27 May 2012

Sight Lines

This review first appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

The contemporary Indian playwright writing in English grapples with the idiomatic issues of a largely multilingual population. Often, in translations of plays set in monolingual societies (or even plays written in English but about monolingual societies), it is easy to willingly suspend disbelief, and to assume that although one hears English, one is listening to the language of their settings. But everyday conversation of urban India is peppered with quick and easy linguistic transgressions. Sentences that begin in Hindi may end in Tamil, with a few words in English and Gujarati tossed in for good measure. The segue between languages is without affectation or interruption; it is a language unto itself.

Perhaps the most significant achievement that comes through in Sight Lines, a collection of three contemporary Indian plays in English evolved through the Writers’ Bloc workshop of Rage Theatre Productions (Mumbai), in association with the Royal Court Theatre (London), is the genesis of a uniquely Indian syntax. Each of the three playwrights anthologised in this collection go about creating a grammar and language of their own. For the dialogue to seem real while being in the English language, the usage of words must be dynamic in both meaning and context. This the playwrights achieve in many, many clever ways. They leave behind the stylised, sometimes stilted, heaviness that many of their predecessors were given to, and define very real and very contemporary moments of human existence through little shafts of insight.

Pune Highway by Rahul Da Cunha is clever, fast-paced, and funny. It wastes no time with niceties, quickly tossing the viewer into its unique premise, and into the vividly sketched out lives of its characters. Three friends spend a few agonising hours in a seedy motel on the Mumbai-Pune highway, coming to terms with having just witnessed the gruesome murder of a fourth friend. Their moments of guilt and breakdown lead to a series of prickly confessions that threaten the foundations of their friendship. But while the main characters (the three friends, all male) are well-developed, the one female character is a walking cliché. Every line she speaks sounds hysterical, needy, and whiny, like a stereotype thrown into the melee for no reason but humour.

Pune Highway is a loud, gritty unravelling of densely knotted personal histories. It reminds one of the screenplay of Reservoir Dogs – in fact, the characters and the language they use do seem to be Tarantino-inspired. The pace builds up steadily, its momentum both fast and furious. It grabs the viewer’s attention deftly and holds on to it steadily until the final moments, when it sinks into a rushed ending that belies the many complex issues that it opens up. The conclusion is too tidy, and the final moment of suspense disappointing. Otherwise potent and smart, the play ends up leaving the viewer wanting just a bit more.

Crab by Ram Ganesh Kamanathan skirts that dangerous territory of existentialist questioning through a series of conversations. Four youngsters are entangled through several threads of connection and betrayal that they find difficult to let go of. The play is heavily driven by conversation, and no scene uses more than two characters. Each exchange speaks through richly-constructed metaphors of the everyday struggles of contemporary Indian youth – career choices, love troubles, infidelity, sex, marriage, and the inevitable questions couched in that all-encompassing phrase, ‘settling down’. While the exchanges are crafted cleverly, it is the frequent soliloquy that seems out of place. The monologues feel forced, like interjections that fearfully explain the ‘point’ of each conversation in case the viewer does not quite get it. They deconstruct unnecessarily, and take away from the richness of the metaphors, breaking the continuity of the play.

The key protagonist, a young mountaineer and heart-breaker named Zamiel, is the proverbial chaser of dreams, the idealist who will not choose a conventional career or a conventional lover. He is the brooding romantic, the charmer, the sexy interlocutor. He is so driven by his passion that everyone around him envies his conviction and loves to hate him for doing all the things that they are too afraid to. The play speaks powerfully of a conflicted generation that has too many choices and too many decisions to make. The play propels its viewer into empathy, with its familiar characters and situations; but the dramatic intensity of these situations is never fully realised, even as the characters fluctuate dangerously through a maze of emotion. The author confesses to being inspired by Patrick Marber’s Closer, and this is an unsurprising revelation, for this play straddles a very similar line between reality and distortion.

Hard Places by Farhad Sorabjee is the clear winner of the collection. The premise is brilliant and still simple. Set in an unnamed space, the play is based on the Shouting Valley in the Golan Heights, in which a border fence erected by Israel divides Syrian-held territory from Israeli-held territory annexed by it during the Six Day War of 1967. Families divided by the fence stand a few hundred metres away from each other and speak to each other through megaphones, unable to cross the no-man’s-land that divides them. The sheer promise of this foundation is enough to set the imagination astir. Sorabjee sharply develops the potential of this situation with three unusual characters. The dialogue is taut, particularly in the intricately crafted megaphone exchanges that must incorporate always the several threads of conversation that emerge simultaneously between three characters who cannot always hear each other.

A pair of siblings long to rescue their mother from the other side of the border. Their lines of communication need to be astutely choreographed for the plan to work. As barriers in communication are built and broken, several skeletons are dragged out of the closet; the play explores the boundaries, both real and imaginary, that we form between ourselves and the people we most love. The political struggle is only the background; in the foreground is a deeply moving personal struggle that makes this an everyman’s story.

Playwriting is an ancient craft of India; but its sustainability necessitates reinvention. Contemporary versions of the craft break barriers of more than just language. They endeavour to capture the very particular dilemmas of the times we live in. In these three plays that look as much inward as they do outward, a very important step has been taken towards that end.