Deccan Herald, Sunday, October 12, 2003
The making of a play

The humour that sparks her plays is very much a part of her too, discovers SHREEKUMAR VARMA after a conversation with playwright Anushka Ravishankar 

It was an amazing evening of two very different plays, “Do You Love Me?” and “The Cockroach Collector”, both written by Anushka Ravishankar. The first, replete with popular music and dance, interspersing serious and frivolous questions on love, life and marriage, was directed by veteran stage director and actress Bhagirathi Narayanan.

Dancers danced in, colourfully accentuating the actor's punch-lines, gyrating to the tunes of Hindi, Tamil and English songs. Among the dancers, Aparna Gopinath was lively, pulled and breezed by the music. Bala as the youngster wooing himself into marriage with his stark one-liners took the audience with him. So did Amrita with her energy. Bhagyam's direction of a difficult play - a series of live tableaux, in fact - reflected her experience and high enthusiasm. The action flowed seamlessly, throwing up whimsical eternal questions in the air like a juggler's colourful balls.

The second, a bizarre ‘internal’ play about the quality of violence, had Anushka marking her debut as director. Her first produced play, ‘Phoenix’, was staged in Bangalore to great applause earlier this year as part of a festival. She’s already an award-winning writer of children’s books. Wearing these different-sized shoes, did she find it difficult to keep walking? She looks serious most of the time, but the humour that sparks her plays is very much a part of her too.

SV: According to every serious dramatist, the play's the thing. Now, how does this ‘thing’ leap from a playwright’s mind on to the stage? The first play, did you always know it could be staged?

AR: “Do You Love Me?” Yes, but I was wondering who would be brave enough to do it!

SV: Did it come out as you visualised it?

AR: I didn't try visualising it! It was very clear to me that it wasn't complete until a lot of other stuff came in. It was written with space for the director to intervene. I think it comes from writing picture-books. I worked in the same way. A picture-book cannot stand by itself without pictures!

SV: Did anyone have doubts about it at first?

AR: No. Bhagyam (Bhagirathi Narayanan) had total confidence. And most of the actors liked it, they found it very funny. The only thing we, Bhagyam and I, were wondering was whether this dance and song thing would work. The idea of the songs was a kind of subtext to the play.

SV: Was it difficult with the music and dance?

AR: We had great trouble finding dancers. The dancers weren't there untill a week and a half before. All the entrances and exits of the actors and dancers had to be coordinated. It was tough!

SV: Who was your favourite character when you wrote it?

AR: Nobody! Brinda was the main character, but she's hardly a favourite! She's, you know, when you read the lines, quite an irritating character! No favourites like that!

SV: That you identified with?

AR: Not really. I try not to do that. But in this one, a little bit because the Brinda character is always making these profound statements, which is slightly supposed to be serious. Most of the time it is satirizing me and people like me, you know, who take things too seriously!

SV: And how did the cockroach come in?

AR: Cockroach, I just wrote, like in a fever. It was in my head for a long time. Not the story, but the character of the cockroach collector.

It is a dark play woven around three people of a doomed household, mother, daughter and a roach-obsessed boy. A visitor, the girl's beau, turns up and tries his best to enter the fabric of the family, forcing himself into cockroach-friendly gestures against his own nature. The actors come alive. Bhagyam and Kavery as the mother-daughter are funny and horrifying. You wouldn't want to come up against them in a dark room. Deesh as the visitor is splendid, trying to fight his revulsion and getting drawn into the web until it's too late. His expressions are inspired and precise. Deepak as the Collector is a surprise find, a budding actor who's already found his feet. The rolling drums underline the stark atmosphere, building up a mood that culminates in high tragedy. The lighting and ingenuous use of props lift the play to its surreal domain.

SV: What are your favourite movies and plays? This sort of thing, suspense and this bizarre thing, does it get you going?

AR: I like---you know, Mulholland Drive kind of movies, but---yeah! I also have to struggle a lot against the natural impulse to be logical and realistic. It is very liberating when you can break away from that. So I deliberately did not plan where the play was going. Whereas in ‘Phoenix’ (her first produced play) I had it structured, scene by scene, I knew the end before I started.

SV: Bhagyam is a great one for getting into the sub-text and analysing it, isn't she?

AR: Mmmm, she's very realistic, and meticulous about logic. She wants a reason for everything. Which is good when you're doing a realistic play. While directing ‘Phoenix’ she was superb. Which is why she didn't want to direct ‘Cockroach’. She said there are too many ambiguities, I need solid reality, but I’ll act in it. The first session I gave the actors paper and said, just write down the visuals the play evokes in you. All kinds of strange things were written down! It's the only way you can think without logic, you know, because your mind doesn't necessarily rationalise when you're thinking visually. It tends to go laterally, which is what I wanted. Then I told them, now scene by scene, give me one dominant image for each scene.
See, the natural thing would be, they are in the house, so create a house. But I didn't want that continuity. I decided that the set would not represent space, but an idea. So I took an idea from each scene and decided what the set would be based on that idea.

SV: Wasn't that difficult?

AR: It was very difficult! Everybody kept asking, are we in the house now? So, I said don't think about it, because we are not talking about physical space. Then we'd keep discussing ideas, I'd say this is what I've decided for the scene and somebody would add something. Or I'd say I'm thinking this but I want something a little more bizarre. Nice process, because everybody would contribute.
Her ‘Phoenix’ was about a man who enters the household of a friend he'd accidentally killed during the staging of a play, and the emotions that are sparked off by his presence.

SV: How did this thing about violence get into your mind? Phoenix, and then this.

AR: The interesting thing about "Pheonix" was---two things happened. One is, when we had to submit a plot during the (Royal Theatre) workshop, we had to think about it during the weekend. That weekend, I saw an article about that Staines play. One actor, by mistake, burnt the other actor and he died. During the play. This actually happened. During the workshop, one of the boys in the workshop was telling me about a bizarre experience he had. His friend died and he went to stay with the family and they started, you know---

SV: Identifying?

AR: Yeah, his name was Jahan and the dead friend's name was John and they started calling him John and getting really---but he managed to get away. But that thought and this news item kind of came together. So---that's how "Phoenix" happened.

SV: And in Cockroach? The violence?

AR: I was disturbed by all the violence that's been happening. More than anything else, what makes it possible for one person to kill another? You can understand if there's some vengeance or something, but to kill a person whom you've nothing against. Maybe it is possible if you see the other person as being less human. That's the only way I can imagine somebody wanting to kill somebody else. That's my thought---I don't know what really happens to people who go out and kill.

SV: Of all the three plays which were you most satisfied with?

AR: In a sense, Cockroach because it was written with passion! Which wasn't true of the other plays. "Phoenix" was written very---cold-bloodedly. I decided the story and theme and structured the whole thing. I knew what was going to happen in a scene. I wrote down pages about each character, the background---to give it depth, you know.

SV: More theoretical?

AR: Obviously, because it was a workshop situation. I think that process is necessary. Because when you internalise it only then can you subvert it.

SV: How do you reconcile Anushka the children's writer and Anushka the passionate playwright? They're two different roles altogether.

AR: For me it's difficult to get back into the children's writer mode now, though I have to. We all have different kinds of persons in us. (laughs) A lot of people have been surprised by Cockroach. They say, I didn't expect this from you, didn't know you were so weird!I suppose we all have our dark areas! But the love of words is the same---whatever you write.