It’s a hot, muggy day in the packed lanes of Girgaon, but up on the 5th floor of the Drama School Mumbai, there’s absolute silence as a duo of actors thinks over what their director has just said. One raises a quizzical eyebrow but then interrupts her own thought and says, “Never mind, I need to think about this some more. I’ll ask you later.”
The students of Drama School Mumbai were less than a fortnight away from premiering their final productions, when I snuck into their rehearsals. The larger than usual ensemble of 29 students has been divided into two groups for the two shows they’ll be putting up: Love and Information (written by Caryl Churchill, directed by Chanakya Vyas) and Log Jo Dikhte Nahi (an adaptation of The Lower Depths, written by Maxim Gorky, directed by Rasika Agashe).
Both Chanakya and Rasika chose their texts for similar reasons; there’s no singular protagonist, meaning every student-actor gets a similar sized role to work with. The material couldn’t be more different, though.
Navigating ‘Love and Information’
Love and Information, originally published in 2012, is what can be called an ‘open text’. The play is divided into 7 sections, with a total of 57 scenes, each creating a ‘micro-drama’ of sorts. There are approximately 100 characters in the play, all unnamed, all undescribed. Within each section, the playwright offers the freedom to perform the scenes in any order. To indicate just how open the text is, one of the students, Sidhant Seth, points out that there isn’t even a lot of punctuation in the text. “So other than a few cues of pacing, there are many ways to read meaning into the text,” he says. This way of writing a play is so strange and new, and yet, Chanakya reflects, Churchill has followed all the fundamentals of play writing: the thematic journey, the character dynamics are just as one would expect them to be.
Early in the process, after some improvisations and general reading, Chanakya assigned actors to each scene. The actors would rehearse together and present a proposition to him and the rest of the group, where they’d receive feedback and begin to refine what they had done. When they were on the floor, the student-actors focused on staying true to the text as best they could; though admittedly, at some points they have chosen to adapt it. For example, students shared that some of the scenes worked much better once translated, and some very British tones in the text have been changed to add a hint of Hindi/Punjabi/Malayalam. However, Chanakya clarifies that they have stuck to a strict transliteration, trying to make as few edits as possible.
At this point I wondered aloud if the students found it tricky to work with a script that has no character arc, no ‘lore’, or if they enjoyed that they had no true pressure to learn the entire script. Vishal Kasana admits he found it quite challenging but also freeing. “It was our first experience with an open text, and it was quite difficult trying to understand what the world of the play is, what context we are performing our lines with. There are these two threads, of course, of ‘love’ and ‘information’, but finding that connection at times was tough. At the same time there was so much freedom! We could find our own meanings within the text.”
Chanakya had previously spoken to me about a similar challenge; how do you engage in world building, where there is no clear ‘world’ of the text? What they’ve settled on is a sort of ephemeral world, where things are created and then disappear, a world with a certain coldness about it. This has released them from the pressure of sticking to a very fixed staging language. Each vignette can choose to take on a slightly different form, so long as it fits into the collage that is this play. Karan Harplani adds a poetic description, “It’s as if the outline of the painting has been given to us, and we have to fill it in with colour.”
Reaching ‘The Lower Depths’
In another room sits the other half of the ensemble, working on the play ‘The Lower Depths’ by Maxim Gorky. Originally written in 1902, and set in a shelter in Russia, this Hindi adaptation has been re-imagined in the bastis and street dwellings of Mumbai. Rasika Agashe (who is directing this play and was the one to choose this script) says that middle- and upper-class people are totally disconnected from the lives of unhoused people. We walk right past them, often completely oblivious to their presence. She chose the script with the hope to build some empathy for these “unseen” people. This further clarifies her choice for the title: Log Jo Dikhte Nahi (People Who Remain Unseen).
The text, and hence this process, is quite different from the other play. After a few days of reading, the students were assigned a couple of improvisations, and were then cast. Then began the arduous process of character building. Rasika shares that this is the central work in a play like The Lower Depths; to understand and develop layered characterisation. Through the 35 minutes I spent talking with the cast, they returned time and again to this task they had been assigned, a task that would never truly end.
Early in the rehearsal process, Rasika took them to observe a basti in the nearby area of Lower Parel. She shared with them the history of the area, the context within which these street dwellings seem to co-exist alongside the glossy high rises and shopping malls. Gunjan says that Rasika insisted that they focus on the mundane lives that those people lived, rather than fixating on their mannerisms.
Many students shared how difficult it was to truly understand the context their characters come from. For Gunjan Tirmale, it was challenging to confront her own privileges, and come to terms with how different the characters’ lives were from her own. “It was a lot of working on the self and putting that self aside to show as true a representation of those people as possible.” Mayank Dave recounts a specific exercise, where they each improvised a scene where they had to imagine what they would do if one day they ended up on the streets. He admits that he felt quite lost, because though he would like to imagine he’d be able to overcome these circumstances, working on this play has shown him that it’s possible he’ll struggle just as these characters did. Ayush echoes a similar thought, and adds, “Hum woh log kabhi ban nahi payenge (We can never become those people).”
So, what is it like working with a classical text, one that is over a century old, set in a country and culture so far away from our own? Sandesh Pawar tells me that the translation is also old, so the Hindi seems outdated as well. To tackle this, Rasika encouraged her actors to adapt their lines to a more modern Hindi, and bring their mother-tongues into the text as needed. Once the play was populated with the many languages the actors brought in, the setting of the play quickly began mirroring the cosmopolitan nature of Mumbai. In spite of the outdated language, Sandesh says that the human emotions that Gorky has sewn through the play ensures that the story and interactions still feel immensely contemporary. Naitik Gaurav adds that the beauty of the text is how something extremely deep and meaningful is passed off as a random thought that the character has thrown into a banal daily conversation. Each time he reads the text, he finds a particular word choice that cements the social realism and messaging of the play.
Opening night jitters
How are they all feeling, so close to opening night? “Nervous” says one actor while another says “excited”. They’ve only been in rehearsals for about a month, and many of them shared that this intensive process of the past month has been so different than the previous six months they spent in training, each of them moving at their own pace, finding classes and methods they enjoyed.
As an actor myself, I recognise this queasy feeling all too well. There’s a certain electric excitement in the air but a wariness as well. Just a few days away from the premiere, nerves begin to overwhelm the team, and everyone wishes they had “just a few more rehearsals”. But from my conversations with both directors and both groups of students, it’s clear they’ve put their heart and soul into this process, and I’m sure we’ll all watch it pay off.
The two plays will be performed at G5A Warehouse on 18th and 19th April, and at the Mumbai Marathi Sahitya Sangh on 20th and 21st April, to invited audiences.