Nikhila Kesavan adapts and directs Manu Joseph’s Serious Men as a play, which will be staged in the city by The Madras Players. Shonali Muthalaly talks to the director and the author
Chennai seems like an appropriate place to start. After all, author Manu Joseph grew up here, graduating from Loyola College. His debut novel Serious Men won The Hindu Literary Prize in 2010. It’s now being turned into a play, which premieres this weekend, under the Madras Players, India’s oldest English theatre group. Nikhila Kesavan, has adapted, written and directed the first stage adaptation of Serious Men.
The story’s fuelled by absent-minded Arvind Acharya and wily Ayyan Mani, both brilliant, but in very different ways. Acharya is an eminent astronomer who has dedicated his life to the Institute of Theory and Research, where he obsesses about finding evidence of alien life. Ayyan is Acharya’s resentful personal assistant who dreams up elaborate ploys to enable his socially awkward son and listless wife escape the miseries of poverty.
For Nikhila, the main draw was the setting. “I was fascinated by the idea of a story set in a scientific research institute. My father worked in such an institute, so I grew up in that atmosphere,” she says, adding, “The madness of science is very similar to the madness of art.”
Nikhila’s first play was a stage adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s A Temporary Matter when she was still in college. Then, she stumbled upon Five Point Someone. “In 2005, finding a contemporary Indian script was very difficult. Even if someone was writing these plays, access was difficult. You couldn’t download them or buy them at a bookstore… I felt that as a director I should work with stories I was familiar with. A milieu that I’m part of. The only way to do that was to find a story and make a play out of it.”
Serious Men was an interesting challenge. “So much happens in 326 pages. It’s a very complex plot line, and it’s all tied together so you can’t edit out any aspect of the story. But being faithful to the plot line was challenging: I had to summarise the stories, keep it imaginative and allow each character to grow.”
This is why she says the script is only a part of the process. “I only adapt plays that I want to direct. So I’m not a playwright in that sense. I’m a director who likes to work with original content. This way, even if at the adaptation level some things are limiting, the direction allows you to add that human angle. As you flesh out the play, finding ways to make each character engage with the audience, you are able to do away with the black and white.”
You’ve said that you imagined Serious Men as a film first, because you wanted to write a novel that derives the best from the linear structure of a screenplay. Why choose this particular approach?
By the time I started writing Serious Men, I had written a few film scripts and I could see that the screenplay was good scaffolding on which I could build something complex. Also, honestly, I probably overemphasised this point in my interviews hoping that some major film directors would start looking at Serious Men as a movie. Actually, there were several film production houses and directors who approached me, but as it happens with films, none of the projects took off.
When The Madras Players asked if they could turn your first book into a play, what were your main concerns, if any?
I was surprised when Nikhila mailed me. Till then, I had not thought of the possibility that Serious Men could be a play. The idea was so incomprehensible to me that I was not concerned. I probably thought, like the movies, the play too will not happen. I was very curious though to see how she was going to adapt it and I knew right from the start that I would keep my nose out. What I find remarkable is that she has not interfered with the novel at all. She has very craftily managed the scenes in such a way that the novel has suddenly become a play. I didn’t know that was possible.
As an author, are you curious to see how your story, and its central characters, will be interpreted as a play? In your mind, who do you see playing Acharya and Ayyan Mani?
I have not seen the play yet. I am sure the physical manifestations of the characters are going to be very different from how I imagined them. For example, Ayyan Mani was Nana Patekar in my mind, and Acharya was actually an elephant, a pink elephant. I suspect the actors are going to be a surprise to me.
Although this story is not set in Chennai, you have strong ties to this city. How do you feel about the play making its debut here?
I am not emotional about my roots anymore. But, I have to say, when I was a late adolescent in Madras, I used to walk around the city in the nights, miserable and very concerned about what would become of me. I must have passed the Museum Theatre many times in that state. I suppose I can say I have not done too poorly for a boy who wrote in his class test when asked to use ‘contemporary’ in a sentence: ‘The heart and the lung are contemporaries’.
Serious Men will be staged at the Museum Theatre, Egmore, on September 27, 28, 29 at 7.15 p.m. Donor passes are priced at Rs. 400, Rs. 250 and Rs. 150. Call 93819-11977 or 98400-80783 for details.