“Within the community, we have a kindred connection that rests heavy on us.”
Vikram Phukan’s Dry Ice is a play about exactly that, a connection among the queer community in India that we are all subconsciously familiar with. It is about the longing of queer men in India, the vulnerability they cannot show each other, and of course, death. The story will be intimately familiar to those who know the fate that befalls the queer community all day, everyday. The pandemic has only exacerbated the conditions. Dry Ice is a longing for escape, it is suffocating, deafening and above all, melancholic. It pays homage to the queer men dying every day for a variety of reasons.
The story itself is told through the eyes of a radio jockey, Akash, who hosts radio shows which exclusively play old and melancholic songs, with a heavy partiality towards Lata Mangeshkar. Akash’s travails with other gay men, who keep calling into the channel just to talk to him and read him love poems, isn’t particularly liked by his very close friend, Sahir. They bicker, like old friends in love, and fight, and their relationship devolves into a mire of poverty and broken feelings that don’t seem to be pronounceable. The ending itself is ambiguous, leaving a doubtful feeling in the watcher’s mind. An undeniable brokenness permeates it, as we wait for a death to arrive, but the anticipation never releases.
I was delighted to have a chance to sit down with Vikram himself for a short interview:
Q: I am non-binary, and my realization came from the fact that I grew up online. So what drew you to this idea of queer online grief?
Vikram: You would have noticed too, if you’re linked in with these queer groups on Facebook, etc, that there is this constant steady grief of people dying, much before that time, especially people in their 20s and 30s. And when it happens, you feel kind of connected even to strangers because they are from the community, you have the sense that [you] can probably empathise with what they might be going through. Even though the circumstances of death are unique, you feel the loss in a way you don’t for all the other deaths happening around us all the time. But sometimes within the community you have that kindred connection, so that for me was happening, like a steady drip. When people close to me also succumbed – I call it the death wish of a generation, in the play – that was something that really shook me out of the complacency. The play was like a homage, but it was not meant to be a play.
I had thought to write it down as a story… then the India Foundation of Arts announced a grant last year and I thought that maybe I can suggest a play of this kind. I didn’t know if they would take to something like that because there was a sort of celebratory tone to that grant offering, because they were celebrating 25 years of the internet. But we were suggesting an idea that was slightly darker. I was able to put a team together, and when the actors came on board, that really helped with the writing process because we were improvising around situations, and lived experiences helped to a great extent. We couldn’t meet due to lockdown restrictions; we were all from different cities. But it helped us, and the play, grow into something we were all delighted with.
Q: I think we’ve all felt that – knowing people that suffered so badly, and the grief of their deaths that we share. What impact do you think has had on this grief, and on this specific issue?
Vikram: You might have just known them, you might even have spoken to them, it just happens out of the blue. And although the pandemic has made death so palpable to so many people in the country, the state of death I was focusing on in the play had been happening for years before that. Covid has just added one other dimension to what was already happening. I am not saying only queer people are dying, just that queer people are networked, that there is this community sharing this grief, this memorialising of accounts, creating an online shrine out of someone’s Facebook page. Even though it is very easy to write a ‘rest in peace’, it takes a toll. But more importantly, for me, it really creates a kind of shared culture. Everyone has a different perspective on it, but for me it was something of value, not something I can completely dismiss as an online phenomenon. It was, and is, affecting us on a daily basis.
Q: Online shrines was a good way to put. All the defunct pages which are still active, essentially, but there is no one running them anymore. The whole evolution of the story through the radio show was such a … beautiful does not capture it, I think. You putting all the classic Hindi songs first, in reference to which I’d like to ask, are you a big Lata Mangeshkar fan?
Vikram: I am (laughs), but it’s not something I wear on my sleeve as such. The reason I included them (the songs) is that I’ve been told that people become very numb when they’re told that someone has died. But when you watch a film, it’s melodramatic, and this is frowned upon. When people watch an old film, they are able to express emotions, which is why I wanted to include melodrama… the idea was emotions, for which media can be utilized. Radio show was something that was already part of the script but this particular programme I thought would bring out that aspect of melodrama. Contemporary theatre makers – we don’t want to lay on emotions very quick, we want subtlety and we want inferences, a kind of resonance from somewhere to do the trick rather than something directly told. A show, not tell, if you will. I thought that the backdrop of melodrama might help us in this emotional journey instead of having the characters themselves go through all these upheavals.
