Any bio of Mahesh Dattani will tell you that he’s the first Indian playwright writing in 
English to be awarded the Sahitya Akademi award. From religious fundamentalism, to child sexual abuse, to gender roles, to homosexuality, to arranged marriage, his plays have confronted issues that could cause many an Indian audience to squirm. Alyque Padamsee, one of the foremost names in Indian theatre, has described him as “a playwright who gives 60 million English-speaking Indians an identity”. It’s rather absurd how easily those laurels sit on the ever-smiling, ever-accommodating playwright, who on some days has three different productions of three different plays on in three different countries at the same time.

My acquaintance with Dattani began in college, through his work. Final Solutions was the only play written after the eighteenth century in a syllabus that was roused from its Neoclassical time-freeze by the Sahitya Akademi award. It was the first Indian play I had read that wasn’t written by Girish Karnad. It was powerful enough to make me devour Dattani’s plays, in text and on stage. I met him years later, when he was in Chennai to watch a production of the play that had introduced me to his writing. I found it hard to reconcile the warmth of the gentleman with his formidable bio. Weeks after that, I was cast in a production of his Tara, and would find it even harder to reconcile his non-interference in the production with his willingness to give advice and feedback. Those who have been in his workshops will attest that he is as brilliant a teacher as he is a writer. In this interview, the much-published, much-performed, and much-awarded playwright speaks about his craft, and the reactions to it.

You’ve spoken about how plays come alive to you only when they’re read out, and you often work with actors while completing them. Are you still able to follow this playwriting process?

Well, earlier that’s the way it was. Now, the pressure’s too much on me to give full scripts in before rehearsals begin, because in Bombay, things get moving a little quicker.

What is it you like about the process, though?

Well, I think a play, once it’s sort of read out, that’s when you get the feel of how it sounds, and how it moves, spatially and temporally. Because it is a temporal arc. It’s like writing music. Unless it’s played out, you won’t really get an idea of how it moves. That’s the way I feel about it. The ideal situation would be that I get to have the actors come in and read things out my initial draft, and then I can go on with it.

How does it work with radio plays? You’ve written a couple for the BBC.

Well, that’s completely different because the recordings were in London, and they didn’t have a budget to fly me down for the initial rehearsals. I did go once for the recording, but then that’s too late to do anything, to make changes in the script. So you just have to go with what you’ve written, though at any stage you might feel, oh, God, that could have been written differently, or better, or whatever.

How much do you think is gained or lost when a play is read as text, as opposed to seen on stage?

Well, if you’re drawing a difference between a play being read out and it being seen on stage, I would say ultimately, it is as a performance that the text comes alive. But to a writer, I think even having it read out would make a difference, because you could actually hear it. And if you’ve had enough experience in theatre, you would know how it is going to play out as a performance, once the actors bring in their own interpretations and the director brings in her own interpretations—it will have a life of its own, which as a writer, you can’t really control. And you mustn’t control that.

As a corollary to the previous question, those of us who have read your plays over and over again, through rehearsals or as part of a literature syllabus, discover layers not only to characters, but also to plots, everyday. Whereas an audience gets to see the play only once. Are there any devices you use to make sure they get these layers?

Well, that’s the thing... if it has multiple layers or multiple perspectives, it’s ultimately up to the director to make choices. I don’t think the audience needs to get everything, you know, in terms of what the play is resonating. Ultimately, the audience should get what the director and the actors choose from the text, to interpret.

You must be among the youngest playwrights to have become part of college syllabi.

(Laughs) Yeah, I guess first of all, I’m alive and not dead! That, in itself, is quite rare, you know.

But do you remember your reaction, when you first got to know?

Yeah...yeah! I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a joke. It took a while for me to realize it was true, that people are actually studying my plays!

Being multilingual, has it ever occurred to you to write plays in other languages? There is some dialogue in Hindi and Kannada, and sometimes Gujarati, even in your English plays, but you’ve only written in English as such.

I know. That’s my limitation, that I’m not really multilingual, in the sense that I may speak other languages, but the language which I can express myself in is English. So, I really have that limitation, unlike Girish Karnad, who’s definitely multilingual, because he can write as beautifully in Kannada as he does in English.

You can have Othello, Moor of Venice, speak in English, and you can have Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, speak in English, because the language belongs to the writer, not the character. But, you know, in English theatre here, we’re not willing to take that leap into art. We don’t consider language an artifice through which the playwright expresses himself.

