8 September 2019

Out of the Closet with Kitty and Nan

The third instalment of my TVOF column Shelf Life, in which I look at literature through the prism of clothing, is about a book I have loved for twenty years:

In the 19th-century London of Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet, clothes can help keep secrets—or reveal new selves. What looks like display might well be a disguise.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” runs the famous speech in As You Like It. It is fitting that history's most famous playwright made the theatre a metaphor for the unfolding of human life. But the stage can also be the perfect literary take-off point for stories of self-transformation—and the first step in becoming something—or someone—else is to dress the part. Sarah Waters' extraordinary first novel Tipping the Velvet, published 20 years ago and set in the Britain of the 1880s, begins on the music hall stage. That is where, in the Canterbury Palace of Varieties, the entranced Nancy Astley first sets her eyes upon Kitty Butler.

At first glance, Miss Butler is a girl dressed up to look like a posh young man: in a gentleman's suit, tailored to her size and lined at the cuffs with bright silk, with a white bow tie at her collar and a top hat on her head. But as Nancy's hungry gaze takes in more detail, she realises that though Kitty strides and sings like a boy, and stands with her hands “thrust carelessly into her trouser pockets”, her slender frame is unmistakably rounded “at the bosom, the stomach and the hips, in a way no real boy's ever was”.

What makes Kitty attractive is her changeability: now she seems like an exceptionally pretty boy, and now a slender, boyish girl. And much of that sense of changeability—for Kitty, and later for Nancy—is achieved in the novel through clothes.

Clothes are crucial, too, to the unlikely relationship that springs up between the upcoming music hall star and the Whitstable oyster girl. The adoring Nan begins to visit Kitty in her dressing room, folding up her stage clothes with quivering fingers, secretly pressing to her cheek “the starched linen of her shirt, the silk of the waistcoat and the stockings, the wool of the jacket and the trousers” —receiving from the clothes an erotic charge that their wearer has not yet acknowledged. Soon, the growing familiarity with the costumes becomes the route to intimacy with the person: Nan becomes Kitty's dresser, and her companion in London.

It is after this that the novel really comes into its own, laying out in scintillating narrative a world of performance, both off-stage and on it. Hoping to distinguish Kitty from a rising tide of male impersonators, her agent tells Kitty and Nan that they must “go about the city and study the men”, so that her act can broaden into a host of different male guises, each with its own song—and crucially, its own costume: “What think you of a policeman's jacket? Or a sailor's blouse? ... all that handsome gentlemen's toggery that languishes, at this very minute, at the bottom of some costumier's hamper, waiting, simply waiting for Kitty Butler to step inside it and lend it life!”

The Pleasures of Dressing Up

A still from the miniseries adaptation of the novel
But Kitty is not the only one to experience the magical power of clothes; the book's real heroine is waiting in the wings. On their first Christmas, Kitty gives the normally drably dressed Nan a “long, slim evening dress of deepest blue”, which Nan thinks far too fine for her. At Kitty's insistence, she wears it to dinner, only to find herself attracting more male flirtation than she ever has—followed by Kitty's inchoate jealousy, which finally lights the spark that turns them into lovers.

“The dress was so transforming that it was practically a disguise,” writes Waters in that passage, presaging Nan's future. For she will soon join Kitty on stage, their double act rising to top billing.

Among the book's most perceptive moments is the one where the shy, reluctant Nan realises that performing gives her pleasure. From that on-stage frisson “in the wearing of handsome suits, the singing of ribald songs” to recognising that the thrill of “display and disguise” only becomes more acute if the performance is live, off-stage—that is the journey that transports Nan first into London's lewd side-streets, then into its upper crust lesbian boudoirs, and finally into feminist-socialist circles. 

Kitty had resisted the pull of her masculine clothing, trying almost obsessively to keep her stage persona apart from her ordinary life. But the inner and the outer cannot be delinked so easily. Kitty’s fear of public censure (for being seen as a “tom”, a lesbian) is also a fear of her inner self.

Nan, in contrast, seems to revel in the inner possibilities opened up by changing her external appearance. And those possibilities—like her costumes—are unendingly changeable. Dressing as a boy in real life begins as a strategy for safety, but it is risk that keeps her hooked.   

Clothes are, in many ways, the driving force of Waters' narrative of sexual selfhood. New costumes seem to propel Nan into new selves. And yet somehow, simultaneously, it is she who animates them, her very physicality altering with each new avatar. Perhaps that, then, is the ultimate power of clothes: they can turn all of us into shapeshifters, performing ever-new roles on a real-life stage. If we can just enjoy the performance, it might no longer feel like one.