Q: Songs are one of the best ways to express the kinds of emotions you were going for. I kept humming along with the songs I did know. They were the perfect ones to pick. They added a sense of melancholy. Which leads me to a depressing question: our mental health was already fragile. Do you think Covid-19 has exacerbated these issues or do you think it has helped in some ways by not forcing people to go out in public anymore?
Vikram: It depends on individual to individual. I have seen some people thrive, if that makes sense. Breaking out of a pattern they had settled into, some people have come out in a much better way, have reinvented themselves… the world is not going to go back to what it used to be. And for some who had grown into the system, were comfortable with, it was a shock to them. There are those who are a combination of both.
I had this theatre platform for queer people and we were doing a number of short plays where young theatre makers would come and perform. They all were around queer themes, and we were all toying with the idea of doing a digital version of it. But then we thought the space we create during an event was not possible sometimes, when people are performing from their respective homes. Because they all have very different levels of acceptance in their homes. They can come to a venue, a protected environment, and perform their hearts out. But they might not be able to do it from their homes. Home becomes a space where you can’t accept yourself. I know a lot of young people who are open very early in their lives these days, but home is not always the best place to be relegated to for days and days and months on end. You need hideouts, you need to come out from that space.
T: I understand the scariness of it. Which leads me to the idea of escape. What made you decide on France as the country for Sahir?
Vikram: Obviously there are certain considerations. These characters are based on real people, but we wanted to anonymize it, to change all the details. Metaphorically, you can see that you can go to the west and live your queer life, because obviously the cultures seem more open and you can be yourself, but there are other questions of alienation that come up. It’s not like a gay person can just pack their bag and declare I want to live on Rainbow Street, as Sahir does. And I know some people who have made that work for themselves.
But when you are uprooted from your own culture, you go through a kind of alienation. For example, Sahir, he always says that I have these credentials and when I go back to France, I am not able to work in my full capacity. That he doesn’t know the language. Being uprooted from your culture is one of the most difficult things you can go through, that’s why there are so many stories about immigration and displacement, etc. That’s something that’s going to feed cinema, literature, theatre, for years because it’s still something that you have to go through. I actually hear a lot of people say, why are you still in India, India doesn’t accept you, though now supposedly Section 377 has been taken down, but there is no real change in social attitude, right?. I think you can still live your best queer life even in India, but that depends on the privilege you have, the circumstances you find yourself in, and the people who come into your life. For me, in the play it is used as a kind of metaphor. You can’t say everything is correct for this guy, so now he is going to be alright. Anyone can have problems. Problems crop up anywhere and everywhere.
T: Regardless of countries, Aakash and Sahir embody this homosexual experience, wherein you feel confused about your friend when you don’t know you’re queer and when you come out, you’re like why were you not together but then you discover you’re not compatible or anything. Were you going for something like that?
Vikram: They do have a very strong bond, so you might think that you can choose each other, that both of them could have been happier. Akash is always chasing his shadow, right? Sahir has made this decision that his future is abroad, with a person the audience cannot really see. The toll is very clear to see on Akash as well, even though we don’t know much about him, we can make out from his responses that he is going through something as well. And even if they had been together, we don’t know if that would have been a happily ever after.
There was a scene actually which we cut out because we hadn’t recorded it properly. A scene from a few years ago in which we see Akash and Sahir go on a motorcycle ride to Maharashtra, and they discuss books and literature under the stars, and they read a T. S. Eliot poem to each other. Their whole life was ahead of themselves at the time; they are 21-year-olds full of possibilities. And then you fast forward a decade, and we see Sahir having crossed thirty and that’s just but another number for him. It’s ten years later and this is where I have reached, what my life has amounted to. It’s how people see their lives and circumstances.
[You can catch screening of Dry Ice this Sunday, 22nd May 7.15PM at G5A Mumbai. This evening is organised by GB and it’s Free Entry.]