But many of your plays have been translated by others. One of the things I enjoy most about your plays is the idiom—it’s the language all of us who speak English at home use, it’s so everyday, with its bits of wordplay, with its Indianisations and Americanisations. Do you think that idiom always lends itself to translation, or are you choosy about which plays you will allow to be translated, and which you will not?

No, I don’t think any idiom lends itself to translation. Even if you look at Bertolt Brecht or any other playwright whom we receive only through English —see, they didn’t write in English, and we don’t get the idiom of the original play. What you’re getting is the trans-creation. So one has to just go with it, because this is the question that has been around ever since translations became popular is that—what are you losing? But the thing is that you lose something, and you also gain something, so I think that itself is important. You can’t expect the same thing to be retained in a translation—it will have its own identity, and if it has to be strong, it has to have its own identity.

I have a question specific to Do the Needful, which you wrote as a radio play. There’s a scene where a coconut-seller is speaking in Kannada, about a prospective bridegroom who doesn’t know Kannada, and the groom is going on in Hindi and English, which the coconut-seller doesn’t understand. The bride understands all of them, and it struck me that if you were staging it in Bangalore, for instance, you could have used the original languages for that bit, and it would have been hilarious. Whereas it had to be entirely in English for the BBC radio broadcast.

Well, it has its own charm in that they’re both speaking in English, but you have to imagine that they can’t understand each other. So, it had its own discovery for the audience—they had to use their imagination to figure out that these two characters are speaking different languages. But you’re right, I think that would work brilliantly in Kannada and in English, because what we’re doing basically then is saying that language belongs to the character. Whereas language actually belongs to the writer. You can have Othello, Moor of Venice, speak in English, and you can have Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, speak in English, because the language belongs to the writer, not the character. But, you know, in English theatre here, we’re not willing to take that leap into art. We don’t consider language an artifice through which the playwright expresses himself. We consider language to belong to the characters alone.

Your sets are usually complicated, and visually very interesting. Often, they’re integral to the spatial and temporal levels in the play, standing for the past and present, or the real and the imagined. You put down detailed stage directions, and movement is crucial. In this context, can you tell me about your biggest struggles with your first radio play?

Yeah, it was a huge challenge. Because I discovered that it is a very difficult medium to write in. But I also discovered that the kind of shifts I do, in a strange way, this radio drama does allow for, in a different way from the stage. Although it is a completely audio medium, you can go into your characters’ thoughts in a jiffy, and then you can come out and be in a realistic scene. So jumping in and out is easier. That’s what I’ve done with Do the Needful, in that you have the characters going back and forth between thought and dialogue. That’s possible in radio, but that’s not so effective on stage.

But how do you differentiate between the thoughts and the dialogue in audio?

Oh, that’s very easy. It’s the distance from the mic. that the actors stand at. I think for the inner thoughts, it’s a little bit more resonant, or you come closer to the mic., so you can speak softer, and the mic. will then pick up the nuances in the characters’ emotions.

Several of your plays have allegorical levels, for which you use artistic licence with facts, and I know you’ve been asked this over and over again, especially with Tara. Conjoined twins can medically only be same-sex, and here, you make them fraternal twins to bring out the idea of gender. Doesn’t it frustrate you when people tend to focus on the plausibility aspect, rather than the bigger picture? Where do you find the patience to explain your point repeatedly?

(Laughs) I know. It’s just that some people are willing to accept it as an allegory, and some are not. So it’s perfectly fine if one feels that it is flawed because medically, it’s not possible. But then, so many things on stage may not be possible in reality. Theatre has its own possibilities, and that’s what I would like to explore, and that’s what I am interested in.

You write complex characters, but they belong to groups that have been stereotyped or spoofed—transgenders, gay men, housewives, male dancers, disabled people... So, do you worry about how actors will portray them, especially when you’re not directing the play yourself?

Yeah, that is true. That’s a matter of great concern—is the actor so shallow as to just be the stereotype and not go beyond it? Fortunately, I’ve had some good productions, where this has not been the case, where actors are sensitive enough to not go with the stereotype. But there are some productions where people just focus on the stereotype, or play them as entirely comic characters, and those can be an eyesore.

But you are very open to people handling your play, often giving them carte blanche. When you give people that sort of liberty, has any production of your plays ever taken you completely by surprise?