The Spirit of Technologies Past

My Mirror column:

As we hurtle ever faster into a digitised present, some recent films cast an affectionate glance back at the technologies that made us who we are.

Right at the beginning of the recently released 
Shantilal O Projapoti Rohoshyo, director Pratim D Gupta tells us that his film is about a time “when porn was watched on DVD, news was read in print… and films were made for theatres”. Right from its charming children’s detective story title (the Bangla translates as ‘Shantilal and the Butterfly Mystery’), the film lives and breathes a certain gentle nostalgia. But its special focus is an era that existed until quite recently in India, a time that feels like it’s being elbowed out at top speed by technological transformation. What’s interesting is that the nostalgia is itself framed around an earlier era of technology: the newspaper, the cinema, the photograph.
The film’s deadbeat weather reporter protagonist, Shantilal, with his unquenched desire for a “front page story”; the neighbour who hounds him for a free spot in the matrimonial pages of The Sentinel; the DVD shop guy who urges Bertolucci, Bergman and Buñuel upon a customer who’s waiting for his supply of quality Malaysian erotica – all of these look back fondly to a time before the digital conquest of our lives. But the pirated DVD may be the one to focus on: a signifier of an in-between time. Not before computers, but before news stories began to be broken on Twitter timelines, before Shaadi.com, and before the endless glut of internet porn. It is an era that is not in fact that distant – which is perhaps why it feels so surreal that it is already gone.

brings to the fore a theme that has, in fact, underlain many Indian films in the past five or six years: our memories of an analogue era. Ritesh Batra’s 2013 critical and commercial success, The Lunchbox, used a dabbawala mix-up to deliver a tribute to a fast-disappearing world – the Hindi music cassettes Deshpande Aunty still listens to, the Orient fan around which Deshpande Uncle’s stagnant life revolves, the Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi episodes recorded from Doordarshan that Saajan Fernandes watches endlessly in memory of his wife. (Using the voice of Bharati Achrekar as the never-seen Mrs Deshpande was, of course, the perfect meta-textual reference to Doordarshan, on which she was once such a profoundly familiar face.)

 The Lunchbox took a rather melancholy view, Sharat Kataria’s Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015) was a more enthusiastic, even raunchy tribute to the 1990s, featuring Ayushmann Khurrana as the small-town owner of a cassette shop. Some of the most endearing moments of the film’s post-marital romance between Khurrana and Bhumi Pednekar involved the VCR as a therapeutic sexual aid and the playing of songs as messages on a cassette player.

The audio cassette with songs personally picked out and recorded was, of course, the ultimate 1990s romantic gesture. That was the matrix of a more recent 1990s-set romance, the Yash Raj production
 Meri Pyaari Bindu (2017), also starring Khurrana. In that film, Khurrana plays a Bengali middle class hero (complete with a daaknaam – Bubla), whose largely unrequited love for his neighbour Bindu is tied up with the technology of their adolescence: Ambassador cars, STD-ISD booths, a nascent virtual universe embodied in email addresses such as muqaddarkasikandar1977@hotmail.com.

Video cassettes were crucial to both Nitin Kakkar’s
 Filmistaan and Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider. Both released in 2014: one set in Pakistan, the other in Kashmir, and both had political messages. Although tonally miles apart, the two films are united by their references to the early Salman Khan films Maine Pyar Kiya and Hum Aapke Hain Koun. Kakkar presents those films, as he does all Hindi cinema, as the great unifier of countries and people divided by Partition. Haider, written by the journalist and author Basharat Peer, adapts Shakespeare’s Hamlet to 1990s Kashmir: a dark and violent place, as searingly sarcastic as it is driven to desperation. In this world, the two Salmans – the original play’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern turned brilliantly into Bhai fans and lookalikes who run a videocassette shop – initially seem like comic relief. But as the film builds to its necessarily tragic climax, it becomes clear that no amount of grainy re-watching of MPK songs can keep Haider (Shahid Kapoor) from seeing the reality of the Salmans – or keep Kashmir from seeing the reality of India.

To return to Shantilal o Projapoti Rohoshyo: it isn’t just a simple tribute to a past era. The protagonists of Pratim Gupta’s not-quite-mystery live on the cusp of the present, and often display an active reluctance to cross over. Shantilal himself doesn’t have Whatsapp, though he does have a mobile phone. The film star in her prime (Paoli Dam, very effective as Nandita) expresses a nostalgia for autograph seekers in an era of selfies, and keeps a corner of her bedroom as a photographic shrine to her past. But she finds her future threatened by a photograph from that past. Old technologies can inspire nostalgia, but our attachment to them may tell us less about those forms than about ourselves.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 1 Sep 2019.

