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'Don't poke your audience, stroke them!'

October 26, 2004 12:11 IST

Mahesh DattaniAs a playwright and a thinking individual, Mahesh Dattani's contribution is impressive. His plays have defined the English theatre movement in ways that are path-breaking and a societal reference point.

Now that he has moved towards film direction, Dattani looks at life and art from a larger perspective. Two new films -- Morning Raga and Dance Like A Man -- are adapted from his plays.

While Dance Like A Man, directed by Pamela Rooks, released a while ago, Morning Raga, directed by Dattani himself, will open on October 29.

Dattani talks about his new film with Subhash K Jha.

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Why do good films end tamely?

Morning Raga shows a keen reverence for the classical culture and our heritage. What made you delve into this theme?

It all started with Bharata Natyam actually. When I was in my early 20s, I switched from learning jazz ballet to Bharata Natyam.

I started discovering things about myself during that process -- of how caught up I was in imitating the West. Over six years, I was totally shaken and confused. That's when I wrote Dance Like A Man.

Everyone sees Dance Like A Man as a gender battle [which it also is]. Actually, it's a battle against society that prevents us from reaching out to our roots. What we call a 'modern India' is really a negation of the real India. It doesn't work that way.

Years later, while working on the post production of my first directorial venture Mango Soufflé, Amit Heri [music director for both his films] was in the recording studio with me and he had called a traditional Carnatic singer for a background jazz-based piece.

The interactions between the two -- one young jazz musician with a goatee and hippie kurta, and the other a purist in a Kanjivaram sari and temple jewellery -- was cross generation, cross culture, cross gender… That was the beginning of Morning Raga.

Shabana Azmi and Perizaad Zorabian in Morning RagaMorning Raga is a huge leap ahead from Mango Soufflé. Shouldn't you have debuted with Morning Raga?

The reason why Sanjeev Shah [producer of Mango Soufflé] and I chose this play for a film adaptation was the budget. We had thought of a bigger project involving an international star, but we felt we should start small for our first venture.

I gave him a choice of Final Solutions and On A Muggy Night In Mumbai. He chose the latter.

Shabana Azmi is the backbone of Morning Raga...

Shabana, Perizaad Zorabian and Prakash Rao are equally important to my story. The characters that are living under extreme circumstances are Shabana's and Perizaad's. All three characters have a common past.

Working with Shabana was like a roller-coaster ride. She says she was nervous during the shoot because the role was demanding. I say I was terrified because I wasn't sure whether the part was good enough for her. We lived through rehearsals and the shoot with that feeling.

It was only in the last schedule, when she sent me an sms saying 'Please help me overcome my nervousness about the climax scene' that I realised how we were equally scared and vulnerable. We have different ways of hiding our vulnerabilities. She digs and probes and demands psychological depth for her character.

I work harder at creating actions and emotions that give the story a deeper meaning, other than the plot. I work with images and metaphor and she works with instinct and emotions. Shabana and Prakash shared my vision of the film right from the start.

Perizaad and Prakash were my favourites for the part right from the start, though I had several auditions to prove myself wrong. I auditioned with Perizaad for two hours to make sure. At the end of it, she was weeping and said she couldn't do it, because my persistence made her feel she couldn't handle it!

Both Prakash and Perizaad have studied at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute and I believe in method training for cinema actors. So four of us -- my principal cast and myself -- were on the same page as far as the approach to acting was concerned.

Lillete Dubey is another one of my favourites. She brings with her a certain easy energy and life to her performance. She's perfect as the city-bred single parent overcoming marital hardships with the strength and wisdom that, I would say, is a tribute to modern Indian women, who emerge victorious from such marital conditions.

Shabana Azmi in Morning RagaInterestingly, a film about the loss and redemption of classical heritage is in the English language. Don't you see a contradiction there?

No. The film is about the meeting of worlds. It questions the concept of purity. Our worlds today are interacting like they have never done before in the history of mankind. I believe it mirrors our time and place. English is an Indian language today and we should acknowledge that.

How deeply do you think the present day generation has been tainted by the MTV culture which Morning Raga implicitly condemns?

I wouldn't use such a strong word as 'tainted'. But I believe that in our haste to catch up with the developed world, we have lost our identity. Art can never be imitative. It comes from a realistic understanding of our worlds, past and present.

In the film too, the meeting of the past and present worlds is very evident.

How much are you concerned about the loss of our history? Your film seems like a raga-rich reclamation of our roots.

I am truly concerned with that. Bangalore, the city I grew up in, is a perfect example of having lost that.

Technology and modernity are fine but we must not forget that we have a rich heritage -- something that countries like America do not have. We cannot erase our cultural memory. Even if we choose to bury it deep within us, it will spring up unexpectedly.

The guru-shishya relationship, so essential to Morning Raga, is also an integral part of Dance Like A Man. Are you fascinated by the theme?

Yes, we must acknowledge the handing down process that has an important place in old world cultures. At the same time, I am against the guru-chamcha parampara which, sadly, is what most artistes in India tend to follow.

Prakash Rao and Perizaad Zorabian in Morning RagaWhat did you think of Shobana's performance in Pamela Rooks' Dance Like A Man?

Both Shobana and Shabana are brilliant artistes and I am fortunate that I have both of them playing characters whom I love and care for very deeply.

Are you satisfied with the recognition that playwrights get in this country?

No. Play-wrighting is seen to be inferior to literary writing in our culture. A playwright is a craftsman of a different school. Unfortunately, we have yet to see it as a creative art form.

The screenwriter in our country is also an inferior being to the stars and the director. Unless the dramatic writer is given due recognition, it will spell doom to both films and theatre. But times are changing and a good director is one who has a good sense of story. In time, we will make our writers just as important as our stars!

How do you reconcile your roles as a playwright and a filmmaker?

They are compatible up to a point. Both tell stories through a dramatic structure. But that is where the similarity ends.

A film writer must learn to tell his story through pictures. The rhythm and flow of a film are created through transitions from one cut to another, whereas in theatre the rhythm, flow and energy are created by the performers alone.

Where does Morning Raga fit into the swarming chaotic scheme of genre-snarled things?

A very tough question! I think the new mantra is to keep the costs low and make it look big. Exploring new genres is now the trend because the older paradigm doesn't always work. Nobody knows what the new paradigm is.

But one recent film that I really enjoyed was Munnabhai MBBS. It had a consistency in style and genre, a strong script, good acting and sensible direction that made everything real and credible in spite of the improbability of the situation.

Another one I liked was Main Hoon Na for similar reasons. Just as earlier filmmakers discovered love as a universal point of identity, filmmakers today are discovering humour and style.

What will your next film be? Will it be a statement on 'manhood' as defined by our society?

Not a bad idea, except that I want the society to see my films! I think I should strictly follow the rules in commercial film making. Don't poke your audience, stroke them! I may have a large following in theatre, but I desperately need the same for my movies!

Subhash K Jha