Friday, April 08, 2022
The recent sale of a rare 18th century painting got me thinking about Vanguard once again. I wrote a piece for the Wire about it. This painting first entered my life in 2011-12, when I was back in grad school. The SOAS JCR was where all the action was on a Friday night, and imagine my surprise when on the walls was a poster seeking writers to help with some website content related to Tippu Sultan! I responded and that set into a motion a series of events that led to the writing of Vanguard, a play about Mysore rockets. At a time when everyone (including myself) was writing simple 2-handers for the stage, I went ahead and wrote a big chunky historical play for 13 actors. It awaits a spectacular production - which I feel is coming soon!
Thursday, April 15, 2021
Sunday, November 22, 2020
Delighted to receive the Sultan Padamsee Award 2020 for my play Undaunted. Second time I've picked this award up, I won it in 2011 for Ultimate Kurukshetra. Thoroughly enjoyed this short little extract from the first draft of the piece.
My reaction was to promptly schedule some time to redraft the script. Sigh! As a playwright one does not write a play, one rewrites it!
A passenger stranded aboard a quarantined cruise ship tries to spin a yarn. The ship’s steward though, seems to be spending way too much time on the internet. The story feels like a blast from the past.
February 1946: The steam ship SS Undaunted enroute to Bombay is unable to make landfall as the city and country are in the midst of an insurrection, the Royal Indian Navy uprising. Clandestine actions on the deck reveal five people with hidden pasts embroiled in a mysterious operation.
Nadia a sultry film-star, Roshan a suave banker, and the enigmatic Mira draw the attention of Jai, a cop with a violent streak. Ibrahim, a lascar, has been sailing on steamers for forty years. He wants to go home.
Starting at the cusp of India’s Independence, and at the close of World War 2, the deck of the Undaunted opens out into the intricate tapestry of maritime India in the first half of the twentieth century. The zig-zag journey of characters between Madras and Penang, Bombay and Aden, London and Durban, intersect with iconic moments in the lives of Indian political thinkers, and the glitzy world of cinema.
With a nod to the noir genre, Undaunted propels us into a vivid dreamscape, where journeys are made over water and discoveries are made in the deep.
Friday, October 30, 2020
The creation of art in times of global turmoil is not a luxury, but a necessity. Even as we must pause to fathom the tremendous loss of life and social turmoil caused by the Covid19 pandemic in India and the world, as artists we must be aware of the role we must play as the period of lockdown ends. When we emerge on “the other side”, we might find a world drastically transformed. Artists and art will be needed to mediate forces that will try to constitute the new normal, even as we experience an alarming retreat from democratic norms in the present crisis.
The playwright Howard Barker offers us a compelling metaphor of his conception of the theatre - the theatre of catastrophe. This construction “…takes as its first principle the idea that art is not digestible. Rather, it is an irritant in consciousness, like the grain of sand in the oyster's gut...” While Barker’s invocation of catastrophe is to jolt the complacent audience with a feeling of sensorial excess and contextual disjuncture, at present we find ourselves in a literal catastrophe. As a playwright continuing to work in these difficult circumstances, I share this, and additional ideas on how the play Undaunted has taken shape.
One of the stated aims of this play is to render on stage a kind of worker’s consciousness. The lascar as an Indian seafarer may be socially constructed through biography and historical record. However, the play seeks to evoke the lascar, not as an individual produced by social forces, but instead the beacon holder of a particular shared worldview. This is one marked by mobility, the ability to move from port to port, to be exposed to new ideas and cultures and to land up at unusual and remarkable places. At the same time there is also a sense of constraint, where the ability to disembark or “jump ship” was regulated and racial prejudice was deployed as a means of control.
