Anupama Chandrasekhar's play ‘Free Outgoing' raises valid questions about India's media-crazy society.
“I'm exploring conflicting Indian views about female sexuality. There's a real disconnect between the still-operating prudery of past generations and the natural curiosity of young people today,” Anupama Chandrasekhar told me recently as we discussed her play, “Free Outgoing”. It premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre in 2007 and was such a hit that it was brought back in 2008, when I saw it. Despite these successes, though, it has not yet been staged anywhere in India.
It's easy to see why “Free Outgoing” has intrigued audiences. In a series of compact scenes, a widowed, middle-class mother, Malini, learns that her 15-year-old daughter, Deepa, has allowed herself to be photographed on a cell phone having sex with a boy at her school. The pictures are forwarded on the internet throughout the entire nation. Almost overnight, Malini, Deepa and her brother become the focus of frenzied media attention and victims of mob fury outside their modest Chennai flat. Some of the play's characters blame modern Western influences for the rapid changes in morality. In one of the more amusing scenes, a character quotes a psychologist who declares that “Indian teenagers are getting…active at a very young age…because they're switching over from thayir saadam (curd rice) to pizza.”
It's not the new diet, Ms. Chandrasekhar said with a laugh, but Western media that is helping to re-define the limits of young people's personal lives. For instance, the American TV comedy “Friends” has been popular here. It's about a group of young career-oriented men and women who, cut off from their parents, form a new kind of free-floating extended family among themselves, openly discussing details of their personal lives, and occasionally having flings with one another. I wondered if some young Indians, having achieved independence from their parents as they've taken new IT jobs and moved into flats on their own, identify with the “Friends”.
“Definitely,” Ms. Chandrasekhar said. Not only families with teenagers experience social tension. Parents' old attitudes and their grown children's new ones exist simultaneously, confusing everyone and creating dissonance between generations. “We've become a voyeuristic society, enjoying sensationalistic media stories yet condemning women who break the old rules,” Ms. Chandrasekhar said.
She sees India's severe attitudes toward female behaviour as holdovers from feudal times, when women's yearning for freedom was considered a threat to an entrenched patriarchal system. In the age-old folk-tales I collected in rural Rajasthan in the l980s, women who defied conventional morals were often buried alive or stoned to death. In modern times, the playwright told me, such women are skewered in the media, their reputations destroyed.
She hesitates to say what will happen to Deepa at the end of “Free Outgoing”, but she knows that the girl — like the one whose true story inspired the play — will be haunted by her trauma the rest of her life.
“Cyber-bullying” and “cyber-stalking” are troubling aspects of increased Internet use around the world. Teenage hostilities, previously confined to school-yard scuffles, have been transformed into on-line messages that reach hundreds or more classmates, detailing a victim's alleged flaws and sexual habits in viscously-worded detail. In America, a Massachusetts high school girl, an immigrant from Ireland, killed herself after her classmates posted damning comments about her on the internet. Hurtful cell-phone images have proliferated, too. A student at a New Jersey university committed suicide when his roommates secretly videotaped him kissing another male and broadcast the images on the internet. In America, as in India and other countries, questions have arisen about how, in a media-crazed society where everyone seems to want to be involved in a reality-TV show, we can preserve our individual privacy and protect ourselves from those who want to invade it. What rules can, or should, be made to monitor the Internet? How should we deal with those who, using new technologies, violate social mores which have yet to be clearly defined? Anupama Chandrasekhar's “Free Outgoing” is one of the first plays to pose such increasingly important questions.
I asked local playwright, novelist and journalist T.N. Murari if “Free Outgoing” was too controversial to be staged in Chennai. He said he didn't think so; the problem, he believes, is that local theatre-goers are used to much tamer material — Noel Coward comedies, endless productions of “The Odd Couple” and other lightweight shows. Some people might consider Anupama Chandrasekhar's work too advanced for local venues, he says, but he has no doubt that if it were well produced here, discerning audiences would be glad for the chance to see it. “She has enormous integrity, and there's also great compassion in her plays.” Mr. Murari said. “She's making her own way on her own terms.”
Anupama Chandrasekhar has diligently prepared herself as a playwright, with three masters degrees — one from the States — as well as an undergraduate degree from Stella Maris, Chennai, where Sita Srinivasan, head of the Drama Department, put her in touch with Mahesh Dattani, who was conducting a theatre workshop for the British Council in Chennai.
“Free Outgoing” was a finalist for the Whiting Award in the U.K. and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in the U.S., the first play written by an Indian to be nominated for these awards.
Her most recent work, “Disconnect” — a savage comedy about Indians mimicking Americans at a call-centre where they're driven to persecute credit-card debtors — has also been produced at the Royal Court Theatre to glowing reviews. A German-language version of this play was staged at the Landestheater in Linz, Austria, in 2010. At present, she is working on a new theatre piece and adapting “Free Outgoing” for a film with Indhu Rubsingham, a director who hopes to develop it for the British Council.
Is Chennai ready for Anupama Chandrasekhar? She certainly has the credentials and the talent to make her mark here.
 Quotation from the edition of Free Outgoing published in 2008 by the Royal Court's International Department.
Novelist Edward Hower was a Fulbright professor at Loyola College, Chennai, and a research fellow at the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur.