Theatre - Fest

‘I am a director wanting to tell a story’

Asking compelling questions A scene from Laila and Jamal  

After premiering in Chennai recently, Laila and Jamal, The Madras Players’ latest production, directed by Nikhila Kesavan is gearing up for Coimbatore.

An original stage adaptation of one strand of Manu Joseph’s critically acclaimed novel, Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, the play is a thriller and raises compelling questions about the system and the value of human life. Its playwright and director speaks about the process that went into creating this work and why it’s been exciting to direct a thriller.

‘I am a director wanting to tell a story’

Excerpts from the interview:

What was the genesis of Laila and Jamal?

This is the second time I am adapting a novel by Manu Joseph for stage. In 2013, I adapted and directed his award-winning novel, Serious Men.

Needless to say, I am very fond of Manu’s writing. When I read Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous, while I enjoyed the book in its entirety, I was very moved by the story of Laila and Jamal.

For me, as a director, the inspiration is always the story. If a story moves me, and if I find in it a certain dramatic quality and potential, I am inspired to work on bringing it alive on stage. So I decided to do this stage adaptation.

As a director who has, in the past, adapted a novel into a play, can you tell us about what determines your choice of adaptation?

Playwright and director Nikhila Kesavan

Playwright and director Nikhila Kesavan   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

This is my area of work as a theatre director — doing original stage adaptations of novels and short stories. This is the fourth novel I am adapting for stage. How much the core story resonates with me and what dramatic potential I see in the plot ... I think these are the two defining points in my choosing a novel to adapt for stage. Am I able to visualise some key scenes while reading the novel? Am I excited about putting these scenes on stage and exploring them further? This is a starting point. So far I have only been working with Indian writing in English (and one novel by a Pakistani author).

I find it interesting that the authors whose books I have picked — Chetan Bhagat, Shandana Minhas, Jhumpa Lahiri, Manu Joseph — their work has also been chosen by filmmakers for the screen.

What about this strand of Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous intrigue you?

The compelling questions it raises about our socio-political system, and the value of a human life. The story of Laila and Jamal is really the core of the novel and this strand is inextricably linked to other characters and narratives. I think my main challenge was arriving at the right structure for this play.

The story of Laila and Jamal is the core of the novel

The story of Laila and Jamal is the core of the novel  

The play unfolds as a thriller; what is it like to work with this genre?

The play has been conceptualised as a thriller. The plot, set in a time frame of about 12 hours, races on, as every scene connects more dots leading to the big reveal. Parallel narratives move towards one climax. I think the play has an unusual structure and treatment. And the script has presented quite a challenge to the actors as well.

It has been a very novel experience. Laila and Jamal has made me work very hard, both in terms of adaptation and direction. It has pushed me to challenge the inherent limitations of the medium of stage, explore new possibilities with the grammar of theatre as I understand it.

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The play has an investigative and an inventive plot line. What is the larger overarching narrative of the play?

In the play, the story of the two terror suspects, Laila and Jamal, essentially unfolds through the words of others. So this raises a lot of questions about the two of them for us to think about. Their lives are like a jigsaw puzzle that we have to solve. And then there are questions about our socio-political system which forms the backdrop for the story.

You are the playwright and its director. Are you envisaging it for stage while writing it? In a way, do you feel you are better equipped to give it vision on stage considering you wrote it as well?

I only adapt when I want to direct, and I only direct what I have adapted. (There has been only one exception to this.) So I am not really a playwright. I am a director wanting to tell a story; so I create a script based on a story I like. When I do an adaptation, I come at it from three angles: I am visualising as the director; being an actor myself, I am working out the scenes from an actor’s viewpoint; and, as the playwright, I am carving out dialogues and monologues from the source material and designing the play and defining its structure and rhythm. This is how I naturally approach the process of adaptation.

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Printable version | Aug 3, 2021 5:47:26 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/theatre-fest/nikhila-kesavan-talks-about-adapting-manu-josephs-novel-to-the-stage-and-what-she-looks-for-when-scripting-a-play/article28897848.ece

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