In this play the attempt to capture consciousness has resulted in a mix of registers, using dreams, memories, contemporary memes and historical fact as source material. The wide range of registers is deliberate, as it confounds the easy relegation of the subject as a distant matter for historical contemplation, or one relevant to high or low culture. As agents of early globalisation, the lascar’s world is brought to the foreground and scenes of migration and travel under extreme duress resonate with contemporary images of migrant labour “cut loose” by the government to fend for themselves.
One of the formal choices of the play has been to adopt a closed space, open time format. This is a rubric that creates a relatively bounded space, the deck of a ship, as the main setting. The closed space has different configurations, such as an upper deck and a lower deck, typically indicating class differences of passengers. The setting in time however, remains open, with the play alternating between the present and the past. Although we are locked into a single physical space, the action of the play flits across time, roughly covering the first half of the twentieth century.
This play mixes genres. I do not want the play to be seen as a historical play or a period piece. The events, though they occur in the past are conflated with the present. This is meant to reflect the contemporary moment, as one aspect of the public narrative around Covid19 is the uncanny re-articulation of earlier historical periods. The most obvious parallel is the Spanish flu of 1918, but the referencing to World War I and II by political leaders across the world is also marked, as is evocation of the great economic depression of the 1930s. The time signatures present in the play mimics the present as a meta-narrative for a regressive slide into the past.
For example, the play switches into narratives derived from popular cinema at the time, across Hollywood and Bollywood. Based on researched historical fact, we are taken behind the scenes of the 40s film-noir murder mystery Calcutta shot at Paramount studios, where about 200 lascars worked as extras on location. We also are taken on board the SS Rajputana which is actually a film-set for the idealistic classic Dr. Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani directed by V Shantaram at the Rajkamal Kalamandir Studios in Bombay. Similarly, we are also witness to legendary maritime journeys of Indian political figures such as Ambedkar, Gandhi & Savarkar at pivotal moments in their lives, prior to their emergence as major figures in the Indian independence movement. We also experience a legendary maritime journey based on historical fact, the story of the SS Komagata Maru which was denied permission to dock at Vancouver in 1914.
Lastly, the play is a journey over water for the characters and audience. This is an ethereal metaphor evocative of spiritual growth, the movement from one phase of life to the next, or even the movement beyond this life to the next. One origin for this metaphor comes to us from Greek myth where the boatman Charon ferries recent dead across the river Styx and Acheron in the afterlife. In the play the characters all experience this journey in different ways.
I am keenly aware that this play was written at a moment of terrible loss. I believe that the heart of the play, as evoked in the spirit of the lascars, is the journey of hope. Despite the terror of the unknown, we journey forward. Despite our plans dashed, our vision obscured, and the unbearable weight of grief, we must journey onwards with love and light in our hearts.
Written 15th May 2020
Thursday, August 20, 2020
The global pandemic has created massive disruptions in the theatre community, and I was recently asked to respond to this topic. The article that was published online left a lot to be desired when it came to quoting my responses in context. The sub-editors headline "trying to keep the theatre alive" was also sufficiently cringe worthy enough for me to put out this short clarification.
POST SCRIPT: Relieved to report that the article was subsequently edited to keep my quotes in context. The headline was also softened from "trying to keep the theatre alive" to "keep the theatre going". Small victories!
1. A large proportion of the theatre community has made the transition to online work. We've moved performances and workshops to social and streaming platforms, Zoom, FB, Insta Live etc. Multiple generations of theatre people from experienced veterans to younger digital natives are all grappling with this change.
2. Our sense of theatre community has been reconfigured. We now find ourselves working across multiple time zones and locations. At AEIF, we have had workshop participants from Singapore, Malaysia, Toronto, across India etc.
3. Content innovations are taking place. Some of us have shifted closer towards radio/podcasting as a “hybrid format”. This is actually quite interesting since there is a sense of visual fatigue that occurs from being online staring at screens all the time.
4. Theatre is about active experience – so we have moved even further away from the sensational visual towards the process of active listenership. This ethos of experiencing a story is totally opposed to “binge watching” content on OTT platforms.
