From Final Solutions to Where Did I Leave My Purdah?
Despite a history of success, an Indian playwright faces censorship challenges.
Tomorrow is going to be a momentous day for Indian playwright Mahesh Dattani. Two plays that he has recently written will be staged in two different Indian cities. The Big Fat City will premiere at the Tata theater in Bombay and Where did I leave my Purdah? will be staged at Rangashankara, Bangalore. Notching up firsts is typical for Dattani’s illustrious career, which has spanned three and a half decades.
Dattani was the first Indian playwright writing in English to be awarded the prestigious Sahitya Academy Award, making him a pioneer in many ways. Other playwrights made sporadic attempts to navigate this tricky English/Indian territory before him, but they didn’t persist in these attempts because of lukewarm reception. That is not to say that English-language theater did not exist in India before Dattani started writing his plays, only that it had a strong colonial hangover.
Amateur groups in most major Indian cities dabbled in English-language theater, but the productions they put up were all British and American imports ranging from Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple to Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was another popular choice for these amateur groups. But the actors did not just reel off their dialogue in English, they also tried to perfect the British and American accents. There was also the odd Indian play written in a regional language and later translated into English, like Girish Karnad’s medieval-era Tughlaq, but getting the characters of these plays to speak in English was as problematic as getting an Indian actor to convincingly enact the all-American character of Willie Loman.
Dattani noticed the incongruity of these productions and, since he had started his career in theater as a director, felt a need for Indian scripts in English. This was the trigger for the first play he wrote, Where There is a Will. His hunger to experiment with new scripts set in a local context met the intellectual awareness of the burgeoning urban middle class. These city-dwellers have different regional and language affiliations, but they share English-medium schooling. They have also adopted English as a medium of communication not just in formal settings, but also at home with their families. The characters in Dattani’s plays are invariably from the urban middle class milieu and it’s difficult to imagine them speaking in any other language.
Somewhat expectedly, his plays struck a chord with the audience they were meant for and they soon began packing the playhouses. Established theater directors and actors wanted to be part of his productions. Along with the popularity, Dattani also had to deal with resentment and jealousy from his peers who felt that an upstart was challenging their space. Dattani was only in his twenties when he wrote his first play but plays like Tara, Dance Like a Man, and Bravely Fought the Queen came in quick succession to Where There is a Will. Since his works invariably focused on issues relating to gender and sexuality and were written in colloquial English, the disapproving academia in Bangalore once published an essay on his plays called “How Brown is the Queen” in order to slight him. But his popularity ensured that there was no dearth of sponsors or audiences for his plays. All his early plays premiered in a theater festival organized by Bangalore’s leading English newspaper at the time, the Deccan Herald.
That is, until he wrote a play called Final Solutions. In 1992, the Babri Masjid, a Muslim mosque in the city of Ayodhaya, considered by the Hindus to be the birthplace of their god Ram, was demolished by a rampaging mob. The aftermath of that event led to a flaring of communal tensions and sparked riots between Hindus and Muslims in many Indian cities. Final Solutions was Dattani’s response to the violent events and a plea for tolerance.
In the play, a family of Hindus gives two young Muslim men shelter in their home while mobs unleash a trail of terror and blood on the streets. The sheltered boys create psychological havoc inside the house, especially for the grandmother who has hated Muslims all her life. The play ends with one of the boys bathing an idol of Krishna, a Hindu god, with tenderness and reverence, a ritual that is followed in many Indian households at dawn. Orthodox Hindus consider it blasphemous for members of another community, especially Muslims, to touch their idols.
One would think that the authorities would have embraced a play with such an inclusive message, but no one was sure how the play would be received. The Deccan Herald Theatre Festival, which had until then made room for all of Dattani’s new works, backed out a few days before the play was slated to open. This led to a huge media debate on freedom of expression in India, but even corporate sponsors who had previously been more than willing to support productions helmed by Dattani were not keen to be associated with this particular play.
The play couldn’t be staged for a long time, until an NGO came forward to produce it. Final Solutions eventually turned out to be one of Mahesh Dattani’s most popular plays and his first published collection was eventually titled Final Solutions and Other Plays.
Almost two decades after his seminal work, Dattani finds himself dealing with similar issues in his new work Where did I leave my Purdah? A theater group in Mumbai, anchored by theater and film actress Lilette Dubey, is staging the play. Dubey has previously produced and acted in many Dattani plays, including a highly successful international run of Dance like a Man.
Where did I leave my Purdah? is a play about a Muslim actress who has an epiphany on a film set. The director wants to restrict her to a line, but she realizes this space is too narrow for her to negotiate. She needs to go back to the larger than life stage musicals of the 50s she used to be a part of in order to touch the essence of her art.
Dattani uses the word purdah in his script as a metaphor for all kinds of partitions, including the one between men and women, and also as the veil of modesty that actors have to give up early in their careers. He did not want to confine the meaning to the Muslim hijab as the word is often colloquially used in the Indian subcontinent. But much to his discomfort, every time the play travels to a city with predominantly Muslim population the word purdah is changed to ‘veil’ in the title, making it Where did I leave my Veil? He is unable to understand the reason behind this, but there is little he can do about it.
It’s not easy to take on the authorities’ censorship and protest against their excesses. But when censorship is imposed by one’s own peers and patrons, the battle is almost impossible to win.