Dance like Dattani
Saimi Sattar met director, actor, playwright and writer Mahesh – as broadcast by his TV movie Hasmukh Saab ki Wasihat – to talk about theater and more
Director, actor, playwright and writer Mahesh Dattani started his career as a copywriter in an advertising agency. He started performing on stage with Bangalore Little Theater, where his first role was in Utpal Dutt Surya shikhar.
He branched out further into writing after reading Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In 1986, Dattani wrote his first complete play, Where there is a will and it is this piece, translated into Hindi by Hasmukh Saab ki Wasihat, which will be screened on Zee Theater today as a TV movie.
Among his other achievements, Dattani is also a director. His first film is Mango soufflÃ©, adapted from one of his pieces. He also wrote and directed the film Morning Raaga.
He is the first English-language playwright to receive the Sahitya Akademi Prize for writing plays such as Final Solutions, Dance Like a Man, Bravely Fought the Queen, On a Muggy Night in Mumbai, Tara, Thirty Days in September and The Big Fat City. His plays have been directed by eminent directors such as Arvind Gaur, Alyque Padamsee and Lillete Dubey.
Excerpts from an interview:
A play and the one performed in the theater … What are the points of convergence and divergence?
They are completely different art forms. With this kind of film theater that we’ve created, it’s kind of a hybrid. In the theater, the atmosphere and the vibrations of the show are palpable. In digitized pieces these may not be as palpable, but there is a certain aesthetic fulfillment (as in all cinema and most televisions) that one hopes to achieve. Whether we succeed or not is up to viewers to tell us. I think there should be a more interactive platform with their broadcast so that we learn more about what’s going on. So the focal point is really the story and there is a divergence on how this story is received.
Your pieces have often touched on social issues. Can performing art change the story of society? And how?
I don’t know if the social narrative can change through the theater alone. But it is certainly a starting point. As more and more stories are told through multiple perspectives, the idea that there is only one story to follow will be called into question. This is the power of all storytelling. It offers multiple perspectives to a society that sometimes leans towards a one-dimensional point of view. The theater certainly plays an important role.
The pandemic has affected all the performing arts. How will they evolve given that a third wave starts?
I believe the pandemic will change art forms forever. This is most visible in the art of performance where we rely so much on physical space to come together. Sport will also undergo a change. Even in this short time, we can see the changes. For example, I performed in person this month in the United States. In response to the ad, someone on Facebook asked me for a link to the piece! The great thing about digital work is that distant audiences also have the opportunity to experience it. The elite quality of urban theater will hopefully be a thing of the past.
What makes you choose a subject? How did you target Hasmukh Saab ki Wasihat?
Where there is a will (translated by Hasmukh Saab ki Wasihat) was the very first play I wrote in 1988! Much of the plot is fantasy but the idea came to me from my relationship with my father. I even stole some of his internal jokes. He had a great sense of humor and was my first fan.
English theater as opposed to that performed in vernacular languages ââ… Pros and cons?
Language is still considered a limitation in theater. I see it more as a definition. I am always proud when my plays are performed in other languages. As far as I can see, everything is advantageous. You’re reaching a different audience. In my opinion, any language is vernacular when a popular idiom is used. All languages ââbecome non-dialectical when appropriate and cultivated. So whether it is cultivated English, Sanskritized Hindi, or chaste Urdu, they are all non-vernacular.
What changes have you witnessed in theater since your beginnings?
I love how the hierarchy in the theater has crumbled (at least in the pockets). Previously the director was the writer and it was his path (usually male) or the highway. There is now greater creative equity with actors, set designers, playwrights who significantly contribute to authorship and creative interpretation. After the pandemic, creative equity expanded to include technicians such as editors, sound designers, graphic designers and more.
Has it become the springboard for those who want to star in films?
For some people it does, but the smartest take theater seriously enough to treat art as more than a stepping stone. As a result, they learn the business of performance. Once they do, chances are they will be offered film jobs without even trying.
With companies sponsoring plays and festivals, would you say that theater has become a more viable livelihood?
The theater has always relied on patrons. Without patrons, it is impossible to do theater anywhere in the world.
I want to focus on my writing for now. i have my new game Snapshots of a fervent sunrise who had only had four shows before confinement in 2020. Once the situation improves, I hope to relaunch it.