There was a time when English theatre reigned supreme in cosmopolitan centres. Today, there is a trend amongst English theatre groups to produce plays in the vernacular, or adapt a Western play into Indian-English. Even popular English-play festivals, like the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META), now prefer to showcase plays in regional languages.
Adaptation is a way that English theatre has discovered to help it survive this onslaught. Another trend of late has been the burgeoning of historical themes in English plays, perhaps to woo larger audiences and in particular, the followers of vernacular theatre.
Recently, 4 big productions ran simultaneously: Mahesh Dattani’s Gauhar in Mumbai; Avijit Dutt’s Noor Jehan and Aamir Raza Husain’s Mehernama in Delhi; Mohammad Ali Baig’s Quli: Dilon Ka Shahzada in Hyderabad.
We quizzed the 4 English theatre directors/playwrights on their respective motives behind showcasing Indian history in English...
How and why did you think of writing a historical play?
Avijit Dutt: Noor Jehan’s is a great political story, which hadn’t been revealed in its fullness. It had the advantage of being controversial and distant enough not to invite censorship.
Mahesh Dattani: It was Gauhar Jaan’s vivid biography by Vikram Sampath which captivated me. I felt it was screaming to be made into a play.
Aamir Raza Husain: I wrote Mehernama with the idea that the audience will enjoy it, not because of any personal preference. It had all the elements of a drama.
Mohammad Ali Baig: I was born into a family that is part of Hyderabad’s history and legacy, and my work, like my late father Qadir Ali Baig’s, is generally heritage-based. Quli’s story simply had to be told.
Any poignant moments while writing the play?
Avijit Dutt: I wanted to look at the lives of the commoners of the period too, so I
created a character who was a mail runner. He too was an outsider to the society, like Noor Jehan.
Mahesh Dattani: Almost all my plays have strong women protagonists. Gauhar was an extraordinary woman who lived at a time when women were expected to be ordinary. That was interesting.
Aamir Raza Husain: Writing is a process of extreme boredom for me. But I enjoy the process of creating a play.
Mohammad Ali Baig: I relive different eras in all my historical plays. Quli gave me an insight into the legend and the man.
How do you give a historical piece contemporary sensibility so it appeals to a young audience?
Avijit Dutt: We are a product of our times and therefore our work is always contemporary. I didn’t have to make many changes, besides, Noor Jehan was a modern woman.
Mahesh Dattani: It’s the choice of subject that matters. In this case, the fact that she was a musical star made it easy. It was a classic tale of talent, fame and fortune diving into penury and
Aamir Raza Husain: I’ve never felt the need to contemporise any of my historical plays. I reproduce history in its purest form and as a spectacle. That’s my strength.
Mohammad Ali Baig: Though the themes of my plays are based in history, the structure and the characterisation are modern-day.
What lessons can history teach us?
Avijit Dutt: Not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Mahesh Dattani: It holds a mirror to our own follies and shows us how little
human failings and struggles have changed over the years.
Aamir Raza Husain: I have been a history student and have rarely come across
accurately written books. Most novels and plays based on history are either semi fictional or utter rubbish. What my audience takes back from my plays is entertainment, not a history lesson!
Mohammad Ali Baig: We should hold our history in high esteem. I take pride in my own heritage and that trickles down to my writing and productions.
Urban youth is looking to the West for fashion, culture & education, while the government is making efforts to revive their interest in Indian culture. How will this affect English theatre?
Avijit Dutt: ‘Coca cola-isation’ of culture is hardly something we can stop. At best we can make people aware of the richness of our roots.
Mahesh Dattani: While I do agree that we need to rediscover our aesthetics, I don’t agree with cultural regression. Not everything in the past was good! Indian aesthetics must develop from who we are today, not who we imagined we were yesterday.
Mohammad Ali Baig: It’s a known colonial hangover. If you look at our administrative, educational and judicial systems, they’re not really our own. It’s no different with playwrights here, whose inspiration still seems to be British, East-European and American plays.
Do you feel there should be more indigenous productions rather than adaptations in Indian theatre?
Avijit Dutt: The search for good content ultimately decides that.
Mahesh Dattani: There is room for both. Theatre cannot live without new writing. Even non-text-based theatre can only have meaning with new ideas reflecting our own time and place.
Aamir Raza Husain: We adapt all the time. I’ve heard of people doing Romeo and Juliet in dhoti and kurtas, and distributing Nathu ki mithai to the audience, in an Indian interpretation. It’s okay to indulge in satire, but one must be clear about it. Unfortunately, most so-called adaptations today are a confused mix of history and fiction, and the producers have the temerity to be pompous about it. I would rather create my own legend.
Mohammad Ali Baig: Indian theatre, like Indian cinema, constantly looks for ‘heroes’ and heroic tales, which can be found in Indian history. Unfortunately, practitioners of both seek inspiration from the West.
Regional plays are seeing a revival in cities that have been the bastions of English theatre. Your views on this?
Avijit Dutt: Kudos! May it grow. But, this distinction between the languages is also diminishing. Earlier, English theatre was a ‘culture’; that has happily been discarded.
Mahesh Dattani: I think it’s a great idea and a true reflection of our times. The concept of purity of language, culture and race has never been challenged before in the world as it is today. India is no exception.
Aamir Raza Husain: Yes, regional theatre is booming, but not Hindi theatre. The last commercially successful Hindi play was Babban Khan’s Adrak Ke Punjey, which was a take off from Mad Magazine jokes. But that was almost 40 years ago! Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali plays do well. Professional Gujarati
theatre actors can earn in lakhs, if not crores; and Marathi theatre may have set up a kind of a world record by staging sold-out shows in the mornings as well as at night. Even Broadway or West End hasn’t been able to emulate that!
Mohammad Ali Baig: For the past decade, my effort has been to take original Indian theatre centre stage globally, be it in the US, the UK, France, Turkey, Pakistan, or Canada. It’s really fulfilling to see Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation’s original Indian work at some of the most prestigious theatre festivals and venues.