Akash Mohimen talks about censorship and artistic rivalry in his play Under the Chestnut Tree which has been shortlisted for the Metroplus Playwright Award 2013
“Under the spreading Chestnut Tree, I sold you and you sold me.” Akash Mohimen borrows from a strong influence — George Orwell’s 1984, to weave a dramatic piece about censorship, artistic rivalry, betrayal, and the dynamics of a totalitarian State. Akash grew up in Jamshedpur, finished college in Mumbai and gained his love for theatre from the city. Shortlisted for the MetroPlus Playwright Award, he talks about the play Under the Chestnut Tree.
The play resonates with contemporary concerns at many points be it censorship or homosexuality laws. But on others, it smacks of the past. What led you to create Under the Chestnut Tree?
The immediate inspiration for me was watching the movie, The Artist — a film with no sound. From that I got the idea of creating something with no colour. (In the play, artists are allowed to use only black and white in their paintings.) Initially, I thought of developing it as a short film and it stayed with me for a while. That is when all those online censorship issues happened. I realised this cannot be a short film and instead pulled it off as a play.
The play blends well two strains — one of artistic rivalry and the other of censorship. How did these two ideas meet?
Historically, there were always artistic rivalries. Michelangelo had Raphael and Picasso had his mentor. Censorship too has history. One sees it in the early 20th Century in the fascist States, through McCarthyism in the 1950s and it keeps coming. The reason given by the State for censorship is often weird. Not allowing artists to use colour in their paintings is as absurd as it can get and I used it in the play. Texts like 1984 were a big influence, especially lines like “Big brother is watching you.” When I wrote about the incident under the chestnut tree, all of it just fit in well.
Was the intention a contemporary satire? Were there any concepts you abided by while writing?
I think the play can fit into any time, the 1940s, 1950s or the future. I was particular about having a secular State where different religions exist as the setting. One tends to associate hardcore censorship with religious States. But it is universal.
In the three character play, you have chosen to give pregnant names to each of them — names that have traits that agree with their character or are ironical. Osman also means a trustworthy friend, while the abbreviated Captain L is explained along the play and so is Eve.
When I was writing the play, I wanted the first letters of their names to stand for LEO — for Leonardo Da Vinci, as the play deals with artists. Also, I was reminded of Kafka who described his characters with alphabets and I decided to make my character Captain L.
Though the play deals with themes that are dark, it is never heavy. You have peppered it with enough repartee. Was it a deliberate choice to give humour its place in the play?
Whenever these censorship issues happen, I find it very funny. Reasons for such actions are almost never given and it appears a joke. Further, I also believe however dark a play is, it can have certain amount of wit. It is a personal choice I make as a writer. I like my characters to banter.
Has the play evolved from its initial drafts? Are you planning to stage it soon?
I began writing the play in April 2012 and the draft was ready by December when I submitted it for the competition. It took me about six months. Ever since, I have been polishing it slightly. In terms of performance, yes, talks are on with a production house in Mumbai and we are looking at a July opening for the play.
You have said you work as a film editor to pay your bills.
I like to be writing. That way in the past three years, I have done five plays. I do film editing, a lot of trailers, some documentaries etc, to pay my rent. I enjoy writing, story-telling and I plan to do short stories and may even do film scripts eventually. But theatre gives you a lot of room for improvement, especially during rehearsals when the play ceases to be just your baby.
What are your future projects?
I am researching two scripts. One will be a historical drama and another based on child sex abuse.