5. Theatre is about a social experience, so “eyeballs and footfalls” are not so important as the building-reconfiguring of our community/audiences/ecosystem in this moment of flux. When we move online we're not looking for millions of hits on YouTube but for those who see value in the story that we are telling and participate with us in the act of storytelling.
1. Where social disparity and the digital divide existed earlier, it has been made worse. Folk and rural artists are disproportionately hurt.
2. Professionalisation in the arts, which in India was always patchy and uneven, has faced a massive setback through theatre closures. This has hurt independent/freelance practitioners who go from gig to gig quite a lot. The hurt is felt not just by the artists (actors, creative team etc) but the whole creative ecosystem (the theatre staff, the technicians, the backstage crew, the chaiwallah and the dhobiwallah!) all of whom are part of the theatre ecosystem, though sometimes not directly visible.
We are seeing exceptional resilience and adaptation in the community, even in the face of gloom and doom all around. The ghost lights kept burning in the closed theatres are a symbol that we are keeping our creative spirits strong!
Saturday, June 27, 2020
Here's a bunch of FAQs about the workshop. (You can tell how long I've been writing, by the fact that you are seeing this on Blogspot!!!)
What is this workshop about?
This workshop covers script writing fundamentals for anyone who wants to create a dramatic text - a stage play, a film script, a radio play, or a web series. Through the sessions we will cover foundational ideas like how to craft plot, character and dialogue.
We will also work with myth, dreams and archetypes through the Hero’s Journey – a very popular industry format with screenwriters. A dramatic text can also be informed by painting and music, and we will gain insights from these forms of expression to enhance our ability to craft drama.
Research skills will round off the basics. We will learn how to complement our imagination and personal experience by sourcing real-world material to inspire our art. Fact is often stranger than fiction! With a bit of training, we can make that work for us.
Who can attend?
The script writing fundamentals workshop is meant for writers working in any dramatic medium, primarily theatre, film, radio or digital. Some of the methods can also benefit those working in narrative fiction looking to fine tune an ear for dialogue or refine their plotting. Right from stand-up comics looking to generate material, through to screenwriters pitching for a web series, there will be something for everyone who wants to write a script.
What are the sessions like?
The workshop is made up of three units
- Workshop intensive
- Interactive sessions
- Script Mentoring
The workshop intensive is made up of 6 sessions of exercises, with sharing of tools and methods.
There will be 3 interactive sessions with practitioners from the field.
A month-long mentoring session follows, where you can receive professional feedback on a script that you are working on, rewriting or have created as an outcome of the workshop.
All sessions will take place over Zoom. Each session will be 2 hours long.
When are the sessions?
We will work on weekends (Sat & Sun) in July from 6pm – 8pm starting 11th and 12th of July.
Interactive Sessions will be scheduled through August. Mentoring will be scheduled individually.
There will be a final online reading of our work in September.
What will you charge?
The workshop fee is INR 9000/- all inclusive. This covers nine sessions and the individual mentoring on a script of your choice.
If you would only like to attend the sessions, without the mentoring then the fee is INR 7000/-
Student discounts and concessions are available on request.
What exactly will we learn?
Here’s a brief overview of some of the things we will cover.
Plotting – the classic approach to revelation and the reversal
Character – getting a grip on wants and obstacles
Dialogue – the psychological approach
Dialogue – the speech genre
Hero’s Journey – working with myth, dreams and archetypes
Time, Space and Setting – Engaging multiple art forms for insights
Research skills for writers – methods and tools
How do I sign up?
Sign up using the Instamojo link https://imjo.in/3FtNekOr get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
Saturday, April 25, 2020
Sometime to feel the movement of a play you need to get it out into some physical form. This is a technique screenwriters use all the time, but I found myself using it for my play about Indian seafarers. It was far more satisfying than my Scapple arc, but well... if the movements are more complex and granular you can make a map like this one to keep track of things.