Let me see. Hmmm. No, because most of it draws from within the play, and interpretations are very strong. For instance, there was one production in which Dr Thakkar [a character in Tara who is bribed into doing a risky operation to give the fused leg of conjoined twins to the boy rather than the girl, whom it actually belongs to] was played as a woman. Now, the thing is that I felt that was quite interesting in one way. In another way, it tended to create a bias against women. Because the play is about patriarchy, and I do see the doctor figure as belonging to that patriarchal system, where he is completely in control over the lives of these twins; and there’s a resonance of that character with the grandfather, who actually makes the decision in favour of the boy. So, I thought that it brought in a bias, but audiences quite liked it, and thought it was good. There’s another in which Chandan and Dan [the grown-up version of Chandan in Tara] were played by the same actor, which was also interesting, although I felt that a lot of the memory aspect of the play was lost because of that. But that’s okay.

You used to direct and act in all your early plays.

That’s right, the first two—Where there’s a Will and Dance like a Man.

But cinema also comes with huge constraints. It’s a highly, highly technical medium. And the rhythm and flow are actually created more through edits, through how you cut your film. So, it’s a very technical and clinical process. Of course, editing is an art by itself, but you know what I mean, right?

Yeah, so when you were approached by other people who wanted to produce and direct those plays, was it hard for you to give up control and trust them with it? Because people always change things, however closely they follow the script.

Yeah, but one thing I’m very clear about is that you don’t change the script. You can interpret it, and make changes that have to do with interpretation, but not with script. And I was fortunate that the first director outside of me who directed my play was Alyque Padamsee. He was very respectful to the text, he never changed a word. He made a few edits, and he made some suggestions, but he didn’t change a word, and that’s something I really appreciated about him. And that’s probably why I trust directors, because my initial experiences have been really good.

Do you find it upsetting when your stage directions are not followed, or when the sets are not in keeping with what you imagined?

No, not really. See, I put down those specific stage directions because my plays are crafty, in the sense that they do use stagecraft as part of the storytelling, right? So, if the director understands that and makes a change, then it’s fine. But some directors do not understand that. And if a director who isn’t aware of this makes a change, it may actually go away from the story.

You’ve also been involved with cinema. When you write for the stage, you’re confined by things like spaces, set changes, costume changes, and number of actors. No stage actor wants a walk-on part. Whereas all these restrictions disappear when you take it to film. What aspects of film do you find liberating, and what aspects challenging, as opposed to stage?

(Laughs) All those things you mentioned are the ones I find liberating about film—that you can just go where the action goes. You know, the audience is very fluid in cinema in the sense that they see from the camera’s point of view. And the camera can go anywhere, theoretically. That is very liberating. But cinema also comes with huge constraints. It’s a highly, highly technical medium. And the rhythm and flow are actually created more through edits, through how you cut your film. So, it’s a very technical and clinical process. Of course, editing is an art by itself, but you know what I mean, right? In theatre, what’s exciting is that it’s the actors who have to create the flow and energy of the performance, whereas in film it’s like the actor has no idea how it’s being paced, or where the peaks are. That’s why film is completely a director’s medium. No matter how brilliant you are, you have to just trust your director and follow instructions.

In the film version of Dance Like a Man, you made the ending far more “normal”, less surreal.

I know, I know. (Laughs) Yeah, see, that’s the advantage of the theatre... that you can have abstract spaces, abstract thoughts on stage. Of course, there are brilliant filmmakers who do create those sort of spaces in cinema, but by and large, it is a graphic medium, and it is in the detailing that it works out. So, I thought it would be a better idea to take a more realistic approach to the ending than the abstract one in the play.

The chronology of the story was different in the film too, there was no back-and-forth like there is on stage.

That’s right. On hindsight, I think I could have been a little bit more adventurous with the structure. It does go into flashbacks and things, but I could have done a lot more with it. Of course, I didn’t direct the film. But I feel that in the writing, I could have done a better job with the screenplay.

One of your main concerns is gender, and this operates at several levels in your plays—one is the obvious; and then, there’s gender via sexual orientation; and then there’s gender via domination, with autocratic fathers emasculating their dependent sons. Would you agree that there’s also a level of gender politics in wives bulldozing over their husbands?

Hmmm. Well, of course there is, in the sense that it’s about power play. So, nobody is a victim forever, and nobody is an oppressor forever. Oppressor and victims are roles that are fluid. So, if you’re looking at liberation, then you’re looking at a tip in the power scale as well. Very rarely do you have a balance. It’s always tipping one way or the other.

The politicians in your plays are always corrupt characters. You once spoke about receiving a phone threat from Shiv Sena. Have there been threats from politicians who see shades of themselves in your characters, or who’ve heard that there may be a character based on them in your plays?

