Annie Zaidi’s play Untitled – 1 presents a fight for something barebones and basic, in a dystopian world that is disturbingly similar to today’s reality. The play itself is barely dramatic, and begins by using casual conversations and passing comments to slowly reveal a suffocating surveillance state. Every citizen in Zaidi’s world knows that they are being watched: their social engagements mapped and calculated, online interactions timed, solitary moments clocked with precision. All by a State that expects you to be fine with it: after all, they do inform you of what they’re doing.
For Zaidi, the world she paints isn’t a future possibility. “It’s no longer a dystopian future, but the reality,” she says, pointing out the slew of incidents and reports from around the world of online behaviour being mapped, Facebook and Instagram posts being used to make arrests.
The premise of Zaidi’s play is purely surveillance. Her protagonists want privacy for privacy’s sake. No more, no less. So, she doesn’t use any political incident or moral high ground to drive home her point: in her plot, nothing earth-shattering is at stake. Yet, it seems monumental enough, as she makes her audience realise how precious it is, the freedom to just sit, stroll, think, or write by oneself. How refreshing it is, to have a few moments unshared by other people.
The key to this realisation lies with her characters, both the good and the bad. Her protagonist, Vishwas, a writer, is essentially just that. “The writer is the writer,” says Zaidi, “A part of him is me; other parts are a reflection of all writers. He is of the breed that has become popular accidentally. He doesn’t write to please his audience. He is the stereotype of what I think a good writer should be.”
The fact that Vishwas’ work serves only itself is critical. He wants to explore the concept of duty, how it plays upon morality. He wants to play with a number of important yet vague questions, and he wants to do it by himself. This urge is what makes resistance take shape within the play. As Zaidi points out, “Creativity and truth-telling require privacy before they can be made public.”
On the other hand is Vishwas’ wife Dina, who plays a bigger role than that of just lending support to the protagonists’ story and struggle. “Dina is an ordinary citizen, who doesn’t belong to the intellectual, artistic circles. She has her own circles, whom she wants to protect, and she cannot be pushed beyond a point,” says Zaidi, adding that Dina represents the people who are often caught in the crossfire between the intellectuals and the “larger forces”.
Which brings us to another interesting point: that of the antagonist. The bad guy in this play is the State, but Zaidi stresses, “It could be anyone. It could be society, peer groups, teachers...” When she says “larger forces”, she means anyone with enough clout to affect your way of life.
In Untitled – 1 , the antagonist is surprisingly approachable. This was a deliberate move by the writer. She describes her antagonist as “the benign face of the State. He knows you, he reads what you write [and not just because it’s his job]. But he won’t protect your freedom to write it.”
In the end it all comes down to freedom. The freedom to be by yourself, in public, at home, online. For Zaidi, this is the foundation stone for bigger, equally important issues. “You can’t have one form of freedom and not another. You can’t say ‘the streets are safe, but not for women’. Either they’re safe, or they’re not.”
Similarly, she says, the artistic freedom at the crux of her play doesn’t exist in a vacuum. “If you can’t write freely, you can’t teach freely,” she points out, “If the artist is not free the doctor is not free either.”
(This is the first of three interviews with the playwrights shortlisted for the award. The winner will be announced on August 10 in the main edition of The Hindu )