming our own production company, Red Earth Stories, and we were considering plays to work with. This one really spoke to me,” says Damodaran, who has directed and acted in the play.
Written in 1995, The Unexpected Man is a middle-age romance set on a night train from Paris to Frankfurt. Two strangers, a writer and a woman who admires his work, sit across each other through the journey.
“For a long time, there is no conversation. The woman is carrying his book but can’t read it in front of him. The writer is feeling anxious about writing and his relationship with people,” says Damodaran, who plays the woman, while Naved Aslam plays the writer. She admired Reza’s sharp writing of these characters and how she equipped them both with a sense of humour. “They are neurotic and lonely. You can see their pain but you will be laughing,” says the 45-year-old Mumbai-based thespian.
Acting, Damodaran says, came to her unexpectedly. About 15 years ago, she worked as a business journalist in Hyderabad, when she got an opportunity to act in a local play. “I was struck with the joy of theatre. I figured that I better do something about it now than feel sorry 10 years later. So I plunged right into it,” she says.
Later, Damodaran moved to Delhi, where the theatre scene was booming, before heading to the UK to the East 15 Acting School at University of Essex, for a Master’s degree in Acting. Upon returning, she settled in Mumbai and joined Theatre Professionals, where she conducted actor training programmes. She also held workshops on acting as a co-convenor at The Drama School, Mumbai. “Many people come to Bombay to become stars, not actors; they look at theatre as a means to do that. Being an actor is about showing the spirit of people. That’s what theatre is for,” she says.