This year, The Hindu Lit for Life, gave youngsters an opportunity to enact the work of the five short-listed authors for The Hindu Prize for Best Fiction, into theatrical adaptations. The plays were spread across all three days of the festival. Payal Chhabria reports…

Chaos! And against the backdrop, five teams fought a war — a war of words; a war of action. For the first-time, The Hindu Lit For Life, gave college theatre groups in the city a stage to perform, an opportunity to break open their creative reservoirs and compete with others, their kind.

Staged

While Gulzar was launching his latest inside the Sri Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall, right outside, on a sunny noon, the first team, Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT), went up on the small platform erected for the purpose to perform an adaptation of Manu Joseph’s, The Illicit Happiness of Other People. An efficient use of space, clever costumes and dash of dark humour had them going on track, until an untidy structuring fluctuated the balance, now and then.

“Honestly, we did not judge them on production value,” says Nikhila Kesavan, actor, director, committee member of the Madras Players, and one of the judges, “To condense an entire novel into a 40-minute theatre production is a challenge for anyone. So, we judged them on the extent to which they had internalised the text they had chosen, and how convinced they were about it.”

Contrary to the minimalist, intense treatment by VIT, Anna University translated Manjul Bajaj’s Another Man’s Wife into episodes of acting and dance, drama and humour, action and mystery that seamlessly flowed into each other, alongside a meticulous eye for detail at all times. “I was amazed at how they had adapted the story to a south Indian context. It was interesting how they had used destiny as a dancer. It was enriching because the story had acquired another dimension and another life,” says, Manjul Bajaj.

MOP Vaishnav College for Women followed suit with their version of Another Man’s Wife. Slow but steady, they had their moments. What stood out was an earnest attempt to innovate and experiment.

The judges were in mood, the audience was curious and the tide of the battle worsened when the final two of the lot, SRM University and Stella Maris College, showcased their versions of Sonora Jha’s Foreign. “Honestly, I had never imagined that the agriculture officer, the wretched and abhorrent Sachin Patekar, could be so amusing,” says Sonora Jha, post SRM University’s performance, “There may be other celebrated theatre groups who might adapt the book, but I will never be able to recreate the feelings I had while watching this. It was truly moving.”

While SRM University preferred the simple and traditional translation of text into a play; Stella Maris College took a chance with rehearsed reading. The former had better costumes; the latter had better props. The former had sharper roles; the latter had neater movements. Someone had to win; someone had to lose.

Contrasts

“Given the space and occasion, it is amazing how all the groups performed,” says T.M. Karthik, actor, and one of the judges, “The way boys treat a text and the way girls interpret the same text is quite different, if I may say so. While the boys were more performance-oriented, the girls were more emotion-driven, and hence each performance had a different level of intensity; I quite liked the contrast that I saw.

I must add that this exercise must have been quite challenging, because of the constraint in the choice of texts. Chances are that the contestants might have chosen a passage because it is easier to perform, rather than if they could relate to it.”

On the last day of The Hindu Lit for Life, the winners were announced after much deliberation, and it was the team from SRM University!

Kushal Lalvani, student of SRM University, and Director of the play, says, “We never thought we had a chance of winning until the audiences started bombarding us with questions. The response made us realise what an impact we had made.”

“It is absolutely great that The Hindu has given young people a chance to stage their work at a festival of this calibre. Literature and theatre draw from each other. One way of reading the text is to read the book of course; the other way is to convert it into a play. I prefer the latter. Theatre in Chennai is still a work-in-progress. Having said that, the emergence of so many young theatre groups in the city has made the form more accessible and that is great.” - T.M. Karthik, Actor

“It is a great way to make the student community read contemporary literature and present their ideas and interpretations. It was also amazing how the authors were moved to tears watching their stories on stage. The students were inspired to see the authors in the audience. It is a great idea and the organizers should think about how to develop it further.” - Nikhila Kesavan, actor, director, committee member of the Madras Players

“All art and storytelling has an impact on other forms. So it is excellent that The Hindu’s literary festival is encouraging literature in all forms. What could be a better way to do this than getting young readers to engage so deeply with the texts? I think the way forward is to get other lit fests to adopt this idea and also find ways to have arts festivals include literature.” - Sonora Jha, Author, Foreign

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