Playwright. Writer. Movie-maker. Actor. He has dabbled in it all. And even has a Sahitya Akademi award to credit. Mahesh Dattani on what makes for a play, films and Playpen in this quick-speak with Teresa Rehman
Mahesh Dattani’s name is synonymous with ‘Dance Like a Man’. What are the reasons behind such a resounding success of the play?
I think it has to do with the powerful production. To me the actors are doing a fine job and have a good grip on the script, making the play very engaging to an audience.
Dance like a Man’ was also made into a film by Pamela Rooks. Which version do you prefer?
It was originally written as a play, so I guess the play is my baby and so closer to me!
You have directed two films — Mango Soufflè and Morning Raga. Please tell us about your foray into filmmaking?
I really enjoyed making those films. I learnt a lot from technicians especially my cameramen and editors. Film is an exciting product, but theatre is an exciting process.
You are the first playwright in English to be awarded the Sahitya Akademi award. What is it that sets you apart?
That is for learned academicians to point out! I don’t see myself as different to other artists. We all have our journeys and we all have different landmarks guiding us.
How did you get into play writing? Is there anything or anyone who inspired you?
I have always been fascinated by the stage since I was twelve. I started off by acting and directing plays. I started writing plays because I wanted my plays to speak to my own milieu – to urban Indians. That is the primary reason why I took to writing plays.
Please tell us about your early life – things that shaped your career and life? Your family and childhood?
Born and brought up in Bangalore. To Gujarati parents. Two older sisters. My father was a businessman who moved from Gujarat to Bangalore. He liked the place and so settled down. Saw my first play at age 12 and loved it. I decided to do theatre as a hobby. Later it became a serious passion. Chucked up my job and also my dad’s business and took to theatre full time.
Please tell more about your theatre group Playpen?
After I left Bangalore, it is run by Ashish Sen who is also a founder member of Playpen. Another founder member Salmin Sheriff who has moved to Dubai will come back and continue with Playpen.
Have you ever been to Northeast India? Are you acquainted with the vibrant theatre of region?
I have been to Guwahati, Shillong and Cherapunjee. It is one of the most beautiful areas of the country. The people are so hospitable! The Brahmaputra is so inspiring.
What, according to you, are the ingredients that end up creating a play?
Basically, drama is about character revelation. What people do in the face of adversity. Their actions then reveal who they are. So the chief ingredients in drama are conflict, action and transformation.
What are the things that inspire you to write a play? You have written plays on a whole range of issues — from gender discrimination, child abuse and gender discrimination?
I am inspired by life, especially those aspects of life that tend to be hidden from the mainstream gaze.
Can playwrights change society?
If society wants to change, playwrights can definitely guide the way by illuminating the path to self-awareness and change.
You are also into teaching theatre — Summer Theatre Courses at the University of Oregon, USA and your own studio in Bangalore. What kind of training do you want to offer to the new generation theatre enthusiasts? Do we really need training to be a good playwright?
Most of my courses are geared towards actors. Yes, writing for the stage is a special skill and there is a grammar that needs to be learnt. Once you understand the rules, then you can break them!
Which according to you has been your best work till date?
Hard to say since I am still a productive dramatist.
What keeps you ticking?
My heart. In every sense of the word!