A love for all seasons

Continuing my tribute to RK Films, a look back at the banner’s first success, Barsaat (1949). What was its place in Raj Kapoor’s life and career, and in Hindi cinema?

A moment between Raj Kapoor and Nargis from Barsaat (1949) -- Raj Kapoor's first hit as a filmmaker -- became first the poster (left) and then the RK Films logo (right)
Raj Kapoor’s second film as a producer-director was Barsaat (1949). His father Prithiviraj had been the hero of all the Prithvi Theatre plays he directed over 16 years. Raj Kapoor, too, cast himself as his own protagonist from his directorial debut Aag (1948) until Mera Naam Joker (1970). That penchant for playing the hero may have been connected to the semi-autobiographical quality he brought to his cinema.

The central tension of Barsaat is between the philosophical worldviews of two friends, Pran (Kapoor) and Gopal (Prem Nath). They are educated young men of the same class background, both babus from the city who end up romancing naive girls from the mountains. Kashmir is never named, but the clothes, the women’s jewellery and the shikara rowed by Reshma (Nargis) establish Barsaat as part of a long history of Hindi films in which the unhappy state has figured as a beautiful playground for mainland heroes, “pardesis” who love and leave. The metaphorical weight of that cinematic history is undeniable, especially as we watch it in August 2019, when what seemed an innocuous theme 70 years ago has come home to roost as an Indian ‘national’ claim on Kashmiri territory and women.

But to return to the film’s more frontal concerns: the two men stand for very different things. Pran is a sensitive violin-playing poet, waiting for his one true love, while the pragmatic Gopal has a girl in every port – taking his pleasure where he can and never looking back. As one of the film’s multiple brilliant songs went, “Main chanchal madmast pavan hoon, ghoom-ghoom har kali ko choomoon”. If wind was one metaphor for moving unapologetically on, a flowing river was the other: in the words of scriptwriter Ramanand Sagar, later of Doordarshan Ramayan fame, Gopal describes himself thus: “Bas dariya ke lehron ki tarah guzar gaya, laut ke phir us ghaat ka khayaal tak nahi aaya.”

Prem Nath had already played foil to Raj Kapoor in Aag, where Kapoor’s character Kewal describes Prem Nath’s artist Rajan as a worshipper of the body rather than a seeker of the soul. In Barsaat, too, Nath’s Gopal is a man of lusty appetites while Kapoor plays a true romantic, who believes love must contain pain as much as pleasure: “Jismein ansoo nahi hote, woh saccha pyaar nahi hota”. Barsaat cemented the persona Raj Kapoor had already begun to create with Aag: that of a man in love with love.

But while he constantly berates Gopal for saying that love is only lust by another name, Kapoor's romantic hero is not quite the pure disembodied lover he wishes to be. Raj Kapoor had placed that quandary about loving ‘inner beauty’ versus physical attractiveness upfront in Aag, with the hero saying his life might have been different if he hadn’t been so attracted to beautiful girls. There, Kewal went to the extreme of disfiguring his face as a test of real love. Here, in Barsaat a year later, Kapoor seems more at ease with his own vanity, letting his on-screen lover Reshma (played by his off-screen lover Nargis) refer to the depths of his blue eyes (she talks of them in Aag, too, but there her attraction is punished).

These were themes that lasted through Raj Kapoor’s life: vanity, physical beauty, lust versus love, body versus soul. A man of average height in a family of tall Pathans, he was always insecure about height: he once said he knew when Nargis was going to leave him because she came to see him wearing heels. His pride in his blue eyes was also legend: Madhu Jain’s book on the Kapoors tells of how he finally scheduled a long-needed eye surgery because the surgeon also had light eyes. Only a man who knew the value of those eyes personally would safeguard them from harm. Jain also mentions that Kapoor wanted to make a film called Soorat Aur Seeratstarring Lata Mangeshkar as a disfigured heroine with a magic voice. Many years later, he came back to it in Satyam Shivam Sundaram.

