The Madras Players' “Tunnel Vision” had lots to offer with its power-packed script

The beginning is truly dramatic. When her car crashes near a hoarding in Karachi, a young woman hurtles through its smashed windscreen. And as she lies in a coma at a hospital, her soul, which hovers over her body, narrates the events of her life up till the present.

Ayesha is a modern, working Pakistani woman struggling to assert her identity as a strong and intelligent individual in a highly patriarchal set up. Add to this the family burden left by a father who vanished when she was a child, a mother who is racked by bitterness, and a selfish young brother, and it all leads to woman who feels that “going into coma is like going home”. We also meet Ayesha's wealthy lover, his doting mother and her college friend, a conformist to whom marriage is the only goal.

Taut drama

Director Nikhila Kesavan, through her brilliant adaptation of Pakistani writer Shandana Minhas' debut novel Tunnel Vision: Being 31 and Single in Karachi…, presented by The Madras Players at the Sivagami Petachi auditorium, gave the audience a taut, emotionally-charged drama at the heart of which were the complexities of a difficult mother-daughter relationship. The novel was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

Nikhila, as director and script writer, skillfully yanked together the various threads of the novel to give a composite picture.

The director built up the tension steadily. Her characters, like well-coiled rolls of film, unspooled to expose their true selves and actions. The troubled and tense relationship between mother and daughter slowly unfurled to result in a fiery confrontation that was easily the best scene in the play.

Anuradha Rao showed her vintage mettle as the mother who, riddled with the insecurities and jealousy caused by betrayal, throws venomous barbs at her pretty daughter one moment and is all cajoling artifice the next.

Mekha Rajan was the daughter who had to shoulder as much responsibility in the play as in the story for she had to carry the burden of narration. She rose to the occasion in handling a difficult role that made great demands on her energy, never making a slip. But, there were moments when she seemed a little too focussed on getting her lines across clearly; her gesture of spreading out her hands was slightly repetitive. The two lead actors blazed their way while the supporting actors mostly failed to deliver — did they need more directorial guidance?

However, the text did not possess great revelations or novel insights. When Ayesha finally reveals what snatched her father away, one feels no surprise.

Predictable too were the references to the unwanted girl child and to female appearance, the household help who becomes much more, and the final restoration wrought by love, need and appreciation. For those who looked forward to a play set in Pakistan, beyond a few references to Karachi, not much was offered to conjure up the colours, sights and sounds of a different city, country or culture. The play could have been set anywhere — this was paradoxically perhaps what made one relate to the work.

The minimalistic sets (design: Mahesh Radhakrishnan) fabricated with wire that served as seating space and hospital bed, lent a caged look that went well with characters trapped in their worlds. The costume by Anaka Narayanan was in keeping with this minimal look. The snatches of music (music compilation: Phanindra Garikipati) helped lighten the sombre atmosphere or enhance it.

And, in a play like this where the past and present, the real character and the astral are interwoven, is this the only way to do the lighting, by alternatively focussing on one side of the stage and then the other?

The script packed with punch and power had much to offer in 90 minutes. In direction, adaptation and design, Nikhila in “Tunnel Vision” revealed an expertise far beyond her age and experience.

With talented young directors such as Nikhila and Aruna Ganesh Ram (“Swami and Friends”) The Madras Players seems well equipped to take their act successfully forward into the second decade of the 21st Century.