The bountiful nature of the publishing business in India in recent years has brought tens of new voices writing in Indian English to the bookstores and bedside tables. Not all of this mishmash of themes and writing styles makes for great reading, and almost always the blame lies in for pretentious, uninspiring writing. But the Hindu Metroplus, with its Playwright Awards has taken the initiative to encourage original writing in Indian English theatre and struck gold, as evidenced by Three Plays, a book of their winner’s works from 2008-2010, published by Penguin. Those acquainted with English theatre in the country will have noted at some time or the other that fresh voices writing powerfully is certainly one of the needs, if not the need of the hour. Four writers, all of them from the newer generation of writers have won the award for Best Play. Abhishek Majumdar gives us Harlesden High Street, a poetic, passionate piece about a Pakistani family in West London. Prashant Prakash and Kalki Koechlin together script The Skeleton Woman, a surreal and engaging play about a writer and his inner demons.
Neel Chaudhuri turns Satyajt Ray’s short story Patol Babu Filmstar into his power punch of a play, Taramandal, about a nobody who gets a walk on part in a film late in life.
Giving these plays bottom lines does them a disservice, for they are more layered than that. As an observation purely, not as tagging, there are common themes of loneliness and frustration running through all of them. The writing styles vary, from the languidly poetic to the hard ground realistic—across plays as well as sometimes within them.
Harlesden High Street deals with two vegetable sellers, Karim and Rehan, and Karim’s mother, Ammi. The sellers barely get by, driven by little else than necessity and hope for betterment. Rehan is in love with Karim’s sister, who is never shown but is s strong presence, like both their fathers. Ammi is a powerfully etched character. Rather, powerful lines are given to her. The script relies largely on soliloquies and poetically charged remembrances and thoughts. The beautiful language, while not seemingly in sync with the kinds of characters etched out, is more the author’s voice, threaded into the characters, rather than realistic speech itself. The memories of the mother serve as a window into the hearts and thoughts of the others as well as herself—her husband and his bias against Indians, her impatience with and attachment to Indians, her strong notions of what home is and how strong the family ties are for them as Pakistanis in London. Rehan has deep memories of his homeland and his father, who wanted to settle in London. His sense of displacement and loneliness is brought out in a very moving scene where he speaks of his father’s ghost living inside of him.
For the very reasons the script is strong as a read, it is in danger of being destroyed by mere elocution and preachiness in performances unless skillful and strong actors perform it. It does not lend to the imagination a promise of very strong emotional drama, hence not so much the need for extreme histrionic skills as for controlled and evocative emoting. But there is no doubt that it is a script highly worthy of exploration.
The Skeleton Woman moves in a step closer to conversational writing —ostensibly. There are just two characters—again, ostensibly—a struggling writer and his wife. The writer is a former fisherman, his ideas are strongly influenced by the sea. He has a stockpile of unfinished writing. The stage directions for the play are very clearly etched out and serve to separate the ‘real’ sequences from the more surreal ones where the writer is attempting to advance his stories and suck out inspiration from where he can. There are delightful little flashes of dry humour here and there. The highlight of the script is a fantastic scene where the husband and wife have an argument on his refusal to come out of his comfort zone for her sake. The dialogues here are perfectly written—fat free and familiar. The scene comes to life and hits hard. The surreal scenes would appear to keep changing the pace of the play and bringing in a languid, yet ominous touch. The play always has a sense of ‘something’s gotta give here’ and there is a twist, so to speak, which is best not spoiled. Suffice to say that perspective strengthens the characters in the eyes of the beholder.
Like Harlesden High Street, The Skeleton Woman uses the language beautifully. It is evident that the writers are in complete command of English and how to use it well to create the right mood. The characters are very urban, westernized young people, but very recognizably so. Yet, the temptation to simply transpose dialogues and speaking styles from foreign scripts (a temptation that afflicts many young, impressionable scriptwriters) is mercifully avoided. The result is a play that is very precise in what it says and does, and what it says and does is very gripping and moving.
The last play in the book, Taramandal, is an example, perhaps the example, of how a story can be adapted and move to the stage. The original story is exactly half the script. The rest of the script is a series of interspersed vignettes that tell of everything Patol Babu didn’t speak of aloud, but undeniably threw into the imagination. The stories are all of actors—failed or trying. The vignettes bring to life the stories of all those who are never fortunate enough to even stand in the shadows. A boy in a school musical, a guy and girl who play-act little snippets of ideas, while harbouring big city dreams, a girl with a casting agent, an engineering student who wishes he could have… Neel Chaudhuri has carefully picked his characters and their ages, attitudes, backgrounds, conflicts, obstacles and helplessness so as to bring a wide range of tales to the script.
At the centre of it all is the main story of a man in his fifties who is called upon to act out a tiny role of no glory in a film shoot. It is the story of how massively huge this is for him and what it means to him. The preparation for the role, the eventual disappointment at the size of it and the earnest and honest execution of it all combine to make an almost tear jerker of a lovely story. The dialogues are measured and it is evident that the writer has heard his characters speak a hundred times over in his head before committing their words to script.
The script is entirely in English, yet it is evident that the actual production cannot be only in English—certain characters would definitely switch to vernacular and the playwright even indicates as much before a particular scene.
These three plays can, if nothing else, inspire a whole generation to dig deep and take to writing plays. The first thing to learn from them though, is the irreplaceable quality of honesty in the writing. Many a great concept can and has capsized because of boring and affected writing. But if morning shows the day, then we nurture amongst us, the giants of tomorrow, and may many follow in their footsteps. Till then, we can only hope that these four playwright can lay siege to the publishing houses and give us more.