Perhaps these are irresolvable questions. Barsaat came down emphatically on the side of one true love, the film’s Nargis-Raj Kapoor track suggesting the almost miraculous power of loyalty and longevity. It also made the Nargis-Raj Kapoor jodi the stuff of legend, their undeniable passion enshrined forever in the film’s posters, and later even more permanently and publicly, in the RK Films logo. The man who holds his woman and his violin in the same passionate embrace, suggesting that his art and his love were inextricably linked, may have been an accurate depiction of Raj Kapoor’s relationship with Nargis. And yet Barsaat was also the work of a man who had married his wife Krishna in 1946, a woman who sold her jewellery to help him make Barsaat. He met Nargis four months after, and had entanglements with other creative muses after her – Padmini, Vyjayanthimala and Lata Mangeshkar among them – but he never left his wife.

Fire in the Belly

My Mirror column:

The demolition of RK Studios last week marked the end of an era. That era began with Aag, released 71 years ago this August

Raj Kapoor’s first film under the RK Films banner, released on August 6, 1948, wasn’t a commercial success. Perhaps with good reason, for it was in many ways a raw work, an early and rather theatrical expression of the sensibility of the man who would come to be known as India’s ‘great showman’. But Aag (Fire) also contained several elements that would often recur in Raj Kapoor’s early films: melodious, soulful songs, grandly choreographed stage sequences, a hero out to forge his own path in the world, and Nargis.

I watched Aag as a child, under the encouraging influence of my Nani and her RK-loving sisters. But although it features an adorable ten-year-old Shashi Kapoor daydreaming in history class (and at one point, even putting on a show of Bilwa Mangal, complete with a fake moustache), Aag really isn’t a film meant for ten year olds. All I remembered of it all these years was its opening scene. The just-married hero enters the room where his new bride is seated on the bed, bejewelled and veiled. There is some banter on his part about her ghoonghat getting longer; she laughs bashfully in response. We see him approach her, slowly working up to unveiling her face as traditional Hindu suhaag raat heroes must. He does, she lifts her eyes shyly to look at him for the first time – and lets out a scream. The reversal that Raj Kapoor engineers here is memorable – making all the verbal build-up about the woman's face, while it is the man’s face, burnt by fire, in which the story lies. Between that perfect bit of cinematic deceit and the almost gothic horror quality of the scene, Aag’s remains one of Hindi cinema’s most interesting suhaag raat scenes.

A ten-year-old Shashi Kapoor, as a child actor in Raj Kapoor's directorial debut Aag
Watching the film last week, though, I was struck by other things. The genteel hero estranged from his father, who leaves his comfortable home and is penniless in the big city, first appears in incipient form in Aag. The figure who would grow into the Raj Kapoor tramp archetype in later films like Shree 420 and Awara is seen in Aag in a short sequence that is a turning point in the narrative. The film’s runaway protagonist Kewal Khanna (Kapoor) walks into an apparently empty theatre, delivers a teary soliloquy about having left home, and is instantly embraced as friend and partner by the theatre’s owner Rajan (Prem Nath), who has been sitting silently through Kewal’s monologue and is impressed by his passion, for life and for theatre.

Kewal’s speech is interesting, because it is essentially a call for the young Indian to be allowed to decide his own future rather than follow in the footsteps of family. What makes it more interesting, though, are the possible biographical extrapolations. Like the fictional Kewal Khanna, Prithviraj Kapoor had been a young man from a bourgeois Punjabi family who failed his first year law exam and decided to leave Peshawar for Bombay to start a new life on the stage. But unlike in Aag, where the angel who invests in Kewal’s future is a theatre owner who’s male and Hindu, the 22-year-old Prithviraj was picked out of a line of extras at Ardeshir Irani’s Imperial Studios by Ermeline, the Jewish star of Bombay’s then silent film industry. Struck by Prithviraj’s physique and Greek-god good looks, Ermeline decided she had found the hero of her next film, Cinema Girl. Prithviraj never returned to the extras queue.

The story of Prithviraj’s entry into the world of acting, as Madhu Jain tells it in her wonderful book The Kapoors, is filled with supportive collaborators and encouraging mentors like Ermeline, Ardeshir Irani, Sohrab Modi, KA Abbas and various others from the IPTA (the Indian People’s Theatre Association). Earlier, during his undergraduate years, his theatre dreams had been nurtured by his professor’s wife from Peshawar’s King Edwards College, an Englishwoman called Norah Richards. To this delightfully mixed world of the colonial Indian city, Prithviraj Kapoor eventually added his own contribution in 1944: Prithvi Theatres.

Raj Kapoor, as Prithviraj’s eldest son, necessarily underwent an apprenticeship in the theatre. But the elder Kapoor was a hard taskmaster, instinctively socialist in his staunch egalitarian treatment of all troupe members – rather than the feudal Indian father who might spoil his own children or give them more. He was apparently worried that Raj was naalayak; Jain suggests that those who knew him believe he wanted Raj to “have a proper education, followed by a proper job”, though he had himself rejected that path. 

