HT Brunch cover story: By the people, for the people, of the people… Four thespians write down their wishlist for 2020
For Faezeh Jalali, Piyush Mishra, Makarand Deshpande and Naseeruddin Shah, 2019 ended on a high. All four theatre personalities premiered their last plays of the decade at the recently-concluded Prithvi Festival 2019. Now, as the new year begins, they share essays and a poem packed with hopes and wishes.
Faezeh writes an ode to 2020 in the form of a wish list and Piyush, who returned to theatre after 16 years with Gagan Damama Bajyo, notes that absolute creative freedom can only lead to absolute chaos. Makarand, one of the strongest playwrights of contemporary Hindi theatre, points out that the time has come for original writing on the realities of society seen through the lens of a person living it, and for Naseer, there is no point waiting either for Godot or a Golden Age... If you want to do theatre, just do theatre!
The true function of theatre
“Leave the spectacular to Broadway. My fervent wish is that the youth realise the value of the stage.”
By Naseeruddin Shah
In this year my wish for theatre is for it to be original, true to its roots and self sustainable.Whether the corporates who have stepped in as sponsors are doing good or harm is moot. They give cartloads of money with the rider that the production must be a spectacle. It is very difficult to keep such plays alive after the initial few shows because most theatre companies can’t afford the production cost on their own; most don’t even have the space to keep such huge sets.
I have never been a fan of spectacular theatre anyway and I don’t think we should model our plays on Broadway, because we don’t have the technical knowhow, the infrastructure, or the right kind of imagination for it. We should use our traditional forms of theatre and storytelling, maybe derive something from folk theatre and attempt plays that are within our means and possible to sustain.
We shouldn’t wait around for the ideal opportunity, cast, venue or producer. If you have the itch to do theatre then just do it. That’s theatre! All you need is one actor, one text and one audience!
I hope the kids realise that this is where they need to begin. I wish they draw upon what already exists in the country, travel a bit, watch different indigenous theatre forms and come up with writing that will embellish spare theatre presentations, which are more effective than decorative sets.
My fervent wish is that the younger generation discovers the true function of theatre. I think they are on the verge of it. I just judged a college play competition and there were a hundred entries from colleges across Maharashtra, all in Marathi. This kind of youth participation was unheard of when I started off. Not all teenage writers are very good but they are writing from their heart. At that age I was only thinking of meeting girls!
Right now, the number of people involved in theatre is growing. That is fantastic, though I have been in theatre long enough to not anticipate a ‘Golden Age.’ We will never know when that Golden Age will descend on us and we can’t aspire to something as nebulous as ‘someday things will be better.’ We have to aspire to the immediate. Set right what is within your power to set right. If you want to do theatre, do it!
Theatre is about telling the truth
“If plays are not written by people living in present times, how will they reflect the angst and concerns of today?”
By Makarand Deshpande
2020 My Dear,
I want to see more original writing in theatre.
Theatre is about telling the truth, it is about presenting realities. If plays are not written by people living in that time, how will they reflect the angst and concerns of that time? Adapting plays and fitting them into a contemporary context is not the same as staging a play that is written for today. If I am doing a play on Ram, then yes, I am taking the characters from the Ramayana but my play is written in today’s context: Pitaji Please is a play born out of the communal tensions we face today. If written well, such plays find a better connect with the audience.
I have nothing against adapting older plays. Some plays are indeed timeless, and then there are stories so beautifully written that they need to be told. Naseer does a lot of stories on stage, and by doing so he introduces them to a newer set of audience. That is a brilliant idea. Also, there are plays that are actors’ delights; that test their acting skills. But there are also people who adapt old classics because they don’t want to experiment with something new. That is lazy. Original writing reflects your own history, reference points, your point of view, and that is crucial.
