Writing is the first and most important step towards any form of scripted theatre. Make a Scene is a series that explores India’s foremost playwrights, and their best works- encompassing their personal motivations and the socio-cultural landscape that facilitated the creation of these stories.
Award winning playwright and director, Neel Chaudhuri is a founder and member of Delhi based theatre collective, The Tadpole Repertory. One of the pioneers of the new wave of theatre in India, Neel’s work finds itself grappling with emotions and lives of the common man, their raw emotions and passion in everyday life.
Amongst the younger generation of playwrights in India, Neel has won various awards and grants- including the Hindu Metroplus Playwright Award for Taramandal, and the Toto Funds the Arts Award for Good Hands/Godspeed. He also received a grant from the Goethe Institut for writing a play on the German filmmaker, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Neel is a member of the Lincoln Center Theater’s Directors Lab in New York, and PLUTO, a coalition of international theatre writers and directors.
Did breaking the stigma attached to same sex relationships, encourage you to write Still and Still Moving? Was the motivation somewhere to ‘normalize’ LGBTQ+ conversations and make Indians a little more forward thinking and accepting?
Still and Still Moving was written as part of the Writer’s Bloc workshop with the Royal Court Theatre. One of the things that I was grappling with during the workshop was a sort of recommended structure of writing that followed the western mode. I struggled with this particularly because I was writing a love story. Within the traditional modes of telling a love story there inevitably seems to be a very convenient narrative arc that we are familiar with. People buy into the predictability of love stories because they find it extremely comforting and satisfying. My own experience of being in love and in a relationship, does not adhere to that kind of predictable arc or neatness.
My endeavor with writing Still and Still Moving was to write something which was untidy and fractured, and at times messy, without any predictable logic or linear movement. Because in a relationship, you feel that you ought to be moving forward but you’re also moving backward. You think you’re growing closer in terms of intimacies and understanding but you’re growing further apart. And that’s just the nature of love.
Juxtaposed with this was the desire to write about the city- our experience of the city itself being extremely fractured. Was the design or the impetus to write this directly related to everything happening with 377? Well, that’s not where it began. I started to write a love story, and the two protagonists were men. Of course, the pulse of queer politics and the rulings of 377 was definitely part of the play. But it wasn’t the instigator. In fact, one of the ambitions of Still and Still Moving as a production, not just the text, was to simply tell a love story. And not be a piece of activist theatre at the outset.
I don’t imagine that a play on its own or the experience of sitting through a narrative representation of love between two men can make people more accepting or forward thinking. But to see both the wonders and messiness of love, the remarkable and mundane aspects of it. And yet not be distracted by the characters’ sexuality, that definitely does go a certain way in seeing any sort of love story for what it is.
One of your most well known plays- Taramandal, also won the Hindu Metroplus Award in 2010. Is it a parallel for how unexpected life can be, and how the experience of doing something is greater than monetary reward?
Taramandal is based on a short story by Satyajit Ray called Patol Babu, Film Star that is about a man in his late fifties who through his life, harbored an ambition to be an actor. But for various reasons, failed. In our adaptation, we tell this story alongside five other stories that each represent another imagination and possibility of the same story. But for a different person, a different character and at a different stage of their lives.
What’s common to this particular kind of dream and ambition is the artistic pleasure one gets of being an actor in the movies or on stage. The second is the recognition that one gets and to some extent be celebrated for their work. You realize that monetary reward isn’t often the prime motivator here.
Through the research for this play- that involved interviews with a lot of background actors, junior artists, casting agents, people working on the fringes of the entertainment industry- I realized that for every individual this dream is in some way its own kind of Everest. It has this feeling of unattainability. And that feeling exists across a range of experiences.
Taramandal was written in 2010 and the last time we performed it was over 5 years ago. This sense of continuously knocking at the door, has altered a bit because of social media and the multiple platforms with which people are able to build and address an audience. In a way we are living that prophecy of Andy Warhol– where in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. The thing that always struck me about his remark, is not that the notion of fame would be illusory but that it would be brief. And the brevity of it is striking.
In recent times, Social Media has become a court room for one sided stories and allegations. Was Quicksand intended to shed light on the power that it holds in current times?
Quicksand is based on a true story of two people who had a strange encounter on the streets which was then reported on Facebook by one of them. What followed was a long and protracted unraveling of both their lives in the public through social media.
