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Leading the charge

Lillette Dubey and Mahesh Dattani share a rapport that brings out the best in both of them. Having premiered two of his plays, Lillette is not averse to future partnerships with him provided the `plays speak.' Here she talks of her passion for English theatre on a recent visit to the city.

COOL DIVA: Lillette Dubey.

INTO HER mid-40s, Lillette Dubey is a live wire. As she excitedly talks amidst endless puffs at her cigarette, you can't but be impressed by her genial aggressiveness and marketing skills but most of all, her passionate involvement with theatre. Following her striking performances in films like Monsoon Wedding, Zubeida and Gadar, and television serials like Raahein and Aur Phir Ek Din, she is now a well-known name.

In Hyderabad last Saturday for the play 30 Days in September, she spoke about her 25 years in theatre, her efforts at promoting Indian theatre abroad, her special relationship with the playwright Mahesh Dattani, and a lot more. Excerpts:

You have been travelling around the world performing `Dance Like a Man'. What makes it such a special play?

That's right. Dance Like a Man was the first Mahesh Dattani play I did. We have just returned after performing it in Singapore and Kuala Lampur. We have given over 175 shows of it. But I am not going to pack it up so soon! May be we will hand over the play as a legacy to our children, and it will go on and on like The Mousetrap (laughs).

But seriously, it is an amazing script. When I first read it, I immediately fell in love with it. It is beautifully crafted. The way it moves back and forth in time, its use of one actor to play more than one role which really tests the actor's talent, and how seamlessly all this is done, and strong characterisation.

Also it has a very strong Indian flavour -- the saris, the Bharatanatyam dance movements, which I had added. You feel you are in a proper Bharatanatyam household- the sounds, the smells. And the Carnatic background music I composed for it.

You can't miss the fact it is Indian. I made the English, the speech very accented. In India, the accents are important- they almost place you socially, economically, culturally. And then we stuck with it, whether we performed off Broadway in London or in festivals in France and elsewhere. People said nobody would understand this English. I said, look, I want to be liberated from this yoke of having to speak with a `BBC' accent.

Do you think that with the huge popularity of Dattani's plays, Indian English theatre has been finally liberated from a pervasive sense of rootlessness?

I had done more than 60 plays from Shakespeare to all kinds. But I felt they were derivative plays with all those foreign names and places. However brilliant the play, I always had a slight feeling of alienation. So when I set up my company (Prime Time Theatre Company) nine years ago, I went out looking for scripts. And found Mahesh and Dance Like a Man!

I immediately said, this is the play I've been looking for. To be honest, even earlier, people have been doing this kind of an Indian English thing. What I'm saying is I have gone full pelt. I am not the kind of a person who does five shows of a play and then closes it silently.

I'm mad about theatre. I'm also shamelessly mad about promoting it--taking it to all places. And I want to make it a global voice. It is a personal kind of desire; which I always had. Yes, now it has put Dattani there, on the international map.

But if I had done it with any other writer, you would have heard about them too. There is this Mahesh Elkunchwar (Marathi playwright) play- he is an amazingly brilliant writer. I did his play, Autobiography (Atmakatha), with my troupe when I was still in Delhi.

RIGHT PLAYS: In `30 days of September.'

I had theatre people from America who could not believe that an Indian could write a play of such maturity. I said this is insulting. You don't know anything about Indian writing. The lacuna is not that good writing doesn't exist. But who is taking them out to show that they exist?

Dattani has said that the first production of any new play of his has to be directed either by him or by you. You have already premiered two of his plays. Would you continue this collaboration in the future too?

Has he said that? (laughs loudly). I think we have been able to develop an implicit trust about each other's abilities. But the play has to speak to me. I did not produce his Bravely Fought the Queen, a very well written play, because it did not speak anything to me personally.

You see, that is the beauty of art that you want to do only certain kind of plays and films, and not attempt every kind that may be good.

You were part of Barry John's Theatre Action Group in Delhi...

In fact I am its founder member. Barry is an English man, a trained graphic designer, who came on one of those exchange programmes, fell in love with India, stayed in Kerala for an year, and then settled in Delhi.

Initially, he worked with a group called Yatrik. He directed me in a play for my college. After doing a few more plays with him, we - My husband, Siddhartha Basu, Rajiv Mehrotra, Barry and I - started TAG in 1974.

For ten years, we did very exciting theatre. Then there was a lull for about two years. In its second phase it had all these now famous people - Shah Rukh, Divya Seth, Rituraj.

What has been your experience working for films and television?

For me there is no confusion. The core of my creative life is theatre. I have been in theatre for 25 years. How many love affairs last that long?

This one has. So I say, it is right for me. But seriously, between films and television, I find acting for television very stultifying. I have now completely stopped it.

Compared to only a couple of years ago, there are hardly any good projects these days. I want work that would stretch me. I would rather do less but do it well. That is why I want to do only two to three films a year.

Is it possible to survive solely doing theatre, especially English theatre?

I am very proud to say that I make money out of theatre. I know how to make money out of it. But also, I do it on my own terms.

I do the kind of plays I want to. Ultimately audiences reaffirm what I have always felt, that if a piece is passionate, has sincerity, is sensitive, and has got quality, it is bound to do well.

If your intentions are pure, if you are so fired up by the plot and the idea, you'll be amazed at how well it works with the audiences too.

Something about your latest productions?

After a long time I recently directed a non-original play, Breathe In, Breathe Out based on Edward Albee's Three Tall Women. I want to bring it to Hyderabad next year. I have also produced the first ever English musical based on The Mahabharata, called Jaya.

I am now working on Zen Katha, Pratap Sharma's play on a Zen master. This year's Prithvi festival in Mumbai would probably open with it. The festival has a surprisingly narrowly focused theme this year: Bombay based original playwrights!

I think this signifies a new wave in Indian English theatre. I have been discovering so many new scripts by young writers that have a lot of potential. I wish I had the time to work with them. But it's a tall order.

So, I am also planning to have a theatre space of my own where authors can come and read their work and interact with young directors, where meaningful exchange can take place.

Today you can feel a resurgence in Mumbai everywhere, this pride in the Indian English voice!

Actually it has been happening in many parallel spheres, in literature, even in Indian English film. This trend is bound to permeate to other cities in the country.


Photos: P.V. Sivakumar

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