Many people will argue that there is no money for playwrights. If you are a playwright by profession, the commercial aspect is also important. Marathi theatre pays good money to writers. Sadly, that is not always the case with Hindi and English theatre. Having said that, theatre people are not in it for the money! So, it is never that a playwright will switch to writing web series for money. Play likhnewala aadmi alag hota hai aur baat yeh hai ke play likhna asaan nahin hai. It has a different structure and a different grammar. Vichardhara likhni parti hai. You don’t need hundreds of locations and sets and changes. Theatre writing, to have an impact, needs to be dramatic. Take the soliloquies of Rabindranath Tagore’s Chitrangada, which is a dance drama, or even the last scene of Akira Kurosawa’s movie Yojimbo: some of the finest examples of theatrical writing goes beyond plays.
To learn this craft, the only way is to read and watch good plays, pick out the nuances, find the theatricality. Exposure to different kinds of plays, including folk theatre, is very important. You have to have a little madness in you to be a playwright. And, you have to create magic on stage with the writing.
The censorship vs creative freedom debate
“I want artists to become more responsible and not use their creative freedom to peddle soft-porn”
By Piyush Mishra
The Censorship Vs Creative freedom debate is possibly one of the longest running ones and it will not end any time. But I absolutely don’t agree to the view that creative freedom should be absolute. Censorship is important because without that anyone will be putting out anything in the public domain under the garb of ‘creative content’. Without censorship, it will become a jungle raj, a free-for-all! In fact, I am already seeing something similar happening in the web series space. Things are increasingly taking a bizarre turn. There are web series that are misusing the lack of censorship and putting out random nudity, sex scenes, and extreme violence in the name of hard-hitting content. But often these are only used to grab eyeballs and serve no other purpose in the story. In fact, there is one such web series that I have sang the title song for, I had no idea that it will turn out to be a compilation of rural sex stories.
There are countries like Sweden that have no censorship. But our ground realities are very different from them. Censorship and its mandate should be based on the norms and values of the country and updated as the society progresses. Advocating the total abolishment of censorship is no less dangerous than the smothering censorship during Emergency period. The world does not work in extremes, there needs to be a middle path. The censor board needs to be formed with the right kind of people and should represent a cross section of the society.
Also, I don’t think there is some serious attack on creative freedom in India today. A film like Udta Punjab (2016) was eventually passed with just one cut. This would be unthinkable 10 years back. I think we are far more liberal today. Also, there are ways to say the same thing in a different manner. Look at the cinema of Raj Kumar Hirani, apart from PK (2014), which got into trouble with the censor board for nudity, none of his five films got the snip and yet all were bold commentaries on the society. The problem is that today most people want to create controversial content just to get some easy publicity. Also, you don’t need to be derogatory to prove a point. If you simply want to be blatant and offensive then you are on a very wrong track to begin with.
Having said that, political content can land you in some trouble but that is nothing new, it has been the same under every regime.
So, in 2020 I want artists to become more responsible and not use their creative freedom to peddle soft-porn, especially on the OTT platforms, and I also hope for a well-represented, accountable and standardised censor board.
Space for theatre
My wish-list for the next year...
By Faezeh Jalali
2020 My Dear,
I didn’t really expect you
But you’re already here!
What I want this year?
An affordable theatre
A 400 seater
(Low rents and high returns!)
To stage the intimate, experimental
Or the large spectacle;
Comedy, drama and even a musical.
A space for the amateur and
A space for readings and for discussions.
A stage that can transform
From thrust, or traverse,
to a proscenium, or round,
A place that brings in the crowds
So... a large black box
Would be just wow!
(I’d like to curate it)
A space that is inclusive
High ceilings and low walls.
Great acoustics, sound sound
Not too soft not too loud
Super lights and lighting desk
good aesthetics and great tech.
A space where we share
A space of no fear
Where ideas are exchanged
Where truth appears
Where thoughts are expressed
Loud and clear
Stories are told
Shy or bold
Between young and old
Where conventions are challenged
Where everyone gets to play a part
Where theatre connects to the world at large
What else do I want from you 2020?
Value local talent,
The home-grown groups
Represent the differently-abled
Invest in the youth.
(Imports are not always that good!)
Support female voices,
And those of the marginalised
Speak for those with few choices
Those who are ostracised.
Sure we’ll give you a comp if you can’t
As for the director in me
Well, she would like to see
The play that the writer in her writes
As a big magnum opus;
That someone with a generous
heart produces :)
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From HT Brunch, December 29, 2019
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