I say through social media because we have a tendency to think of social media, as some sort of sinister, digital machine that is controlling thought and opinion. But its actually people who have the ability to access and participate in a narrative, influence it and make themselves heard. These stories some times reach strange and distorted proportions through their virality. But at the end of the day, these stories still involve real people.
As for the two people on whom Quicksand is based, I was struck by the sheer impossibility for them to return to the moment before their encounter. Because everything that has happened since, has altered the narrative completely. In a way that it cannot be rewound, rescinded or redeemed. And that’s where most of the play takes place. It doesn’t concern with returning to the original incident or trying to deliberate on who was right. While it is tempting to place most of the blame on social media, the play also tries to look at how we expose ourselves to the reality that we can never be completely in control of our own story if it unfolds online and in a public sphere. Nothing in your life, prepares you for this situation. It feels like a quicksand where the more you struggle the deeper you sink.
The internet is a place of certainty and the absence of any room for doubt, makes this situation precarious. But I really wanted the play to hang on to a quality of doubt. To find yourself in a place where you just don’t know, and you can’t always make a logical or reasonable decision. I found myself drawn to the story of the two protagonists because they express and experience this doubt at every stage of the story.
Mouse is one of your earliest plays- and it is coincidentally about a play in the waiting! How has your writing evolved over the years, and was it a spring board for some of your later work?
The idea for Mouse came about almost as a joke. An actor friend and I were discussing how absurd and wonderful it would be for him to do a whole play in a giant mouse costume. Before I knew it, I had committed to writing this play.
Because I really didn’t know where to go from there, I placed the play in the very setting in he was going to perform it in-a one act play theatre competition in his college. It was written for that very particular setting. Having been through that same scenario in my own college years, I wanted to reflect upon how apart from being a talent competition, it was also more significantly something of a social game. In which there was this aspiration for coolness. It often used to flatten the oddness and the idiosyncrasies of people- because they were always trying to be a certain kind of person. A certain kind of actor.
In many ways, Mouse became a kind of foundation play for us as a company and certainly for me as a writer. Especially in its language and form. I find that many times, I setup to write a comedy- a play that has some sort of absurd potential, and very soon I find myself, or the characters, in a more melancholic space. That reminds of Italo Calvino’s definition of melancholy as ‘tragedy with lightness’. And I feel, most of the plays I’ve written move into that space. Mouse was the first one.
Apart from the language and the form, Mouse also displays a certain interest in the strange absurdities of people who don’t immediately identify themselves as heroic or extraordinary
characters. But are people who you may actually pass in the corridor. Most plays I’ve written tend to be interested in those people- who we seem to run into at some awkward, strange or unfortunate moment of their lives.
In terms of where my writing has gone from there- a lot of the articulation and dialogue in my plays has become sparer. It has become more economical. And a lot more things are left unsaid. Which is interesting in relation to Mouse because in the play, one character does all the talking and the actual character of Mouse (the actor in the giant costume), remains silent throughout.
The mind of any creator is a battlefield. Was the motivation behind Ich Bin Fassbinder to decode the artist’s process, and is it somewhere inspired from your personal state of mind while working?
Ich Bin Fassbinder followed quite close on the heels of Taramandal. And in some ways, it is the final part of an accidental trilogy about performers and their lives. I say accidental because it wasn’t our intention (when we made Mouse) to make three plays on a similar subject.
I am a huge admirer of Fassbinder’s work and several of his films stayed with me. Particularly the film Fear Eats The Soul or Angst Essen Seele Auf. Ich Bin Fassbinder came out of a desire that I had as a director, to adapt that film. It seemed like an interesting idea to turn the mirror onto the process of adaptation, rather than make the adaptation in itself. And also to explore aspects of Fassbinder’s own history as a creator- which has its own crazy and tumultuous narrative during the course of his short but extremely prolific career.
It was deeply captivating to me- the story of this artist who wanted to make stories that were simple and beautiful. Those are the two words that he would often use- but fell into a practice of working that was torturous, challenging, and damaging for himself and for many of the people that he worked with.
Perhaps the word ‘battlefield’ is quite apt in this regard. And despite this seeming like a very self-reflexive exercise, which it was to some extent- it didn’t begin from this place of identification or feeling like Fassbinder as an artist, and his manner of working was similar to how our company worked. In fact the idea to come up with a central character who sought to stage Fassbinder by emulating him in every aspect- whether consciously or inadvertently- seemed to be in some way, a projection of my worst nightmare.
All Images Source: The Tadpole Repertory