Theatre

Behind the headlines

Omchery N. N. Pillai   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

O ver six decades ago when a collegian from the University College staged his play ‘Notice Venam’ at VJT Hall in Thiruvananthapuram, neither he nor those who acted in it would have imagined that the author would be honoured with a retrospective of seven plays (‘Ulakuda Perumal’, ‘Thevarude Aana’, ‘Mindapoochakal’, ‘Daivam Veendum Thettidharikkunnu’, ‘Sukshikuka Vazhiyil Bhakthanmaarundu’ and ‘Nallavanaaya Godse’) at a four-day theatre festival at the very same venue. For the ‘marunadan’ Malayali in the Vaikom-born Omchery N. N. Pillai to draw on themes that are typically Keralite and yet successfully connect with audiences in other Indian states is a pointer to the all-embracing quality in the themes he chooses. Contradictions in human nature, social evils and the flawed human situation come through, not as diatribes, but with the laugh-a-while-at-your condition, and introspect -if-you-will attitude. In an interview he takes us through his body of works, his career as a journalist and media consultant. Excerpts…

Eighty plays, and still counting. Will you say, ‘the best is yet to come’?

Yes, the play I have been working on for the past many years, I believe, will be my best. I draw on the parable of the Good Samaritan from the Bible to weave the story. What happens when an individual has the conviction and not the courage? The man with no courage will bear the cross all his life unable to move ahead. Writing can only be done in silence. My other interests encroach on my time and therefore this play has been in the making over the past five years.

Which one of the plays, written so far, do you consider has touched the benchmark you have set for yourself?

My very first play, ‘Notice Venam’ was written when I was a student and was working as a journalist with Malayala Rajyam to support myself. While covering the Assembly proceedings I observed a member whose first words invariably were ‘notice venam’. It became the title of the play, which was a commentary on the happenings I witnessed every day. I consider this play as the creative expression of a mischievous young journalist. It was after I went to Delhi in 1952 and wrote ‘Ee Velicham Ningalkullathaavunnu’ to raise funds for the striking coir workers’, at the behest of the Communist leader A. K. Gopalan, that I seriously took to writing plays. Four Malayali Members of Parliament, K. C. George, P. T. Punnoose, Imbichi Bawa and V. P. Nair, and Rosscote Krishna Pillai, were cast for the play.

After the unexpected success of ‘Notice Venam’ and the next, I stopped writing poetry and immersed myself in writing plays.

From among the large number of your plays, which one has had the longest innings?

‘Thevarude Aana’ highlights the unenviable circumstances of the temple elephant – a symbol of prestige, but one which suffers silently. Using the elephant as a metaphor for the human condition I have posited contesting claims of religion and modern medicine to highlight this. The play was translated into English and, later, into Hindi and other Indian languages, by the National Book Trust (‘Mandir ka haathi’). In Delhi it was staged on three consecutive days with good audience response.

‘Pralayam’ [winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award] on the nuclear threat and ‘Kallan Kayariya Veedu’ have also had uninterrupted runs over all these years. My greatest satisfaction is that, though, I don’t have a theatre group, my plays have been picked up by the people and staged wherever there are Malayalis, even in far off Ireland. Myth, fantasy, realism, and a genuine political sensibility are integral to my plays. I believe the reader should experience the theatrical element even as he reads the play.

Kerala is witnessing an increasing viewership for plays. Is the viewer weary of entertainment by other means?

The Sangeet Natak Akademi has done a lot towards such a revival. The increased interest in Kerala is certainly due to the viewer moving out of the confines of the living room for the real experience of a live theatre performance.

A practising journalist, playwright and teacher. How have all these roles acted as catalyst for your creativity?

In the field of mass communication I was keen on making meaningful campaigns to use ‘persuasive communication’ as a tool. A firm believer of the David Ogilvy tenet, ‘The ‘Big Idea’ is at the core of any campaign’, one live example was how I drew on the power of the words ‘Garibi hatao’ used by Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, in one of her speeches, to build campaigns which reached the remote corners of the country. I enjoy teaching and have been at the helm of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s courses in the country. I look upon every task as a challenge. As for my plays, it is absolutely rewarding to know that it is taken up even to this day. ‘Daivam Veendum Thettidharikunnu’ is being staged by Ninasam theatre group in Karnataka for the next two months. The plays live on, and that is the greatest reward, particularly because rewards are never in my mind when I write.


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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 12:34:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/theatre/behind-the-headlines/article6481359.ece

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