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From Script to Stage—Sitting Down With Mahesh Dattani

Mahesh Dattani is an actor, playwright, and director. A graduate from St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore, he had a brief stint as a copywriter for an advertising firm. In 1986, he wrote his first play, Where There is a Will. As time passed, Mahesh Dattani began to concentrate on his writing and wrote Final Solutions, Night Queen, Dance Like a Man, Tara, and Thirty Days. Since 1995, he has been working full-time in theatre. Many of his plays address social issues such as gender identity, gender discrimination, and communal tensions. Mahesh Dattani was the first English playwright to be awarded the Sahitya Academy Award in 1998. The MIT Post had the opportunity to speak to him about his journey.

What got you interested in playwriting and directing?

I was interested in acting at first, and the playwriting came much later. Then, I got involved in directing, which I enjoyed a lot.  At that time there were plays written by Girish Karnad or Vijay Tendulkar only, out of which very few spoke to me on a personal level. I began to write because I wanted more original plays as a director who sought more material.  Writing came to be the last, and of course, now I’m known better as a writer.

Initially, you were a copywriter in advertising. What made you switch your career to directing and playwriting?

I was interested in theatre much before I graduated. At that time, a lot of theatre people were doing advertising as a means of earning an income because theatre couldn’t sustain a living in itself. That’s why I tried my hand at advertising, and I joined a firm. But within six months I realised it wasn’t for me and I couldn’t do it, which is why I resigned. I took to theatre full time. I earned money by organising workshops, teaching theatre, among other things. The advertising period was very short-lived.

You pursued a degree in history, economics, and political science. How did that influence your style of writing and directing?

My interest was psychology, sociology, and literature, but at that time, there was no college for men that offered this combination. My dad didn’t want me to join the only college for men that offered the same because of the reputation that the college upheld, in terms of issues related to drugs. The college that he asked me to join had similar problems, so it didn’t make a lot of difference. But I had excellent teachers, especially my history teachers. The professor who taught me Indian history, which included a portion from Karnataka history, impressed me. I understood the need to value our history, and not just look at European history or colonial history as the standard or an index. Although I was a very mediocre student, these little lessons, which the teachers put in efforts to teach, have stayed with me and made a huge impact on my thought process.

How was your first experience directing a play or writing one?

The first experience was quite scary. I remember directing my first full-length play for the public when I was around nineteen or twenty. I had about twenty-five people in the cast, mostly friends from my college and other colleges. I remember it was a full house show. Not because we were popular, but because there were so many people involved in the play that all their friends and family bought tickets to come. It was absolutely frightening, and I couldn’t stop wondering about what could go wrong. The people attending the show had paid for the tickets, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. Fortunately, things went off well, but it was quite a scary experience.

 Where do you take inspiration for your work from?

I take inspiration from my environment because I think every writer writes for their time and place. But what is that time? Do I see time as 2019 or do I see it as the 21st century? What is my sense of my time? What is my sense of place? Do I mean I am from Bombay? Or do I mean I am from India, or South Asia, or the world? For me, my time and place are located in Bangalore or Bombay, because these are the two cities that I’ve lived in. Urban life inspires me, and that is the setting that I use for my plays since I’ve never lived in rural areas.

How has your upbringing influenced your work?

Coming from a middle-class business trading Gujarati family, living in Bangalore, in a completely different culture, I think it has been very positive for me. I see myself as outside the culture of my parents and the culture of my environment. Somewhere these two, as well as other cultures overlap. I think that’s been very influential in my writing.

You have already done a few films in Bollywood. Do you intend to continue making films in Bollywood?

It’s a completely different and complicated system which I wasn’t used to. The art of making a film is very technical, but the other factors influencing it are the environment that the film is made in, the film industry, and the market. There are huge stakes involved, and you feel accountable for the money that somebody is putting in for the film. The responsibility that it brings along induces a sort of sales anxiety. But theatre doesn’t bring about that kind of anxiety, that a play has to sell. I think I’m more comfortable doing theatre because it allows you in many ways to explore, and probably fail as well, without the anxiety of sales.

One of your biggest works was Mango Souffle. What was the idea behind that film? 

That was based on a play of mine ‘On a Muggy Night in Mumbai’. That was a play I wrote in ’95. At that time, I lived in Bangalore but I used to travel to Bombay quite often. I set it in Bombay in this very rare gay sub-culture because in the early ’90s although it was invisible, it existed. I just wanted to have a perspective of mainstream society from this point of view that many people couldn’t perceive. That’s how ‘On a Muggy Night in Mumbai’ came about. Then, six years later, I adapted it into a movie which was called Mango Souffle.

How has the scenario in the theatre industry changed since when you started working in it?

I think the growth is very positive. There a lot more professional theatre actors who are trained in theatre, making their shift to urban theatre. Earlier, the only professional theatre you would get would be the traditional ones in which the cast was a family that had studied theatre from a young age—something like Yakshagana or Kathakali. Kathakali was more a family tradition, but it’s great that Yakshagana has now opened out as a part of basic education. I think things have changed now. I’ve worked with actors who have studied in Europe and have studied Yakshagana. Another actor who I’ve worked with is actually from Manipal University, and he shifted to acting later on. I think once you get more professional actors, you have professional set designers and scenographers which we didn’t have at the time when I started off doing theatre in the ’80s. I guess things have changed for the better.

What is one of the biggest hurdles you’ve had to face in your career?

There have been several hurdles in my way. One of the hurdles, I think, has been working in an environment that isn’t entirely professional because people can’t dedicate all their time to just theatre. It’s not possible as people prefer to act for either television or cinema because that’s where the money comes from. Even if their heart is in theatre, there’s only so much time they can give. That’s why I think urban theatre gets a bad name as not being very disciplined and that it doesn’t come from a system of learning. It can be very powerful and relevant, but I think it would be very nice to have a dedicated team. One of the biggest hurdles I’ve faced is starting a repertory company where I could have full-time and paid actors, scenographers, and other directors and writers dedicated to working on plays. I haven’t been able to do it yet since it requires a lot of funding, but I haven’t given up hope either. Maybe at some point in time, it will work out.

Do you have any advice for budding writers or playwrights?

I grew up with a few misconceptions, and I don’t want other people to make the same mistakes. I want the writers to know that writing is a ‘doing’ kind of art. It’s as proactive, and it requires action in the way as if you were to learn swimming, dancing, or music. There is a misconception that writers are very passive, and you can smoke twenty cigarettes, and have thirty cups of coffee while waiting for inspiration. That is not true—there’s a discipline to it, and I think if you want to be a writer, you need to be intellectually, emotionally, and physically engaged in that activity.

Image Credits: Deccan Chronicle
Featured Image Credits: Hindustan Times