Interview with Mahesh Dattani

They say life is a mixture of serendipities if looked at in the right way. One such event occurred with three reporters of The Scholars’ Avenue during the summer vacations of 2015 when they were in the campus to take part in one course called Mapping Creativity. One of the lecturers for this course was Mr. Mahesh Dattani, a renowned director, actor and playwright. He is the first English playwright in India to be the winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award. 

The reporters sat down with him on a very rainy evening and tried to pick at his brain to understand creativity, theatre, drama and how it all adds up in the real world as he sees it.



Here are some excerpts from the talk:


TSA: Very few people pursue theatre as a career option. With a reduced number of people taking this art form up, do you think the art form is on the decline?

MD: There are professional individuals who pursue theatres very seriously (for non-monetary reasons) – they do other work for money and when they have enough money they come back to the theatre. In the other hand, there are others who look at theatres as a discipline and skill generating field – they feel that if they get trained in the theatres they can do any kind of acting: film, television or whatever. Even a lot of technicians (sound engineers, lighting engineers, set designers) learn discipline and get trained in the theatre before working in films and television. There are innumerable stories of individuals who start with very humble work (like carpentry for the sets) in theatres, and then become art directors or set constructors for television shows or reality shows (where they eventually make millions). So, one can look at theatres as a field of opportunity or a medium of art.

Of all arts, theatre is closest to human life and they have a lot of things to offer. Being involved with theatrical dramatics develops a varied skill set involving organizational skills, people skills, personal skills, interpersonal skills, self-awareness, communication skills, movement, kinesthetic – whatever one might seek can be found in theatre. So the culture of theatre is meant only to grow. It cannot diminish.


TSA: Theatre has long been seen as a medium of social awareness. What are your thoughts about it? 

MD: I agree that one of the many applications of theatre is that, but I am not entirely convinced that theatre is at its best when it is making an attempt at spreading a social message. One of the key aspects of theatre is its ability to make people experience human emotions and convictions. Some message might automatically come out of a theatrical performance without anyone meaning to, but the act of deliberately trying to put across a message using theatre weakens it. I feel that one has to be very crafty to use theatre as a medium of social awareness.

Having said that, I think there are a lot of street theatre performers who take up issues like HIV AIDS to reach out to a section of the society that includes workers, villagers, and women. Street play has been very effective in spreading such messages because in street plays one can put up a site-specific performance.  For example, two actors go to a market and then the male actor starts to beat the female actor. Suddenly the crowd becomes active, they start taking sides or raising questions about the problem. The actors go ahead explaining the problem, one that would be very pertinent in the society being addressed, and then offer the solutions. That proves to be very effective.

Nowadays we have the television-version of the same, called social experiments.


TSA: As a director when you start working, you have a vision. How difficult is it to get the actor to envision the same? 

MD: The director’s vision and the actor’s vision are quite different. The director has to think in terms of a larger picture. It is like looking at a forest. Extending that analogy, an actor is like a tree. Now, the actor is aware of its roots, but the director is not. And, on the other hand, actors cannot see what the director can. But ultimately it is the director’s vision that the actors must respect and create within the play. In cinema, that is sacrosanct. Sometimes the actor does not know what is going on and they just keep following the instructions. Some people just trust the director completely and do whatever he/she tells them to do. Theatre has an advantage where all of the people like set directors, designers, music composers (and not just the actors) collaborate to help the director fulfill his/her vision.


TSA: Any specific plays that you found effective and impactful?

MD: Vijay Tendulkar’s plays and among the foreign playwrights, Tennessee Williams’ and Henrik Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House,’ have had a great impact. The first play that I ever saw was a Gujarati playwright Madurai’s.


TSA: As you said there are more opportunities now and lot of people are interested, is there enough infrastructure? 

MD: No, we do not. If one thinks of theatre as urban theatrical studios we do not have the infrastructure. But if one thinks of theatre as human resource, we do have that infrastructure – human beings. But are we happy with that at the grassroots level? Some people are, some are not. Truly speaking, the quality in urban theatres is not up to the mark. There may be spaces available but they are not geared towards theatrical performances. The acoustics needed, the lighting needed for an urban theatre is missing.


TSA: Many of your plays have strong character, for example ‘My Big Fat City’ is about the developing metropolitan cities, pretty much like the India of today. So where do you get the inspiration for this?

MD: I am an urban person. I have a visitor’s experience with rural India. So, the environment in which I can express myself is comprised entirely of the urban spaces. My art is bound to express that. There are two things in art called the writer’s voice and the writer’s gaze. The writer’s voice is more important in the area of literature. In the theatre the writer’s gaze is more important. And that is why my plays revolve around the urban current day India.


TSA: There are a lot of paparazzi associated with cinema while it is not a similar case with theatre, still people continue with theatre. What are your thoughts about this?

MD: If one wants money or fame, they should not do theatre. One can die as a remarkable theatre person and without people ever knowing about one’s existence. Yet theatre is so addictive and attractive that I cannot imagine my life without it. That is what keeps me alive! Otherwise, I would be like some walking zombie.


Mr. Mahesh Dattani would be known in KGP dramatics circles as the scriptwriter of Dance Like A Man, performed in the Inter-Hall English Dramatics event in 2013-14 where SN Hall’s rendition won gold.

The Mapping Creativity course was supposed to be about how creativity is a part of our daily lives and even if one’s profession doesn’t require one to be creative, keeping an open mind about it and trying to see that same work in a different light would definitely make one’s work more enjoyable. 

Other noted lecturers from the course were Mr. Rob Cover from The University of Western Australia and Mr. Saikat Majumdar from Stanford University. The course curriculum, structure and schedule were put together by Professor Anjali Gera Roy of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences under the ISWT programme for special courses aimed at specific, niche and unexplored topics in a micro-credit system started by IIT Kharagpur.

The Scholars’ Avenue thanks Prof. Anjali Gera Roy for her help and support in conducting this interview and the course.

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