(Laughs) Yeah, the Shiv Sena threat was for a play I directed—Sara [by Shahid Anwar, based on the life and works of Pakistani poet Sara Shagufta]—but I haven’t received threats as such for my plays. Final Solutions did have some problems—not from the Shiv Sena, but when we were staging the play in Bangalore, the Babri Masjid destruction happened one week before opening. So, the organisers decided to pull out the play, and even the Commissioner of Police advised us not to stage it. It was only a couple of years later that I could do the play.

But that’s strange, because the play in fact takes the opposite line.

Exactly. It’s more a play for tolerance, but our attitude is that we like to brush things under the carpet, and we don’t like to talk about it. But it’s in a moment of crisis that you need dialogue. Sadly, that’s when we are less open to dialogue... that seems to be a tendency amongst us.

In this context, do you think the playwright has a definite role to play, in kindling his audiences’ consciences? Or, do you think one shouldn’t write with an agenda?

You shouldn’t write with that agenda. I think you have to be truthful to your characters and your story. But the fact is that we all live in a socio-political environment. So, how clearly can you draw the socio-political environment, and your characters within it? Again, that depends—it varies from playwright to playwright, writer to writer. It’s always a combination of the personal and the environmental. I think drama works best when those two are woven into your characters.

There’s been this argument with drama as well as film— of reflective stories versus investigative. A story that portrays reality is seen as incitement of the wrong kinds of attitudes.

Yeah, that’s a very limited way of looking at the purpose of looking at story, whether it’s theatre or cinema. I think the Greeks had got it right. They believed in catharsis, they went through those tragedies and things because I think they wanted their warriors to purge their emotions and find a way to get it all out, so that they could go and fight wars! And I think we need to do something similar, in that unless we have some kind of a dialogue, a kind of mirroring, we are not going to be able to introspect and reflect on our environment the way we have to.

On the subject of catharsis, even the most serious of your plays have comic characters, moments when the audience can laugh. I’ve often seen other high-tension plays where there’s no comic relief, and the audience tends to burst out laughing at the wrong moments, because they just need some kind of release. How do you time, or gauge, when to bring in the comic relief in a play, without affecting the tension?

Oh, well, all my plays have a lot of humour, even the very first play I wrote— Where There’s a Will—in fact, I think that one had a lot more humour than the later ones. I think comedy is a wonderful way of looking at things, because it has a great way of distancing you. Sometimes, I feel like my plays are comic, and I provide dramatic relief to the comedy, rather than the other way around! Because I really like humour which is satirical, which makes you sort of laugh at yourself, and which also makes you view yourself from a psychological distance. I think that’s very important in drama. I tend to use that a lot in all my plays—comedy and tragedy happening almost simultaneously—maybe with the exception of 30 Days in September. But I can’t draw one thumb rule for all my plays, because ultimately it is a creative process, and each play has its choices. I don’t say okay, I’ve put comedy in one place, and I’m not going to put it in the next scene, or the other way round. It’s always a process of discovering what’s right for the play.

How much ownership do you feel of your plays? Do characters come to you readymade, or do you feel you’re involved throughout, in the process of building them up?

Oh, yeah, it is a process. They don’t come readymade. You’re not transposing them from your head to the paper. I think there’s always a process of discovering the characters, and then they get a life of their own.

Has any ending, or any character, surprised you?

Some have, and some have been sort of predestined. The ending of Tara, for example, was predestined. I knew exactly where it was going. But at the same time, it had its surprises. For example, the whole revelation by the father, instead of it coming from any other source, sort of happened by itself—and I feel that’s open to interpretation. It would be nice to see an interpretation where you feel the father is lying, because it’s his version of the events, and we don’t know the mother’s version. I would like that ambiguity to be played up, because audiences are more than happy to assume he’s telling the truth—unless the director and actor choose to play it that way. Hmm, I can’t think of any of my plays where the ending has surprised me, because I’ve been writing over a span of thirty years, and so often, the process is forgotten. (Laughs)

You teach playwriting as a craft. In your own plays, the dialogue flows so naturally and seems so spontaneous. Do you find it difficult to sort of break this down into a teaching module?

Well, I don’t really teach playwriting. I conduct workshops. If at all there’s any teaching, I teach structure. When you’re teaching structure, you’re looking at basic things like conflict and character and action and stuff like that. You know, what I do is I try and help participants to sort of explore and strengthen whatever they have created, or want to create. So it’s always one-on-one.

At the moment, I think most of your characters would be either too young or too old for you. But do you think, in a few years, we may see you playing the autocratic father like the one in Dance Like a Man?

(Laughs) Well, I don’t know, the thought of getting on stage is frightening now. I’m more comfortable as a writer and director. Those are the two things that I love doing.