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Theatre to `Morning Raga'...

In his journey from theatre to films, Mahesh Dattani has traversed several paths and has come a long way. In an informal chat, he talks about the revival of `sensible cinema'.

LIGHT & SHADE: Mahesh Dattani in conversation with Rajiv Menon (left) and K. S. Prakash.

AT 45, Mahesh Dattani looks a little plump but is his usual energetic and genial self. As a playwright, he has already carved out a secure place for himself in contemporary Indian literature, especially Indian writing in English. He is the first playwright in English to be awarded the Sahitya Akademi prize (1998). Beginning with Where There's a Will, his first play in 1988, he has created such modern classics of Indian theatre as Dance Like a Man and Final Solutions. He has also written a couple of radio plays for the BBC. Dattani has a formidable reputation also as a theatre director, trainer and teacher. Excerpts from an interview at his office in Hyderabad:

For this kind of a film, does the location matter?

With international and crossover films, location becomes a bit of a challenge. In mainstream regional cinema, location is not an issue at all — the whole idea is to keep it fluid so that people anywhere should be able to see themselves in it whether they are in Rajasthan or Karnataka.

The challenge with international and crossover cinema is you can't take your location for granted. Ironically, what you need to work on is the specifics of the location — like South India and Carnatic music in this film — that gives it a universal element.

Isn't nostalgia and alienation from the real larger reality of India an important element of crossover cinema?

We're talking about a certain rootlessness, but that can actually work to your advantage. You could be an outsider looking inwards which somehow places you in a dynamic position because there is a movement outwards and inwards. I would say that's an advantage and needs to be exploited better because by and large our cinema and literature is located and in that sense coming from within. But I think we need to transcend this as well. And that is where it helps.

Is crossover cinema something substantial like the New Wave or is it just made out to be one?

I really don't know. Sometimes, I tend to agree that it's probably made out to be one. I am talking about myself and not about other directors. In the New Wave cinema, it was all rooted whether it was Satyajit Ray's elitist view of Bengal or that of Ritwick Ghatak's — but whoever they were, they knew their cinema. But this new breed, including myself, is more inclined toward telling stories, reaching out. And as to the discovery of the medium, the artistic element is probably where we've to learn a lot. It's very much a growing period and we have better stories to tell. After a long, lean period in the mainstream, I think we are now seeing arevival of `sensible' cinema. We've a lot more to say, whether it's a direct story telling or a new look at relationships — new icons of gender, gender roles, whole new paradigms on sexuality and feminism. There is a lot more meat than we can chew.

How was the experience working on "Mango Souffle"?

It was like discovering a whole new language. I find that very exciting and fascinating. I am at that stage of life where I would like to explore cinema, the way I did theatre — stage plays and radio plays, and earlier, dance. In theatre you can see how the script is coming through, but with film you have to plan it and postpone, and wait till the whole process is over.

A good story, a good screenplay — that's the springboard which sends the whole process forward. And, at every stage in the process, there is a concept of perfection while in theatre, there is no such thing as perfect-perfect theatre.

What is your process of filmmaking?

You know old habits die hard. My first drafts of plays are horribly overwritten. And it requires for me to have a reading with the actors. And it helps if actors and cameramen give their inputs. Because you realise it's a question of paring, getting it down to the essence and allowing the images to your story rather than human interactions, is a process on which I spend a lot of time and energy. But that's what's exciting about cinema.

Was your exposure to cinema substantial?

Well, not exactly substantial, but after theatre, it has always been cinema. My exposure to mainstream cinema has been immense from childhood itself. It was only later that I started seeing what is termed as parallel cinema with Satyajit Ray, Ritwick Ghatak, Shyam Benegal, Aparna Sen and I think my sensibilities lie in both areas. I feel that the mainstream song and dance extravaganza, its colours — that's all very Indian (laughs) and I think that's probably where my theatrical leanings come from. Although, of late, the mainstream has completely lost way.

Should crossover Indian cinema have to be in English?

No. In fact, it can actually work against you. It's like a Polish film with characters speaking in Polish is more acceptable than characters blurting English. But you've got to be true to your expression also. English is for me a sort of given. It's my language as it is to a lot of Indians here and abroad. And personally, I have no choice in this matter. I could have easily done my films Mango Souffle and Morning Raga in Hindi but the fact is it's not my language. English is the language I really think in.

You have directed your own plays and now you are making films of your scripts. Others too have directed your plays and Pamela Rooks has made a film based on your play.

Yes, Pamela had asked me for the rights of Dance Like a Man many years ago. She liked it and wanted to do it. And recently when she finally came to do it, I stood by my commitment. I've no problems with that.

And in future?

Well (laughs), in future I'm not so sure. Being a director, I would like to keep it for myself. There are people I've turned down even earlier because I didn't believe in their interpretation or competence. But, in future, I think I'll be a little greedy, keep things for myself.

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