There is an amazing lineup of events for Mumbai Pride. Right around the corner is one event we are most excited about – A Marathi Play titled “Dushyantpriya” based on Kalida’s famous Shankuntalam.
We got the chance to chat with the playwright and director, Sarang Bhakre who shared his thoughts and experiences in the making of Dushyantpriya.
Gaysi: We hear that Dushyantpriya is based on Kalidasa’s famous Sanskrit play Shakuntalam. Can you tell us how you came upon this creative idea of adapting an old play to fit queer politics?
Sarang: Actually, it was when preparations for Pride 2013 were on. Queer Azaadi Mumbai (QAM) was asking for new ideas for Pride week. Being a dramatist I thought of having a play. Till that time we only have had “Ek Madhav Bag” but I was not interested in showing a drama where acceptance is important or where the process of coming out is highlighted or a person is coming out with his/her sexuality. For me personally self acceptance was never a problem, so I wanted to go beyond the coming out + acceptance formula. Also, I wanted to see something which has a happy ending.
I wanted to talk to the audience in their language, with their symbols, in the cultural ethos that they understand and deal with on a day-to-day basis. We all have heard about Kalidasa and his Shakuntalam since our school days. In Marathi, Sangeet Shakuntal is a superhit play to date – it was the play which kick started Marathi commercial theater and gave birth to Marathi Sangeet Natak. So my choice was very clear.
One of the funniest objections which I used to hear against gay culture is Marathi Manus can’t be gay. So I wanted to answer this question once and for all. There is also another objection against queer people which is that it is western influence and these people are homosexual because they have forgotten their culture. So I wanted to write a play which deals with all of these things.
The structure of the drama is a play within a play so all the characters are dealing with Shakuntalam at one hand and they have their own lives. All the characters are young guys who are trying to do Shakuntalam and when they discover their sexuality they deal with it also. Another problem which was there is that we live in a modern society and the society of Shakuntalam is now a part of history – that was a real challenge so I chose all the important incidences of Shakuntal then I tried to connect them with the modern world. Like for instance, Shakuntala writes love letter to Dushyanta but it become sms on mobile when modern Dushyanta receives it. Similarly I cannot use curses as a justification of why Dushyanta rejected Shakuntala when she reaches his court so I brought in the family pressure and social pressure. This way entire drama keeps on swinging between present time and the time period of the play which is getting enacted.
Gaysi: Are the lead characters gay actors? Tell us about the cast of the drama.
Sarang: No, both my lead actors are heterosexual actors. When I decided to direct Dushyantapriya I came up with this idea where straight actors are doing gay guys role and gay actors are doing heterosexual roles. This is a deliberate attempt by me to make actors understand the view points of the opposite sexuality. This was also an effort to fight homophobia which comes through ignorance. Rest of my cast is homosexual except the elder brother of Suhsil aka Dushyanta.
Gaysi: Do you think that instead of replacing the protagonist Shakuntala, had you replaced Dushayant with a woman (say Savitri who falls for Satyavan in the original text), this play would have still got the same impact?
Sarang: Yes. It’s not about the gender but it’s about the emotion. And I am dealing with the emotions of two people who are in love, who feel the pain of rejection, who suffer in separation and try to come together by fighting all odds. In overly patriarchal society it may be a little difficult to find a story of two women falling in love with each other. But India has huge untold stories, myths and legends about different genders and sexualities. Someday I myself will probably come-up with such a story and you will be watching two women falling in love with each other in a perfect Indian family scenario.
Gaysi: How was your journey as the director of this Play?
Sarang: It was a huge learning experience. I have studied Brecht’s alienation technique when I was doing my Masters in Drama direction but I never got a chance to apply the theory into practice. Dushyantapriya gave me that chance. I used to tell my actors when you come for rehearsal come with your sexuality, your phobias, your socio-economic upbringing, political- philosophical view points, your cast, creed, religion, gender, preconceived notions and then test them against what is written in the script. If you don’t agree to something show it through your acting, I don’t want any of you to convince me, if you don’t like it show it, if you disagree with it show it, if you are homophobic show it, try doing your role from that angle. I am not here to convince you. This has taken lot of pressure out of their shoulders. And they are able to freely react, ask me questions, raise doubts, reject something if they don’t like it.
While directing this play I adopted a new way of directing plays, generally I start from the first scene and then go on till the last scene. But while doing Dushyantapriya, we used to rehearse random scenes so we started our rehearsals with scene 2 then I skipped all scenes and did the 6th scene. Then for few days we were rehearsing from the 2nd scene to the last scene but were not touching the first scene. Just 15 days before the opening night I asked my artist to do the first scene and they did it exceptionally well. I just have to block their movements and make sure they don’t cover each other, that’s all. With this drama I entered the queer entertainment scene so its really special for me. I never thought that I will get offers to do the play in other Indian languages like Bangla and Gujarati, neither did I think that I am going to touch the hearts of so many people. The drama gives you hope and courage to fight odds and win, this drama has given me that. When I started I was the only one person with the script and today I have a strong team of 15 people, I have got so many well wishers, so many new friends…. Ab toh karwan badhata hi jaa raha hain.
Gaysi: Do you think there is a lack of queer themed plays in India?
Sarang: Queer entertainment space is very limited today. And writers who are writing are not opening up about the subject. Most of our films either end with the person discovering his/her sexuality or giving up their love under social pressure. There are few plays in Marathi which explore queer themes, like Holi, Mitrachi Gosht, Chotyasha Sutit, Zulava. Mostly these dramas keep a heterosexual gaze (few exceptions are there), also many a times homosexuality is portrayed as something unconventional and hence, unacceptable. Also more than having queer themed drama we need audiences who are interested in watching such performances. Just by planting a tree and taking care of it you won’t become a tree similarly by watching a queer play or feeling sympathetic about queer population you won’t become queer. When queer population will gave away its self imposed stigma it will be actually a great day for us all and newer plays will get produced.
Gaysi: Is there any other story/play close to your heart that you would like to adapt in a play in the future?
Sarang: Yes! I am thinking of adapting Swapanavasdatta of Bhasa. The idea is in its infancy but I definitely will work on the subject. Meanwhile I have finished writing one play and now I am planning to open it on 2nd July 2014.
Gaysi: We hear that you were very particular about the physical features of the two lead characters. Is that true?
Sarang: Yes, they are good looking charming young men. And it was a conscious choice while casting and an age old but very easy formula – king should look like a king and servant should look like a servant, this way it becomes easier for the audience to relate to the character. Half the success of any production depends on the perfect casting. Also when I was writing the script I was also writing the character sketch for each character so I have an idea. I think the best thing to do is you all should come and check them out. We are performing on 11th Jan 2014 at Savarkar Sabhagruh, Shivaji Park, Dadar at 03:00 pm.