Odd as it may seem, then, the anguish of Aag’s hero was not just that of Prithviraj’s battle against his father – but also of Raj against his.

Abhishek Majumdar: Theatre Interview

A two-part interview with the multi-talented Abhishek Majumdar, published on Firstpost in August:

At 38, Abhishek Majumdar is one of India's most exciting playwright-directors. An alumnus of the London International School of Performing Arts (LISPA), Majumdar grew up in a Bengali family in Delhi. For the last decade he has been based out of Bengaluru. The Indian Ensemble, which he co-founded in 2009 and ran until 2018 with his friend and colleague Sandeep Shikhar, has produced some of the most interesting Indian plays of recent years: the Kashmir trilogy of Rizwan, Djinns of Eidgah and Gasha, the 10th century philosophical-political drama Muktidham, and the Allahabad-set Kaumudi, which is both a tribute to Mohan Rakesh and a complex engagement with the epic heroes Ekalavya and Abhimanyu.

His plays have been published by Oberon Press, UK, and translated into multiple languages from Marathi to Czech. His play Djinns of Eidgah was staged by Jaipur's Jawahar Kala Kendra this January and at Mumbai's Prithvi Theatre earlier in August. Another production of Djinns by the Bread Theatre and Film Company of Cambridge is currently being staged at the Edinburgh Fringe until 18 August.

In this interview, he speaks about theatrical form and content, the politics of language in India, and his many interests beyond the stage.

Muktidham, written and directed by Majumdar
The first time I heard of your work wasn't a play; it was at Lekhana, in Bengaluru in 2013/14, where you read a Hindi short story. Do you still write short stories, or things other than plays?
I do, but I don't share them with the world. They're not necessarily about personal subjects, but the act of writing a short story is for me very personal. I like to keep it for my friends and family. I have consciously never published my stories. I compose music sometimes, for other people, for other plays, sometimes for professional musicians. I also paint a little bit. That helps me in scenography, but mainly I paint for myself.
Coming back to the short stories, there is a series called Lakdi ke Makaan, which I have been working on, about women who live in the villages of Shimla (my aunt lives in Shimla). Someday it might become a monologue by an actor. But right now only about 10 people in this world know that I write stories.

Your short stories are in Hindi, but would it be true to say that you wrote plays in English earlier, and now write plays in Hindi?
I write in three languages: Bangla, Hindi and English. My first play, an adaptation of Sunil Gangopadhyay's novel Pratidwandi, was in Bangla. Later I wrote Dweepa in Bangla, but it has only been performed in Kannada.

I'm currently writing an adaptation of Shakuntalam, that's in Hindi. I recently wrote a satire about Communist history, which hasn't been produced as yet, called Dialectical Materialism Aur Anya Vilupt Jaanwar. That's in Hindi, although it starts in Calcutta at the time of collapse of the Berlin Wall, and then goes back to Karl Marx and Adam Smith at the Garden of Eden. I'm still working on that play, but strangely it's been translated into Czech and won an award in Prague. [laughs]

Translations of my plays are happening/have happened into Gujarati, Kannada, Marathi, French. Rizvan got translated from Urdu to Bangla, because there is a show in Bangladesh.

All my work internationally is in English. I write those plays in English whose natural language would not be Hindi or Bangla. So for example, Pah-la, which was staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London last year, is set in Tibet; that I wrote in English. I have another recent play, Batin, set in Medina on the two nights between the Prophet's death and his burial. It's about what happens when the word of God is not understood by everyone in the same way. The natural language of Batin would be Arabic. So that's in English. An early play of mine, Harlesden High Street, was in English. But now I don't produce any work in India in English.

So there has been a move towards Hindi?
Directorially, yes. Five years ago our company did make work in English. I consciously stopped. For two reasons. One, English is the only language in India where knowing the language is enough. In any other language, you also have to know how to act. Frankly, I find far fewer options for actors in English than in Hindi or Bangla or Kannada.
Secondly, an Indian audience watches Hindi or Bangla theatre differently than English. Their bodies change. Because theatre is fundamentally a community thing, you watch it with people. And when you get the third layer of the language — the language that you may have not gone to school in, but the language in which you make fun of people — that is the right language for that stage.
For example, if you read [Girish] Karnad in Hindi, that works much better than reading it in English (though some of the English translations are fantastic).
In India, my rehearsal room is also much more alive when I'm rehearsing in an Indian language. I am directing a play in New York in English, but there my actors' natural language is English. The contract of language is three-way: between the maker, the actor who is performing and the audience. [The play] has to be in the most suitable language for all three, not just for one.

