Mahesh Dattani is a name theatre lovers in India and beyond are well aware of. The leading dramatist is the first English playwright to have received the prestigious SahityaAkademi award, India’s award for literary excellence. He was recently in Ontario, in connection with a research project in progresson his plays in the University of Western Onatrio. Generation Next spoke to him more on the project as well as on a range of other topics.
We started by asking Dattani about the work on his plays undertaken by the University of Western Ontario. “I am part of this research project at the University of Western Ontario called “Performing in the Margins in India”. It focuses on the performing arts performed by the socially marginalized people like the devdasis andtawaifs. But what’s interesting about this project is that it actually has a performance component, which will be at the end of this project and that’s where I come in. I hope to direct one of my plays—“Seven Steps around the Fire”, which is set in the Indian transgender community known as hijraas. I think it’s important if you’re talking about performance in the margins, hijraas are really marginalized, and they have a very unique culture of performance. So much of their gender is performance. At weddings and other occasions, when they sing or dance, that’s in a very unique style,” he said.
As is evident, a lot of Dattani’s work gives voice to those on the margins. For this reason, he was also invited by York University during his recent visit. The focus of this session was gender and sexuality as depicted in his plays. Says Dattani, “Instead of a lecture, I read from two of my plays, one of them being “Seven Steps around the Fire” and the other one “Dance like a Man.”
When asked about his observations on Toronto, the city’s diversity is the first thing the renowned playwright mentions. “The first thing that strikes me that it’s so much more multicultural than a lot of cities that I’ve been to in the US. I could walk in a kurta in downtown Toronto and nobody’s going to bat an eyelid; I can blend completely in that sense. In the US—maybe in NY, yes, but I used to teach in Portland, Oregon and I was always a bit of an exotic bird over there. Apart from that, it’s really very lively, and the academics I’ve met and some of the performing artists I’ve interacted with—I can see how much multiculturalism has percolated into the culture of this city,” he says.
Dattani says his interest in writing plays is only an extension of his interest in theatre. This explains his continuing engagement with playwriting. As he says, “To me it’s the magic and form of theatre which is most exciting. I had choices—I could do cinema if I wanted to do; I could do television because I live in a city like Mumbai, which is the arts and entertainment capital of India. But I really choose to occupy myself with theatre because that’s what means a lot to me, it stimulates me as I find theatrical space very stimulating. You can do so much with basic things like the human form.”
Dattani made his foray into the world of filmmaking in 2002 with “Mango Soufflé”, hailed as the first gay movie from India. However, his big cinematic moment came two years later, when he directed “Morning Raga”, starring ShabanaAzmi. The film received critical acclaim and was even entered into the Oscars. We ask Dattani about any future film plans and learn that there is one in the offing. Even as he speaks about that, his love of theatre comes to the fore. “I do have a film project in the pipeline, and cinema again is such a wonderful artistic medium. But it’s also such a technical medium. At every stage, there’s always the danger that the technical aspects of filmmaking will somehow overwhelm the artistic vision at some point. So half your energy is spent in keeping that vision going. So in many ways, it is a medium of science as it is of art and maybe that’s where its beauty lies that it’s a combination of both. For me, theatre gives me a certain immediacy, it’s like having a caffeine kick,” says Dattani.
Returning to his favourite place—the stage—Dattani has his plate full. He has already written a new play that he will direct too. He has also been commissioned by LiletteDubey of Primetime Theatre, Mumbai to write another play. The first play revolves around disparate lives in the city of Mumbai. Dattani shares more, “It focuses on how some in the city live beyond their means, what they would do to continue their lifestyles when they can no longer afford it. On the one hand, you have farmers and villagers committing suicide because they can’t repay their loans and their death can bring some compensation to their families, while on the other hand you have people in Mumbai who are buying fancy apartments that are as expensive in terms of real estate as in a city like Manhattan by taking huge loans and mortgages. There are fading TV stars and actors who no longer earn what they used to but still have to maintain their lifestyle. So my play is a bit of a black comedy on these characters.”
For Dattani, the biggest inspirations in Indian playwriting happen to be two giants of Marathi theatre—Vijay Tendulkar and Mahesh Elkunchwar. He is also drawn to the work of BadalSarcar, famous for taking theatre out of the proscenium into the open, with street theatre.
Looking ahead, Mahesh Dattani remains optimistic about the future of Indian theatre. “Modern Indian theatre is in transition now. Compared to modern theatre in countries like Canada or the US, it is afledgling. But at the same time, it’s important because of its content and it’s a matter of time before modern Indian theatre finds international recognition,” he says.