Padma Damodaran, whose recent plays as an actor include ‘Chuhal’, ‘Jhoom Jhoom Jhumpa’, ‘Menghaobi: The Fair One’, ‘Qissebaazi’ and ‘The Unexpected Man’ , which she also co-produced and directed, makes her one of the most prolific, all-round theatre practitioners in Mumbai.
When she turned 30, Padma gave up her job as a business journalist and plunged full-time into theatre. “I thought, if I did not do it now, I never would.”
The Mumbai-bred Padma, with a Masters in Economics and trained in classical dance and music, was in Delhi when she made this decision. “I entered theatre rather late in life. I had some money put away for a couple of years, but I did not have any work on hand. I had started attending some dance classes, and through that, I came to know of auditions. I was lucky, because that was the time Delhi theatre was on the upswing. I worked with many good directors like Robin Das, Kusum Haider, Bapi Bose, Amitesh Grover — new plays as well as classics — and I trained in theatre movement with Rashid Ansari. Of course, you can’t make a living doing theatre in Delhi, so I did corporate workshops, a TV serial for children (Galli Galli Sim Sim) and medical exams for the Royal College, Edinburgh, you know, they get actors to play patients for their oral exams. I worked in schools, training kids in acting and movement. At some point I felt the need to either join a repertory or study acting.I went to the U.K. to do my Masters in Acting at East 15. I got a visa to stay on for two years, so I did a lot of theatre there too.”
All this was leading to her return to Mumbai. She started working with Jehan Maneckshaw’s Theatre Professionals, that was doing theatre training in schools and helped co-found the Drama School, Mumbai with him. “Then I started doing plays with Jaimini Pathak and others and reduced my work at the Drama School. I needed to focus.”
Once she was out there, Padma found she was not short of work in theatre. “As I continued to work, relationships developed with theatre people. At my age, though, roles are restricted. Yes, even in theatre that is a problem.”
The other thing that hampers consistent work, according to her is that no group has continuous work. “There are always long gaps between shows, because getting dates at venues is so tough.”
Having experienced the travails of theatre, Padma still decided to go ahead and form a group called Red Earth Stories with fellow actor Sadiya Siddiqui. “We had worked together in a play called Ambu And Rajalakshmi ; it had only two shows, but we remained good friends. Every time we met, we talked about theatre and film, and we found that we were similar in many ways, so it just seemed natural to join hands. I always wanted to set up something of my own and it’s easier if you are with someone. It gets lonely if you are working on your own and just pushing yourself all the time. We complement each other, and doing ‘An Unexpected Man’ was also a way of finding out if we work well together and we did.”
‘An Unexpected Man’, by French playwright Yasmina Reza, was the second full-length play Padma directed. “I had directed Shivan Sharma’s ‘Given’ for the Writers’ Bloc Festival and enjoyed the process. A lot of people complimented me, so I was confident about directing ‘An Unexpected Man’ . What I was concerned about is that it is a play strong on text, and the audience’s attention span is low these days. I wanted to do something that people would want to stay and watch.”
One of the reasons she is able to work on multiple projects is that she has just moved from her parents’ home in a distant eastern suburb, to Versova, in west Mumbai, which is populated by show business folks. “It saves much time and energy; I do have a lot of energy, but I didn’t want to waste it stuck in traffic jams. Now that I live close to where the rehearsals are, I have the mental focus required to rehearse two or more plays at a time. I find that the young teams that I am working with have energy and are eager to create.”
Of the many plays offered to her, Padma says, she picks the ones that are good, even if her role is not great. “It’s because these plays also say something; I don’t mind doing an outright commercial play, but it should connect with people . When I was doing a workshop with actors some years ago, the Shakti Mills rape had just happened (in which a young journalist was raped in a derelict mill compound) and it disturbed me immensely. On my way to the venue, I found people queuing up outside a temple at seven in the morning and causing a traffic jam. I thought, do they not care about what happens in their own backyard? So, if you don’t have ras (emotion) in your life, how can there be ras in theatre ?”
She is in the midst of writing a play based on the caste inquisition of a woman that took place in Kerala in 1905. “It is a well-known case, books and theses have been written about it. A woman was accused of adultery and after the inquisition by Brahmin men, she and the sixty-four men she named were threatened with ex-communication. It’s a fascinating story; the Raja of Cochin stopped the trial, and nobody knows what happened to the woman afterwards.”
Padma has worked in nearly every aspect of theatre, she has also done production work and operated sound; Is there anything she has not tried her hands yet? “I can’t operate lights,” she replies.
The writer is a critic and columnist