Mahesh Dattani on writing for an audience that doesn’t shy away from issues
On Monday, playwright Mahesh Dattani was at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) 2014, sharing the dais with Sachin Kundalkar and Shashi Mittal, discussing the difference between writing for theatre and cinema. Audience at the packed venue cheered the session laced with wit. “JLF turned out to be a mela; I never expected such a gathering. Large fests like that are great to sell your book,” he guffaws, as he settles down to talk to us ahead of his session on the opening day of Hyderabad Literary Festival 2014.
Dattani has been part of larger literary fests in Jaipur and New Delhi, and smaller ones conducted in places like Thimpu and says, “The real work is happening in the so-called smaller cities. These fests may not impress by numbers but people who come for the fests are willing to donate their time. I feel the fests mean a lot more to people in these cities.”
The playwright’s new book ‘Me and My Plays’ (Penguin; Rs. 299) is partly autobiographical, tracing his journey in theatre. The book also has scripts of his recent plays Where Did I leave my Purdah? and The Big Fat City. “The idea of bringing out plays as books is to draw a larger section of the audience that is getting initiated to theatre,” he says.
He says it’s become easier today to discuss issues once considered taboo. “I remember the time when I wrote 30 Days in September. Writing about child sexual abuse was difficult. It’s an uncomfortable issue since we all have children around us and the thought of abuse is frightening. There are various complexities to the issue — how does one explain the love-hate relationship between the abuser and the abused? The abuser manipulates the feelings of the child he is violating; it is tough to talk about it rationally,” he says. The increased discourse on the issue in mainstream media, Dattani says, has made the audience look into specifics. “The audience response is changing; they ask questions about how the play deals with the mother-daughter relationship and so on. As a playwright, that’s a huge success. We are not here to merely talk about issues. We want people to relate to issues.”
This changing scenario has also made Dattani realise that certain older plays will have to be reworked upon. “In On a Muggy Night in Mumbai I spoke about the politics of being gay. If one were to stage the play today, I would have to rework it. Some lines are redundant,” he says.
With many plays and a Sahitya Akademi award to his credit, Dattani feels writers deal with duality — of responding to what’s happening in the world at large by isolating themselves during the process of writing.
In the session that followed where he was in conversation with academician Tutun Mukherjee, Dattani spoke about his early days of learning Bharatanatyam and ballet and how learning a performing art helps a theatre actor. Answering a question on why he chose to write plays and not poetry or prose, he said, “I am wedded to the spoken word than the written word.” In his plays Dance like a Man and Brief Candle and the film Morning Raga, he used performing arts as a metaphor for characters dealing with an inner turmoil.
“In Morning Raga, Shabana Azmi has to cross a bridge, fight her inner demons and perform a tough raga in front of an audience,” he explained.