Anupama Chandrasekhar’s play The Snow Queen that has touched a chord among audiences abroad comes to Chennai. Shonali Muthalaly catches up with the playwright
“Oh, I can’t tell you.” Anupama Chandrasekhar looks embarrassed. “Too much dum, dum.” She smiles apologetically. Since she refuses to blow her own trumpet (or to use her personal analogy, beat her own drum), we’ll do it for her.
A young and talented scriptwriter, Chandrasekhar is still riding high on the success of The Snow Queen, which premiered at the Unicorn Theatre for Children. After some prompting, she admits, “It played in London from November to early January. Which makes it my biggest box office hit. 50 shows. More than 10,000 people saw it...” This month the play comes to Chennai as a Trestle Theatre and British Council co-production, as part of The Hindu MetroPlus Theatre Fest.
String of successes
It’s the latest in a string of successes. Chandrasekhar’s previous plays include Disconnect, which opened at the Royal Court Theater, London, and then had a German language premiere in Austria, a Czech language premiere in Cheb and American premiere in Chicago. Her play, Free Outgoing, also opened at the prestigious Royal Court Theatre, London. And, her Indian productions include Acid, which participated in the Writer’s Bloc Festival at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai.
Discussing why The Snow Queen touched a chord in London, she says, perhaps “it’s the colonial connect. Also, Bollywood’s really picked up after Bombay Dreams. Rahman has brought India on a world stage.” She adds, “I think it has to do with luck. With destiny. I worked as a journalist, then quit in 1998. Theatre was not on my horizon. I wasn’t a theatre-goer, or actor. I did, however, read a lot of plays…Then I ended up at a play writing workshop by Mahesh Dattani.”
In 2000, she participated in a residency programme in London with the Royal Court Theater. “I saw what people of my generation were doing with theatre. How they were pushing limits. Experimenting with style. I realised how much was possible.”
Karl Miller, a children’s writer, who met her at a theatre workshop ended up suggesting her for The Snow Queen script. She took Hans Christian Andersen’s dark and chilling tale, and set it in the colour and chaos of India. “Of course, the obvious choice was to set it here, because this is what I know. But I think what matters, in the end, is telling a story that only you can tell…” With this play, she says she let herself go. “It’s the most fun play I’ve written, the most liberating. I got tired of minimalism, and Ross (Director Rosamunde Hutt) said, ‘Just let yourself go. The more challenging it is, the better it is for me’.”
Like most classic children’s tales, The Snow Queen does have dark undertones. “These stories were products of their time. But there is universality to them. The themes stay relevant: loneliness, friendship, love, loss. Emotions don’t change with time. We fight for the same things. These fairytales live on because these are living stories.”
The story’s main protagonist is Gerda, who Chandrasekhar has made into Gauri: A little adventurer who is searching for her friend. Chandrasekhar has a soft spot for spunky women characters. “My favourite fairytale used to be Cinderella, but I got tired of her being such a goody two shoes. I liked Snow White. Living in a forest, all by herself. Well, till the seven dwarves showed up,” she laughs, adding “And then idiot that she was, she ate that poisoned apple.”
She adds thoughtfully, “Actually, the finest contemporary fairytale heroine is Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Think about it — she’s a kick-ass heroine... So much better than Bella (of Twilight.)” Chandrasekhar pauses to hold her head in her hands and groan. “Bella. Oh God. What a wimp!”
Changing the story was not as easy as transplanting the characters into a new country. “It’s a very intricate structure, moving through the seasons. Since we don’t have seasons, I used geography. Kerala is green, for Spring. Summer is Bollywood. Autumn is rust, the Chambal region. And of course, there’s winter, and where else do you find snow but in the Himalayas.”
She stresses that this isn’t a simplistic story, just because it’s targeted at children. “No good witch, bad witch. I don’t believe in true evil. There are flawed characters, yes. But they’re flawed because they are lonely… It’s a play for children, and they believe that everything can be solved. This idealism is a good thing. A lot of the world’s problems are because we don’t believe a solution is possible….”
(This play will be staged as part of The Hindu MetroPlus Theatre Fest on August 10 at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall)