Share Your Thoughts

“The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire,” said Ferdinand Foch, and Mahesh Dattani, India’s leading playwright, reaffirms your faith in Foch’s avowal. While his name is synonymous with the English theater movement in India, most of Dattani’s stage endeavors have managed to take taboo subjects center stage and kick up a storm within the four walls of an auditorium.

Dattani was in Toronto recently to celebrate the Canadian premiere of his second celluloid venture, Morning Raga, at the ReelWorld Film Festival. The film stars Shabana Azmi, Perizaad Zorabian, and Prakash Rao, and is about the meeting of many worlds.

Looking very ethnic in a simple, yet elegant khadi kurta and jeans, Dattani seems to mirror the very common man he writes about in his plays and films. “I tell the story of your neighbor, your friend, your everyday common man, and often people from the audiences find themselves or a near one on stage. That is perhaps what makes my plays click,” says Dattani, who won the Sahitya Akademi Award (the highest award for literary work in India) in 1998 for his book Final Solutions and Other Plays.

Morning Raga was conceived with the thought of bringing the entire world a little closer. “I was working with music composer Amit Heri, who has also composed the music for my first film Mango Soufflé. A Karnatik singer was brought in to render vocal nuances for the background music ensemble and it was interesting to see Amit, a modern-day music composer wearing a funky hat and kurti, interacting with a traditionally clad vocalist from the classical art form. This observation shaped the beginning of Morning Raga,” says Dattani.

Shabana Azmi plays Swarnalatha, a Karnatik singer who stops singing after the death of her son in a tragedy. The film is a metaphor for bridging the gap between the old and the new, the traditional and the contemporary, the East and the West, and between life and death.
Dattani has taken to the big screen recently as writer and director. His first film, Mango Soufflé, an exciting and vibrant expose of the Indian gay community, won the Best Motion Picture award at the Barcelona Film Festival in 2003. “This debut film was a cinematic adaptation of my play On a Muggy Night in Mumbai,” says Dattani. “The film and the play were both very candid and spoke about honesty in relationships and the importance of being who you are. Although the film did not jingle at the box office, it was a stepping stone into the Indian film industry and an extremely insightful experience.”

Whether he is wearing his playwright or filmmaker hat, Dattani does not believe in neat endings. “You can’t treat a play like a roller-coaster ride, which, even at its most terrifying moment you know will end soon and quite happily when you hit the ground. It’s only when you are left hanging in air that you start to question your own personality, perceptions, etc. Theater is a collective experience and the audience have to finish in their own heads what the playwright began,” feels Dattani.

It is for this very reason that he has long been recognized as one of India’s leading English playwrights and most of his plays have been translated into many languages. Dance Like a Man, Thirty Days in September, and On a Muggy Night in Mumbai have been staged to critical and public acclaim all over India and abroad, including the United States.

Dattani has had four radio plays commissioned by and aired on BBC radio, and in 2000, Penguin Books published a collection of eight of his plays. Rasik Arts, a Toronto-based company devoted to South Asian theater, was the first to present his play Tara in Canada last year. “Mahesh’s perceptive and innovative play Tara received a tremendous response from Torontonians, who could relate to its universal theme and the plot instantly,” says Sally Jones, founder of Rasik Arts.

On the surface Tara is a story about conjoined twins—Tara and Chandan—who are surgically separated and yet remain entwined. However, the play deals with many issues on an emotional, psychological, and social level. As the story unravels, you find that the play is not so much about the twins’ being conjoined but more so about people and personalities.

With over 15 successful plays under his belt, what does it mean to be India’s leading playwright? “A playwright, as the name suggests, means that you are a craftsman and not just a writer, says Dattani. “It is the craft of presenting a play in its full form and being part of the entire process of production. A good playwright is merely an observer. Like a sponge, he absorbs from everyday life and experiences and responds to the sensitive issues that surround him.”

