'Phantasmagoria' came about from the need to have a conversation, says Deepika Arwind

Shortlisted for The Hindu Playwright Award 2019, Deepika Arwind’s Phantasmagoria uses a bit of magical realism to see what would happen if women took the lead in discussing the lofty political issues of the day

August 14, 2019 10:00 am | Updated August 25, 2019 06:33 am IST

There is a surprising moment towards the end of Deepika Arwind’s play, Phantasmagoria , when a woman is driven to a near-violent bout of fear, by another woman, through the use of words alone: gentle, insistent, part reassurance, part threat, repeated over and over again. It is a palpable moment that, at least on paper, feels like a culmination of all the tension that begins building steadily from page one. It is a moment that makes one woman accuse the other of creating a “theatre of horror”.

The choice of phrase is a deliberate one, and is echoed in the title, and may as well be used for the script itself. One of the four shortlisted for The Hindu Playwright Award 2019, the play paints broad, yet strongly relatable strokes of political thought, and appears in the beginning to be pretty straightforward. Till the phantom creeps in, exiting and re-entering, changing form and size, even as the characters discuss their fears and aspirations and navigate clashes of opinion.

The playwright is carefully insistent that no details of the play be revealed, and understandably so, since so broad are the statements by the protagonists that readers might end up setting the script against the backdrop of any political situation that is plaguing their mind currently. This, in a way, is the playwright’s intent: “You can replace the activist in my script with an African-American one, and the other protagonist [we can’t exactly call anyone the antagonist, since all characters in the script have been written with a certain degree of sympathy] can be replaced with a white supremacist, and the play would still stand,” points out Deepika over a phone conversation from Bengaluru, where she is currently based.

The premise of the play is the sparring of political stances: but there is no clear villain here. “You could sympathise with any one of the characters, and you would have every right to,” she says. So there is a young activist, a member of the ruling majoritarian party, an aspirational civilian who has her own struggles to think about, and a journalist. They gather in a house with the intention of having some much-needed calm conversation, but the things that happen even before that dialogue can begin are what the plot comprises.

That evasive meaningful dialogue, however, is what sparked in Deepika the idea for her script in the first place. “The play came about from the need to have a conversation,” she says, “We are living in a time when everyone has their own reality, based on their social media.” When these different realities meet, when we have that rare conversation with someone of opposing ideology, the interactions are usually marked with anger or despair or a sense of “I don’t even know how to begin explaining this to you,” she points out. So ingrained are our separate realities in our minds. So ingrained are our varying fears, “which are a culmination of steady processes of education and upbringing.”

Deepika succeeds in depicting this disconnect: in her pages, all her characters want to talk to each other. And do have conversations with each other. But moments where one empathises with another, and listens to their struggles, are rare and refreshing. Just as they would in real life.

Tickets available on  www.insider.in  and The Hindu's Theatre Fest page

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