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July 29, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Manjula Padmanabhan

All set for Harvest

Tomorrow, at the Sriram Centre, my play Harvest will be ready for its first public performance. It's had such a very public gestation that even though I am its parent, my sense of ownership is spread out amongst all the friends and relatives who have been part of its history. It's had such an easy time of its life so far, even before it's been performed, that I don't feel the normal surge of protective anxiety that attends the debut of some product from my internal foundry upon the stage of reality.

It was very different with each of my four earlier plays. The first one, Lights Out, started out as a piece of journalism. A friend told me about a particularly horrific incident, when she and a party of people became witnesses to a gang rape taking place in the neighbouring compound. The hostess of the party claimed that this was a regular occurrence and that residents of that area had had to adjust their daily schedules around these gruesome open-air 'performances'. It was such a shocking story that I felt it surely merited a newspaper report.

In those days my comic strip 'Double Talk' used to appear in Bombay's Sunday Observer, edited by Vinod Mehta. I approached him with this story but he pointed out, very sensibly, that the report was over a year old, so it couldn't be a news item. At most I could present it as part of a general piece about crimes against women. It would raise a few Sunday morning hackles before being used to wrap peanuts at bus-stands.

So I wrote a play. I may never have got around to it if my friend Rekha Khanna, then editor of Women's Today, had not assured me of support and help with getting the play produced. That was the year in which Operation Bluestar was launched. The weekend over which I began the first draft was the one following Indira Gandhi's assassination. Sitting in Bombay it took a couple of days before the ghastly reports from Delhi began to trickle in about the anti-Sikh riots. I wrote the bulk of the play during that lull in the news.

In retrospect it seemed to me that the play I wrote was pale and simpering compared to the news that appeared in the papers subsequently. The play was called Lights Out. It was first performed as an excellent reading in Madras directed by Ranvir Shah and thereafter by Jayant and Gulan Kripalani in Bombay, Feizal Alkazi in Delhi and filmed for television by Nissar and Amal Allana.

I was so encouraged by the reception of Lights Out that I immediately set out to write a second play, The Dowry Show, later renamed The Mating Game Show. This one was never performed as a play, has been rewritten at least 16 times and enjoyed a brief renaissance as a 26-part television serial filmed by Govind Nihalani. Sadly for everyone connected with that production, it was stillborn because BiTV ran out of money in mid-shoot. I learnt a lot from MGS. It was a good idea which never reached completion as a performable script. It was huge, unwieldy and would have been a nightmare to budget. And as a friend pointed out to me, for all its mass, there were less than a handful of memorable lines of dialogue in it. That's a disaster, for a play.

The next play I wrote was a set of six short skits called The Sextet and the one after that, The Artist's Model. Neither has been performed or read. I had understood, by the time I wrote them, the unlikelihood of seeing them onstage. The inflexible logic of the marketplace makes it suicidal for a theatre group to finance plays which are not guaranteed a return on the money spent on them. The choice for directors lies in using scripts which have been a smash hit elsewhere. The choice for playwrights lies in writing for television or cinema.

Which is sad, because theatre is such an eclectic, immediate experience. Unlike films or television, there is never a 'final cut' for a play. It reinvents itself with each new interpretation, each new cast, each night of performance. A charge develops between the actors onstage and the audience in the hall, each one needing the other, like a pair of hands that wants to clap.

I wrote Harvest knowing that it too would almost certainly languish unseen in my files if it didn't win anything in the Onassis competition. Watching the Yatrik cast at rehearsal for the first time two days ago, I am even now amazed and grateful that Joy Michael offered to direct it. It is such a gamble, to perform a new play. Such a risk. She and her young team, with Zohra Sehgal sparkling like a live firecracker in their midst, have thrown themselves into it with tremendous enthusiasm and dedication.

May Dionysus smile on them.

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