Have you directed a play in a language you don't understand?
Yes, Kannada, which I follow, but don't speak. And I've done a play in London 10 years ago, which was seven vignettes: one in Hebrew, one in Cantonese, one in Arabic...

And that wasn't a problem?
No. Direction-wise, then it was less of a problem. Perhaps now it would be more of a problem. I was a drama school student then, more interested in form. Now I've gotten more interested in meaning.

Tell me more about your interest in form.
Essentially, a play is composing form over time. It's a bit like the work of an architect. One is always thinking about structure. And I've been an avid mathematics student, interested in pattern, shape, geometry, topography. Every play is a problem with multiple solutions.

Give me an example?
I'll give you two examples. For Muktidham, the problem was how do you write a play which from inside is European, but from outside is in the Indian epic format. Structurally, it's not a Greek play with three acts and five plot points; it is cyclical, there is a sense of elaboration. But the scene-work inside the play is not in the epic format: nothing is sung, for instance.

What is very Kathakali about it is that from the interval to the next scene, there is a big jump. We believe that time lapse for two reasons. One, because we believe there is a wall — the wall behind which the Buddhist king is standing. We never see it, but we believe it, and so we assume a certain urgency to everything else. Which is a very Kathakali thing to do. You know — “Duryodhana is coming”, but the scene only has Draupadi and the brothers. The other thing is that although you move forward in time, but the eclipse is stuck. It's nothing, really, it's one profab light on a disc! But it allows us, I think, to continuously imagine suffocation.
In Kaumudi, the challenge I set myself was linguistic: to write a play which used both the language of Aashaadh Ka Ek Din and Adhe Adhure [two classic Mohan Rakesh plays, one set in the time of Kalidasa, one in the 20th century]. So there is the play, and there is the play within the play. And there's a third language the characters use when they are playful, which is similar to Pandavani.

So each of your plays is a research project. Literary, anthropological, historical.
Yes. But art is about memory. It's about how you remember your research. That's the difference between researching and writing a paper, and researching and writing a play. A play has to go through oneself.  It can't be just your thesis — it's got to be your observation of life, your sense of taste, your politics, what you want to say.
But for me, if something doesn't have a hard problem to solve, it doesn't interest me. I can watch plays which are not very complex, I can watch anything live. But to work on an idea for two years of my life, it has to be intellectually complex.

Is there one idea that each play starts with?
The theatre is all about confluence. For an idea to become a play, seemingly different things must stick together. Like in Kaumudi, you have a father and son, who mirror Ekalavya and Abhimanyu. The father is going blind, and there is a theatre inside a theatre. These could be four different plays. But I am fond of density, that's my thing. Though that is also one of the criticisms of my plays.

 Playwright-director Abhishek Majumdar on theatre as confluence, its future in India, and directing a film
Abhishek Majumdar

Density leads us nicely to my next question. You work in Hindi, in a moment when there's increasing criticism of the elitism of English. But you also work in theatre. Do you ever think about reaching out to larger audiences?
I have a lot of confidence in the theatre. If a play is worth anything, it will outlive at least one generation. And over time, plays have large audiences with a much deeper level of engagement. So I think the idea of audience is a more complex matrix than just the number of people right now — it's also about density, how many, where. 
The paradox of our time is that in this political moment, you want to make work because it feels urgent. Which is of course necessary, in the face of what is going on. But at the same time there are so many philosophical problems in the humanities and sciences which are completely worth looking at. Is an entire generation of artists only going to look at Hindutva? Maybe it has to, but we also need deviations.
Having said that, I make theatre because I like every dimension of it. I love the craft of it, the art of it, the coming together of people to do it it, the teams that we build, having that audience live, reaching out, going to small towns, going to big cities. While closing Muktidham, we had a moment where Sandeep Shikhar's daughter Sanchi, who I have seen being being born, was sharing a room with Ram Kissar, who does our make-up, who has worked with BV Karanth since he was 20. This is possible in the theatre, because of the nature of its form. It's not like everybody has to be trained in one dance form. It is rough, rugged, it is mixed, it reflects the streets of your town. The street has an old man and a young woman, so the green room must have that. And that is for me the reaching out of the theatre.

