Prolific dramatist Mahesh Dattani looks back at the influences on his work even as he continues his creative streak.
An ambitious dancer with a deep, tragic secret. A singer whose guilt at having inadvertently caused a death all but chokes her voice. A renowned actress trying to drown her nightmarish memories in a whirl of glamour. A bunch of city slickers, the envy of ‘aspirational India’, each with unacknowledged truths gnawing away at every pretence of cheerful success. These and numerous other examples fill the theatre and film creations of Mahesh Dattani. The last two appear in two of his latest plays recently published by Penguin in a slim paperback, “Me and My Plays”: “Where Did I Leave My Purdah?” (first performed 2012) is about a famous thespian who migrated to India at Partition, while “The Big Fat City” (first performed 2013) represents a slice of life — none too merry — in Mumbai.
Why so much darkness, one asks the creator of this dark world, layered with grief, denial, violence, fear and lies. The playwright — cheerful as ever — agrees. “That’s something I also wonder about,” he says. “Everyone expects me to be serious with a dark cloud hanging over me.” Indeed, with his sprightly body language, his beaming smile, ready laugh and sparkling eyes, it is a bit of an enigma. Pointing out he has humour too, and that he would rather not analyse the situation too much, he muses, “You can’t sever yourself completely (from your writing). Obviously there is something deep and dark which I want to bring out.”
But the dichotomies of the world he lives in have always been the subject of his thoughts, or so he makes clear in the autobiographical essay that lends its name to the title of the book. One might even venture to say it was the paradox of his being born to Gujarati parents, brought up in Bangalore yet fluent only in English, and all along searching for a theatre medium that would speak to his fellow Indians, that made him into one of the most successful Indian English dramatists today.
But if the process of theatre is about asking questions, about a fluidity rather than a rigidity of perspective, then Dattani is certainly immersed in that process. The Sahitya Akademi Award winning playwright, director and screenplay writer, recognised for his influence on the contemporary English theatre scene in the country, still ruminates on the circumstances that propelled him to that position. Rather than gloating over his ‘proper’ English, he speaks of it as a last resort, as it were.
Dattani went to English medium schools, where his accomplishments in the international language came “at the cost” of Gujarati, as well as Kannada, which he says he “never bothered” to learn. Besides the essay, the subject of language also came up in a discussion Dattani had on the just launched “eNatya Chaupal” initiative of the Mumbai Theatre Guide, during which the dramatist was interviewed by Jehan Manekshaw. The interview was carried out, incidentally, in chaste English, but it’s not often in this country of 22 scheduled languages — plus English, plus innumerable dialects — that a conversation is carried on purely in one language.
True, agrees Dattani, “language is evolving, so we tend to borrow from other languages.” Of himself though, he says, “I stayed with the language. So it didn’t become hybrid.” In the medium of theatre, a reflection of reality, this lack of ‘hybridity’ might be seen as a drawback. But as Dattani points out, “All I can say is my characters are multilingual or bilingual. So the language is my creation, an artifice.”
For that matter, the language of a play, like other symbols of realism, is a stylised interpretation of reality. Realism too is a convention, he points out. Many of the characters in his plays would not normally speak in English or possibly not even know the language. He mentions “Seven Steps around the Fire”, noting that very few members of the Hijra community, within which the thriller is set, would converse in English. Similarly, when Anu’s brother Harjeet enters the scene in “The Big Fat City”, Anu would in real life break into Haryanvi.
Speaking of conventions, speech is not the only language of theatre, and Dattani, trained for six years in his youth in Bharatanatyam under Gurus U.S. Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi, as well as in Ballet, has other tools at his disposal. While he uses the performing arts as a metaphor for “living life to the fullest”, and refers to “Dance Like a Man”, “Morning Raga” (the film) and “Where Did I Leave My Purdah” as his “triptych”, these are about performers. These works do not use dance, movement or music as expression beyond the words. “That becomes a convention. That’s not a metaphor,” he agrees. “I am interested, I would love to do it.” But with trained actors being drawn to films and television, it’s a rarity to find actors who can dance and sing too, and who are free to do live shows for prolonged periods, he notes. “It’s just a question of logistics.”