Using a tale of two sisters, ‘Broken Images' set out on a quest of truth in a contemporary world

Many of us have a public version of ourselves, a necessary tool with which to face the world. However, if you become a celebrity, this public façade can grow into a reality in itself, one that has little bearing on who you really are.

This is one aspect of contemporary culture examined in ‘Broken Images', a play presented by three exceptional talents of Indian theatre: actor Shabana Azmi, writer Girish Karnad and director Alyque Padamsee, over the weekend at The Music Academy.

The narrative centres on Manjula Sharma (Azmi), a writer primarily known for her Hindi short stories. To the amazement of the literary world, she goes on to write a runaway bestseller in English, based on her real-life involvement with her now-dead, crippled sister, Malini.

The play is set in a TV studio where Manjula is about to record a personal commentary that will precede the telecast of a film based on her bestselling novel. The functional set is dominated by a TV screen that is put to clever use — as the play progresses, it changes from a monitor that reflects what Manjula is recording for the public, to a strange, private space that reflects another version of Manjula.

‘Broken Images' — which was first staged in Kannada as ‘Odakalu Bimba', also written by Karnad — employs a narrative structure akin to the unpeeling of an onion. Layer by layer, the lies and half-truths are peeled away, leading up to a revelation that undermines everything we thought we knew about the protagonist to begin with.

Karnad's play tackles many contemporary issues such as the criticism faced by Indian writers who write in English. A touch humorously, Manjula's character touches on the professional jealousies such writers face, and on that narrow-minded way of looking at Indian culture, which seeks to exclude proficiency with English as an important part of its modern heritage. It is, of course, disputable — even as it is debated onstage — who exactly the woman in the TV set is: is it a visitation of the dead Malini or Manjula's conscience, a split personality, or even, as the play almost disingenuously suggests, “the interpretation of a bad dream”?

The play veers dangerously close to over-examining the nature of the woman who is “literally boxed” in the TV set, but happily, a nice sense of ambiguity is maintained. Ambiguity, that much prized post-modern trait, is an important structural element of ‘Broken Images'.

Accordingly, some interesting choices are made with regards to the portrayal of the twin characters of Manjula and Malini: ie, the positions of aggressor and victim are not clear-cut, but remain relatively fluid. A cat-and-mouse game ensues. Almost inevitably, our engagement with the characters gets more intellectual than emotional, and we are deeply interested in how this toxic sibling relationship will play itself out.

Karnad's narrative, running for a taut 60 minutes, moved the action strongly forward. The play drew to a satisfyingly dramatic finale — though the actual ending did feel a touch theatrical for a work that plays with such complex ideas as our relationship to technology, the meaning of identity or the universal principle of ethics.

Azmi was a strong presence as Manjula/Malini, controlling the entire stage on her own, and at ease in the dual spaces. This duality was quite an impressive feat to pull off. Technically, it required very precise pacing and timing for an actor to interact extensively with a pre-recorded version of herself on a TV screen.

Emotionally, theatre is most potent when we allow ourselves to believe in the spontaneous truth of what is unfolding before us — that the actors are not delivering pre-learnt lines, but offering up something immediate. ‘Broken Images' was successful in asking for a double suspension of disbelief, applied both to the actor in flesh-and-blood and her recorded digital avatar.

Flowing between the real and virtual, the smartly produced play situated itself in a post-modern construct. It suggests how, in today's world, increasingly and in a multiple variety of ways, truth is a relative entity that can be based almost entirely on your point of view.