But are you often accosted by the question of whether you want to direct a film? Or turn your plays into films?
Suman Mukhopadhay, I call him Lal Da, has won a major award to make a film out of Djinns of Eidgah. I am not a big fan of cinema, though I will direct a film at some point. What I am interested in is directing concerts. I grew up travelling a lot with Indian Ocean, and that gave me the idea that there is a dramaturgy to concerts. A couple of bands have asked me. Susmit [Sen] also asked, but I've looked up to him for so many years, I can't direct him! He will have no problem, but I will have a problem. But now I'm thinking of a concert of sound designers, as opposed to musicians.
Djinns of Eidgah, by Abhishek Majumdar
A still from Majumdar's Djinns of Eidgah

Would you write the music for such a concert yourself?
Some of it. Right now I compose mostly for plays. I took music for granted, because I grew up with Hindustani music classes in my house, and my mother playing the piano every evening and singing Rabindrasangeet. I can use Bengali notation, Swaralipi, which is often used on the piano.

How do you see the state of theatre in India? Are there exciting things happening?
I think art and science need a lot more government support. These things are important for human beings to exist, and they can't be market driven. This emphasis on the commercial, treating ticket sales as the parameter of existence, as if without it you're not speaking to the people: that's a cop-out for not thinking deeply about what the human race needs.
Individually a lot of exciting stuff is happening, from solo performances to technological things. What in Europe is called 'site-specific theatre' has been happening in India in Prahallada Naatak for a thousand years. Going to the proscenium is a new thing for us. But now, the urban Indian is coming back from the West with the idea that only what's being made there is work.
As a person who teaches in a university, I straddle some of these worlds. For the last five years, I teach playwriting at the NYU campus in Abu Dhabi for a semester every year. I have never had two students in the same class from the same country.

How many students in a class?
Eight to eleven, from India, but also Jordan, Palestine, Latin America, the African countries. And the challenge is that they all need to find specific solutions to their postcolonial situations. We are much closer in the arts and sciences to Bangladesh or Algeria than to New York or London. But we have started thinking of the world as a ladder. That's not helpful at all. Yes, there are great things to learn from a cultural exchange of that sort. But just as the first world person is always operating out of a particular context, it is also important for us to operate out of our context.
I was telling a student the other day that if you want to know where you are making art, you have to ask yourself two questions. One, if about 10 to 12 percent of a country's GDP is spent on arts, then public support for the arts in say, Germany, is about 300 percent that of India. Second, you need to be conscious of historical imperative. It is lowest on Broadway, in New York, which is farthest from colonisation. You can make anything, it basically has to sell tickets. And it is highest in the Gaza strip, because right now, as you're making that play, you are colonised.
Gasha1 825
A still from Gasha, written by Irawati Karnik and directed by Abhishek Majumdar

Why is your idea of historical imperative limited to the experience of colonisation?
Yes, I'm being simplistic, in order to find an axis that works globally. There are other axes not directly related to colonisation. Within India, how many plays do we see with lower caste women as characters? Nothing, compared to the many with upper caste men.

You mentioned that developing a Dalit dramaturgy is one of the things you're excited about.
Yes. After we moved on from Indian Ensemble, Sandeep Shikhar and I started a new theatre company along with  Vivek Madan. It's called the Bhasha Centre, and our main focus are at the moment is to work with Dalit texts and Dalit writers, from Daya Pawar and Limhale on Dalit aesthetics to published Dalit autobiographies and the work of lok shahirs. It might not be a literature that already exists. We're collaborating on a version of Kisaan that will open at Prithvi Theatre in March 2020. Iravati Karnik is writing it, drawing on Prithiviraj Kapoor's original play Kisaan together with Daya Pawar's Baluta.

Any other ongoing projects you'd like to flag?
There's Tathagat, a street play we did in collaboration with Jan Natya Manch, which played in Mumbai from 9 to 14 August. There's a version of Eidgah ke Jinnat with Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur, with many Rajasthani actors. Djinns of Eidgah is also being staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this month, by Ananya Mishra and the Bread Theatre Company, formed by a lot of non-white Cambridge University students.

As someone who works in London and New York as well as in Bengaluru and Bangladesh, it is important to me to know how much time I work where. I am not making work in England in order to give up my work in India; that's not going to happen. But last year we were touring in Uttar Pradesh and sleeping in trains, and just after that I spent a month in New York. And that is absolutely fine in the theatre. But as time gets limited, it becomes important to choose, to measure.
I like that we have come back to the mathematics. Thank you, Abhishek.

Published in Firstpost in two parts, 19 and 20 August 2019.

No connection home

(This was my Mirror column on 11 August 2019, six days after the Indian government announced the abrogation of Article 370, stripped Jammu and Kashmir of statehood, and bifurcated the region into two Union Territories -- while simultaneously plunging it into a total communications shutdown that continues indefinitely.)

