Koumarane Valavane’s play Chandala: The Impure is a radical reinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet, which moves away from the family rivalry trope and instead places it at the intersection of caste and gender politics. Pankaj Rishi Kumar’s documentary Janani’s Juliet is equally significant in taking us backstage to show how director Valavane and his Puducherry-based theatre group Indianostrum introspect on, respond to, negotiate and weave these faultlines into the original. The film deconstructs, so to speak, Valavane’s own deconstruction of Shakespeare, and makes us privy to how a critical play of our times has evolved and taken shape.
Kumar’s camera follows and documents the “device process” that Valavane works with. “There is no script but a lot of improvisation in his plays,” says Kumar; it comes together from an outline of the story and lots of conversations and discussions. It’s a democratic, participative process where everyone pitches in with ideas and contributes to the emerging performance. In the film, Valavane talks about the original not being sacrosanct, about questioning it; changing, deleting and adding to it.
The filmmaker’s camera is intimate but not intrusive — seemingly a silent fly on the wall. However, Kumar was deeply involved and engaged when it came to the rehearsals. “I had complete access. I participated in the group discussions as though I was one of the actors. I would ask all possible questions. I participated in the theatre exercises. It wasn’t about flying in and out but being a part of the process,” he says.
Kumar shot the film over 75-odd days from June to September last year. They still hadn’t finished work on the play when he finished shooting. Incidentally, Chandala had its international première at the Festival des Francophonies en Limousin last September. In India, it premièred at the Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival in Bengaluru late last year, and was also staged at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards and Festival in New Delhi earlier this year.
It’s fascinating to see the thinking that the group’s members are going through. For instance, while handling the caste issues, it’s the centrality that the play eventually accords to Janani (Juliet) that sets things apart. The three actors working on the lead role find it strange that not much is spelt out about her in the original. What is it for her to love Romeo? Is love a look? Or does a touch inspire love?
Somewhere along the way they begin to be drawn heavily towards the story of the real-life Tamil couple Shankar and Kausalya, and how Shankar was the victim of an honour killing in 2016. They eventually speak to Kausalya on the phone.
Kausalya’s life inspires Janani’s within the play, with many real-life incidents such as her parents demanding that she return everything they gave her, down to the clothes on her back. Despite being a privileged dominant-caste girl, she faces patriarchal restrictions. No short hair, no playing the drums.
Kumar and Valavane met and interviewed her on August 19 last year. “We were overwhelmed by the interview,” Kumar says; it was something they wanted to share with the team. Kausalya became the starting point for Kumar’s editing as well. “My interpretation is nothing but Kausalya’s story,” he says. It wasn’t difficult to edit the 120-odd hours of footage into a 52-minute documentary. “I knew exactly what I wanted. It was one of the easiest edits, effortless. The film was in place in a week.”
Love struggles to survive in real life. Jack and Janani are trapped in different worlds — Ambedkar Colony and Vaishnav Nagar — that can’t be brought together. “Your hand feels like a holy place I can’t visit,” Jack tells Janani, kissing her hand in a movie hall. The hall, which has traditionally granted privacy to many couples, remains a divided space for them. Despite paying for a first-class ticket, Jack is shown sitting at a lower level.
Kausalya’s interviews are interspersed through the documentary, played back to the actors. Her related experiences punctuate the action. How, when she was in Class VII, her parents discouraged her from talking to a lower-caste friend. How she was told not to walk fast, to walk soundlessly, how music and dance were forbidden. “Purity of caste is dependent on a woman’s behaviour,” she says.
But she could play the drums in Shankar’s house. “I got freedom, of being myself,” she says. It makes the actors dwell on the transformative power of love.
Kausalya is now a social activist working on caste issues. How do I end my play, wonders Valavane. “I wouldn’t die for love,” says one of the actors playing Janani. The consensus of the actors is that she shouldn’t die. There has to be an alternative for her. It’s about carrying on without Romeo. Says Kumar: “That’s why the title is Janani’s Juliet.”