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Updated: May 21, 2014 18:13 IST

Her plays go places

SHONALI MUTHALALY
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Shekinah Jacob
Special Arrangement Shekinah Jacob

City girl Shekinah Jacob, whose play Ali J got rave reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and is to open the NCPA Centrestage Festival, Mumbai, talks about how she’s settling into the life of a playwright. Shonali Muthalaly listens in

“I’m intrigued by the forces that shape our destiny.” Shekinah Jacob looks thoughtful for a minute, contemplating perhaps how the forces have been working in her favour lately. Her first attempt at a professional full-blown play script, The Long Way Home, found its way to the country’s most prestigious stages, from NCPA and Prithvi in Mumbai to the Museum Theatre in Chennai, last year. Her next play, a political thriller, Ali J by evam premiered at the recent Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and ran for 25 days garnering rave reviews. It opens the NCPA Centrestage Festival in Mumbai next, after which it will tour the country.

Her first script

Shekinah laughs, “It’s… what’s the word… serendipity?” When she scribbled her first script on the back of a notebook in school, it was simply an approximation of what she thought a play should look like. Yet, she says, the form came naturally. “I hear conversations in my head!” Then, when she was at WCC, she wrote a play with seven girls in it. “We had no male actors and needed a script!” This play got her into a workshop with the Royal Court Theatre, London. “I learnt how drama is action. Cause and effect. Your left brain and right brain have to work together.”

However, her first full-fledged script was still a long way off. “I worked as a reporter in Bangalore doing food and play reviews. Did an MA in English Literature at the University of Madras. Got married. Had two kids. For the next 5-6 years my whole life consisted of burping babies and changing diapers.” She adds, “I was really restless. So I got a job as a copywriter, then as a technical writer. I thought maybe I should make some money. But I got bored.”

So she approached the Royal Court Theatre again. “This time, I sent them a play I had been working on. It was the original draft of The Long Way Home. I had become a mother, and so I explored the dynamics between a mother and daughter.” The play evolved as she realised her strength was dialogue. The play, staged by Evam, starred the talented dancer-actor Anita Ratnam, in a role so authentic that every performance ended with people walking up to her and saying, “You’re just like my mom.” Shekinah says, “I realised that even if I’m writing about the small world I know, a domineering south Indian mother isn’t too different from a mother at the other end of the world. As playwrights we have to fall in love with creating believable characters.”

“I was relieved when I handed the script to Evam. I had lost all perspective by then. Luckily KK (founder-director Karthik Kumar) was on the same page, and we were really lucky with our cast.” Watching it with an audience was still nerve-racking though. “If someone had told me that ‘This won’t work,’ at that point I would have just gone home and started a cupcake business!” She says, “I get stress headaches when I’m in the audience… I’m working on detachment, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. I only see the flaws.” Often she finds herself watching the audience instead of the stage. “I enjoyed doing that in Edinburgh. No one knew I was the playwright, so I spent all my time looking at their reactions.” She laughs, “I felt like Santa Claus, walking through after every performance and asking ‘Did you enjoy it? Yes? I’m so glad.’”

Ali J began with a real story. “My brother is a lawyer who works with human rights in Mumbai. He told me about a guy who was imprisoned because drugs were planted in his bag. The man spent 10 years in a Mauritius prison, and then was moved to Mumbai. He’s still in prison.” Around the same time, evam asked her to write them a monologue for The Fringe. “They originally wanted one on Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and realising how little Indian history I know, I began to Flipkart books on the subject.” After six months of reading, she decided to morph the two subjects. “The actual writing took just as long as it took me to type.”

“The story works on two levels. It’s about a guy in his 30s imprisoned in a cell in Chennai. He’s on death row for a crime he did not commit… It’s about how circumstances and people shape his vision.” She adds, “The point is to capture the idea that a single event can change the course of your life. All of us are acted on by so many influences — childhood, love, jealousy…. Great historical figures were no different. Their decisions are so influenced by personal egos, ambitions, little distractions…

Meanwhile, she’s settling into the life of a playwright. “Everyday it’s a new battle. Some times I’m in the research phase. Sometimes I’m in a writer phase. Sometimes it’s just summer holidays,” she laughs. “It’s tough to write with the kids. Just as I zone in, someone’s nose is leaking and I have to back off right away. But I’m learning…”

congrates .May the Lord Bless you and also all your up coming projects
with Blessings,Bishop.John Rajadorai.

from:  JOHN RAJADORAI
Posted on: Sep 5, 2013 at 23:30 IST

Thanks for sharing your story Shekinah. It is indeed wonderful to hear
of the reach and influence your script-writing is having both at home
and on the global stage. Congratulations! Delighted for you. Miriam
joins me in wishing you. Keep writing. God bless, Arun Andrews

from:  Arun
Posted on: Sep 5, 2013 at 22:06 IST

Way to go Shekinah ......bring it on to Dubai also......

from:  Reeba Jacob
Posted on: Sep 5, 2013 at 21:32 IST

Wow Shakinah... you truly inspire us to follow our dreams... Rock on!

from:  Ajai
Posted on: Sep 5, 2013 at 18:25 IST

Im from Melbourne, I sincerely hope that someday Shekina's play gets staged here so
we get a chance to watch this play here.

from:  Selwyn Thomas
Posted on: Sep 5, 2013 at 14:06 IST

Well done Shekina !

from:  Sujatha
Posted on: Sep 5, 2013 at 13:46 IST

I remember listening to Shekina reading out a story she wrote for our English class. We were in fifth grade, her genius was evident even then. I hope she goes places, all the very best.

from:  arvind narayan
Posted on: Sep 5, 2013 at 13:16 IST

Very inspiring !!! Waiting for the play to come to Chennai !!! Evam has
a bunch of passionate people with excellant talents - KK,TMK, Suinil,
Bhargav etc. I have been extremely fortunate to collaborate with.

from:  bhaskar
Posted on: Sep 5, 2013 at 11:58 IST

Congratulations Shekina. My wife, friends and myself enjoyed watching AliJ at the Pleasance Court at Edinburgh Fringe. The script was compelling and engaged the audience throught the play. Looking forward to see more from the talented writer. My Best wishes :)

from:  Thiru
Posted on: Sep 4, 2013 at 21:01 IST

Quite inspiring. I'm some one who is a little like her... so , thank u for the lil spark u ignited in me :)

from:  Amal
Posted on: Sep 4, 2013 at 17:17 IST
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