The innocent Kashmiri child saved from a vengeful, violent future may still work for a Hindi film audience. But is it a delusional hope?

In Aijaaz Khan's Hamid, a CRPF soldier finds himself in an ongoing conversation with a little Kashmiri boy. One day, Hamid calls from outside when Abhay is on his way to disperse an ongoing protest. “I hope you're not with the stone-pelters! Go home!” Abhay yells into the phone. “I don't throw stones,” says Hamid. “Abbu used to say, you throw stones, they will shoot. And stones can't compete with bullets.” “Your Abbu made perfect sense,” the soldier agrees approvingly. “And Abbu also said, only Allah has the right to take away life, no one else,” the child patters on. “Tell me, have you ever taken a life?” The soldier's pleased expression crumbles.

Hamid, which won the National Award for Best Urdu Film last week (and can be streamed online), is built on a one-line premise: when the seven-year-old Hamid connects to Abhay, he thinks he's on the phone with Allah. Why does Hamid so badly want to speak to Allah? To urge him to send back his father, who disappeared a year ago -- and who he has been told is now with Allah.

The film uses the cuteness of its child protagonist in manipulative ways, draws out its one-line premise to excess, and often feels stilted in its performances. But in scenes like the one I described above, it opens up the possibility of conversation. The innocence of the child asking the question forces the adult to take a moment to confront his guilt – instead of responding, as Abhay does the rest of the time, with a torrent of thoughtless anger. In a time when all questions asked by Kashmiris seem only to elicit taunting counter-questions, when both grief and grievance is sought to be angrily bulldozed into compliance, such a cinematic moment is of great value.

The child protagonist is not a new device through which to view a conflict zone, and the effects do not need to be childish or cloying. Think of the marvellous clear-eyedness of Andrei Tarkovsky 1962 classic Ivan's Childhood, of Ziad Doueiri's atmospheric debut West Beirut (1999), Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi's moving Turtles Can Fly (2004) or Yosef Baraki's underwatched Kabul-set film Mina Walking (2015). But Indian cinema hasn't really got there yet, certainly not with regard to Kashmir.

The best we seem to manage is the child poised on the precipice of losing his innocence – which in the case of Kashmir, seems to invariably involve losing him to a violent movement for Azadi. In 2008, Santhosh Sivan directed a film called Tahaan, also named for its child protagonist, and when I went back to watch it this week (it is also available online), I was amazed by how much it shared with Hamid. Sivan's film, like Khan's, centres on a young boy with a missing father, and a grieving mother who hasn't yet given up, but whose finances and hopes are fast dwindling. Unlike in Hamid, the object of Tahaan's cinematic quest isn't directly his father, the 8-year-old spends the film trying to get back his donkey from a merchant (played, interestingly, by Anupam Kher). But like HamidTahaan contains scenes in which the protagonist's mother makes a harrowing journey to identify what might be her husband's corpse, and later, joins a silent assembly of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (the APDP is a real UN-backed human rights organisation founded by Praveena Ahangar).

Sivan's English title for Tahaan was The Child With a Grenade, and his child actor spends a lot of the film being roped into transporting -- and almost throwing -- a bomb. There was a deep disingenuousness to that film, especially the way it staves off the threat of violence to produce an immediate, miraculous justice. Tahaan's delusional ending made it a political travesty in the name of a fable.

Ten years later, Hamid and his mother have given up hope of his father's return. But the film's depiction of their calm acceptance of this terrible injustice may be another sort of delusion.

Talha Arshad Reshi, who plays Hamid, has won the National Award for Best Child Artiste (along with three others). But the total communication shutdown since Monday's announcement of revocation of Article 370 and bifurcation of J&K has meant that Aijaz Khan has been unable to share the news of the awards with Reshi.

In July 2016, during one of the worst shutdowns (after Burhan Wani's death), a ScoopWhoop reporter asked six children in Kashmir what they thought of when they thought of India. 

“India is police who beats boys. I hate India,” said one. “India is a cunning country. They oppress us. If it would have been our own country they wouldn’t have killed so many people. We don’t like to be with India,” said another. “India is tyrant. India kills people and disappears them. I want free Kashmir. I don’t want to be with India or with Pakistan. I am afraid to go out. Policemen can do anything to me. I can’t trust them. They can kill me. I rarely study. And I can’t play outside. Who should I play with? The Indian army men on the street?” said a third.

No Hamid is likely to talk to Abhay. Even if his phone connects again.