For Dattani, who writes plays for the sheer pleasure of communicating through this dynamic medium, whether it is in a stage play or a radio play, the characters speak his words. But he maintains the position of an outsider and never allows himself room in the plays he writes. In many ways it is a reflection of the non-judgmental person he is, and hence the stance of an observer. “There is little attempt to advocate change or even convey a message. It is a discussion that gently pokes and provokes the audience,” adds Dattani.

He often tackles taboo subjects that are still under wraps in the South Asian society, but does not aim at changing society, only to offer scope for reflection that will give the audience some kind of insight into their own lives. “I believe in bringing out the complexities of any conflict and discussing the issues surrounding it,” says Dattani. “There are no easy answers and as long as even one person from the audience walks home thinking about the argument I have created on stage, my job is done.”

His play Final Solutions stirred a hornet’s nest of the issue of communal riots and disharmony. It is about being pushed into corners and the effect this has on people and society in general. “I attempt to bring socially relevant subjects out in the open and place arguments around the issue,” says Dattani. “It is not my place to provide solutions and quick fixes.”

His recent play, Thirty Days in September, is close to his heart and brings back some vivid memories. Directed by Lilette Dubey and written by Dattani, it is based on the sensitive and generally taboo subject of child sexual abuse and endeavors to lift the veil of silence that often surrounds its victims and addresses the issue unflinchingly.

“I had interviewed eight victims of child abuse before writing the play and for a long time could not view those taped interviews without feeling the horror and the dilemma of it all,” recalls Dattani. He substituted his usual brand of black humor with the healing process in this play. Another play, Seven Steps Around the Fire, also explored issues faced by men, women, and eunuchs.

It is for his sensitive and insightful portrayal of forbidden subjects that his plays are included on the syllabus of several Indian and foreign universities and schools, including New York University, University of Malaysia, and Hyderabad University. But more than the bold themes, what makes his plays so enjoyable is his characterization. He knows the world he is talking about, and shows it just the way it is, with all the hypocrisy, the prejudices, the dilemmas. Nothing is spared.

Women play a pivotal role in all of Dattani’s plays. “Women form the largest minority in the world and I find it interesting to illustrate their personal expressions, their dilemmas, their interpretations,” says Dattani.
Dattani started as an advertising copywriter and subsequently worked with his father in the family business. Taking up a career in theater was an active choice for him. “I was exposed to the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, and other Western European literature while studying in a Christian missionary school in India. But sadly, there were no such stories about contemporary India or about the vibrant Indian community in the English language and this made me think. I wanted more plays written primarily in English for Indian audiences and started by adapting a Gujarati play,” he recalls.

He formed his theater group Playpen in 1984 and directed several plays ranging from classical Greek to contemporary works. In 1986, he wrote his first play Where There is a Will.

Dattani, who calls himself a “reluctant playwright,” chose to direct first before he wrote. “All my works are very personal and directing these enables me to put in more stage instructions which goes on to become a kind of blueprint for other directors. There is no theater without an actor or an audience. Everything is geared towards rasa, which is why I always direct the first production of any play I write,” he adds.

Like a chameleon, Dattani often finds himself transforming into different roles: actor, writer, director, playwright. There is no conflict of interest as all roles complement each other.

Now he is taking on yet another role, that of a novelist. Although several books of his plays and earlier works, including Collected Plays, have been published by Penguin Books, they have commissioned him to write a novel, the theme of which is still under wraps.

Despite being one of the most prominent playwrights of India, Dattani still has to juggle art and commerce in his studio in Bangalore. “I couldn’t live off writing plays alone. I supplement my income by teaching theater and conducting workshops here.”

The studio doubles as a creative person’s retreat and a living space. “I need my space to write and this is one of the reasons I have not moved to Mumbai,” says Dattani. “My studio is my retreat, a kind of a play laboratory. It has a mini amphitheatre and I work here, hold impromptu stage rehearsals, exhibitions, and sometimes stage an off-the-cuff seed of thought to get immediate feedback.”

With Toronto soon behind him, Dattani is headed back to Bangalore, the city where he grew up, where he will be busy calling the shots and doing what he loves best—presenting plays. So, let the curtains roll, lights dim, and the act begin!

Toronto-based writer Firdaus Ali writes about cinema, theater, and music.