Neel Chaudhuri on his roots, style and evolution

There’s something called the Neel Chaudhuri style. You’ll know it when you see it. You’ve probably seen it replicated by other directors, but it’s not too hard to identify the original. It is distinctly minimal and often jolts the audience, without being shocking.

When you watch Neel’s work, along side the other stuff happening town, you can’t help but notice that it is different by design. His work, and that of the Tadpole Repertory he works with, feels as if it is created in a space that is consciously isolated from the dramatic activity in the vicinity.

“A lot of the so called professional theatre groups in the city are stuck in a time warp. There’s also a lot of independent theatre practice, which is good but, towards which I feel no affinity. They do stuff with huge budgets which come with institutional strings,” says Neel.

He explains that Tadpole’s style has evolved on its own. “We’ve pushed ourselves to come out with work using minimum resources, new writing, modest and elegant design... We’ve got to a point where we’re not impressionable,” he adds.

It’s not that he doesn’t watch plays. He’s a fan of Sankar Venkateswaran and Ratan Thiyam. “A lot of work I see, I feel good about, I respect, I adore. But these practices have developed over years in a different milieu. Our way is very ‘jugaad’ (make do)… Members of our group work outside too. They come with different experiences which we assimilate in a non-dogmatic way,” he says.

Neel won the MetroPlus Playwright Award in 2010 for Taramandal, a theatre adaptation of Satyajit Ray’s short story Patol Babu, Filmstar. He’s always been interested in dreams and ambition, especially unfulfilled ambition, in everyday life. “I like a certain kind of unreal quality in a play. Something not rooted in the mundane, something mysterious.”

Recently he was involved with Goethe Institute’s Collegiate Theatre Festival for New German Writing. He mentored four Delhi University troupes who performed at the Indo-German Urban Mela in October last year. In fact, Neel and many others in Tadpole found learnt the ropes of theatre while they were in DU. They regularly interact with student dramatists and even scout for talent in college plays.

“The campus affords opportunities that don’t exist when you leave. You have a ready audience and infrastructure. You can use texts freely and there’s always a group of people willing to join. Some of the most inventive work in town happens on campus,” says Neel who was in St. Stephen’s College.

In his engagement with the four troupes last year, he says he only discussed the script, raised questions and provided counterpoints. “Similarities in my sense of design and theirs is largely due to the minimal resources we work with… Campus theatre threatens to become insular so when someone outside the milieu throws up ideas, they provoke,” he explains. His method is to work with what works for the group. Campus troupes are influenced by street theatre and they often stick to performance traditions and repeat patterns. Neel’s job involves making them aware of the patterns they unconsciously are part of.

He is himself afraid of getting stuck in a cycle of repetition. “We like to use things that work, and that are proven. As a writer I am constantly evolving but as a director I felt there was something off. I felt this after Still and Still Moving (which was staged at Writer’s Bloc in Mumbai, last year). That’s why with The Winter’s Tale (staged in Ghitorni last month), we did something completely different,” he says.

Tadpole is working on a Hindi adaptation of Abhishek Mazumdar’s An Arrangement of Shoes, a play that was short-listed along with Taramandal for the playwright award in 2010. When Abhishek’s Gasha won the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Award for best play this year, a member his group Indian Ensemble had declared, while receiving the award that all Bengali directors are crazy. This was a view echoed in Neel’s Between Romeo and Juliet, at the Short+Sweet Festival last year.

“I’m from Bangalore. My cultural roots and leanings are not Bengali. But one is tempted to generalise,” he says smiling.