Some of his novels are Kuruthi Punal (Sahitya Akademi award winning novel), Akaya Thamarai, Helicoptergal Keezhe Irangi Vittana, Mayaman Vettai, Theevukal, Yesuvin Thozhargal, Krishna Krishna, Tantra Bhumi, Swatantra Bhumi, Vendu Taniyum Kadugal.
His plays include Uchchi Veyyil, Porvai Porthiya Udalgal, Mazhai, Aurangzeb, Nandan Kathai and Ramanujar.
Thirty eight-year-old Pravin is the director of the theatre group Magic Lantern, which he founded along with his friends in 1993. He directed a spectacular production of Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan that made waves in the city a few years ago.
Pravin had extensive exposure to French theatre traditions through his association with the Alliance Francaise and the numerous stints he did in France with the aid of scholarships he won to study acting, direction and aspects of drama and cinema. These scholarships took this zoology graduate of Loyola College, Chennai, to Theatre Nationale de Strasbourg and Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil.
Joining the repertory Koothu-p-pattarai on his return to India in 1991, Pravin directed his first play, Don Juan in Tamil. He launched Magic Lantern in 1993, and ever since, has been involved in direction, coaching actors, and as casting director for the Indian cast of foreign language films, mainly French.
At Magic Lantern, Pravin and a band of theatre fanatics—Hans Kaushik, Kumaravel, Pasupathi, Swarnavel, Krishna Devanandan and Rajiv Krishnan—did a number of productions in Tamil, like Pinocchio, Veshakkaran, based on Moliere’s Tartuffe, Jeremy by French playwright Philip Minyana and Dr. Naak, directed by Mu Ramaswami. In English, the group staged Dario Fo’s The Accidental Death of an Anarchist, directed by Rajiv Krishnan.
A few months ago, Magic Lantern staged Indira Parthasarathy’s play, Mazhai a psychological drama that deals with the deep undercurrents of insecurities, fears, fragile relationships, even a hint of incest, that run through an Indian middle class family. The performance took place at TAG Centre, TTK Road, Chennai, as part of the South India Heritage series of programmes. V. Ramnarayan engaged Indira Parthasarathy and Pravin in a conversation that discussed the staging of Mazhai as well as issues concerning contemporary theatre in general. Here are some excerpts:
Ramnarayan (R): Why did you choose to perform Mazhai, which is one of the older plays of Indira Parthasarathy?
R (to I): Why did you choose Magic Lantern to do the play?
I: I was very impressed by their commitment to theatre. Kumaravel was my student at Pondicherry University and Magic Lantern had consulted me on numerous occasions.
P: He was adviser for many of our productions: Tamil versions of Camus’ Caligula, Moliere’s Tartuffe, Dario Fo’s Anarchist and so on.
I: I was surprised by the rousing response of a Mylapore audience to Mazhai, despite the unconventionality of its theme. It was an eye-opener to me.
P: Mazhai works at several levels. It has a huge amount of psychological drama, but has been constructed meticulously. It combines elements of Greek tragedy with pure psychological drama. It took us two to three readings to grasp its nuances and deliver the lines exactly as the playwright intended.
R: Were you both happy with the acting?
I: They delivered the dialogues well, did a professional job.
P: I was reasonably happy with the acting. Of course, the actors will get better the more they perform the play. We need to do some ten shows to polish the acting. We can then perform the play exactly as the playwright intended, even exceed his expectations, to such an extent that he may wonder, ‘Did I really write all this?’
R: I thought the acting was generally good, but felt the actors tended to throw their voices as though it were a much larger hall.
P: That was because there were some problems with the acoustics at the hall. There were parts of the auditorium where the actors could not be heard unless they raised their voices. This was something Indira Parthasarathy pointed out during our rehearsals, asking us to be louder, for that reason.
R: I have written a piece called, Tamil theatre: You must be joking! referring to the strings of jokes that pass for plays here. Whatever happened to serious theatre in Tamil Nadu?
I: First, your charge is valid only in Chennai. Serious theatre is alive and kicking in the mofussil centres. In contrast, the kind of farces you refer to cannot survuive outside Chennai. S.Ve. Shekher and Crazy Mohan cannot cross Tambaram, as I told Tenral, a Tamil magazine published in the US. When the interviewer informed me that Shekher and Crazy Mohan were popular in the US, I pointed out that the Tamil audience in the US was the same as the Mylapore audience.
R: The filmmaker Hariharan recently confessed at a discussion that in his youth he made incomprehensible films because he thought it was fashionable to do so, but eventually grew out of it.
P: When you are young, between the ages of 16 and 25, there’s a lot of inner turmoil and confusion so that you don’t know how to express yourself. Your feelings get sublimated and come to the audience in a garbled form or in a different dimension. But as you grow older, your expression should gain a certain maturity.
R: So, how do you interest audiences in serious but comprehensible theatre?
I: The problem, as I said before, is peculiar to Chennai. In Pondicherry, when I was teaching at the university, the government organised a theatre festival in which some 120 plays were staged. People like Sambandam and Arumugham put up their plays and there was huge audience appreciation.
R: How can we make it happen in Chennai?
I: Take theatre out of the Museum Theatre to the Narada Gana Sabha. I use Narada Gana Sabha as a metaphor here. Change the public perceptions of Tamil theatre. Plays are staged at many small venues in Delhi, and there has been no felt need to dumb them down.
P: You have to take theatre to the people, not be satisfied with performing before a few intellectuals at select places. We did that at Magic Lantern with our translations of Moliere and Don Juan and so on in the early days. When we did Ponniyin Selvan, people thought we were crazy. No one will sit for more than two hours, our critics warned us. Our play went on for 4½ hours and people stayed. There was no interval and it rained. Still nobody moved.
R: Yes, Ponniyin Selvan drew huge crowds, but nobody seems to be writing plays in Tamil.
I: I have written ten plays. Who’s there to perform them?
R: But where are the other playwrights?
I: I saw one good production recently at Coimbatore. It was an adaptation of Waiting for Godot. They called it Eppo Varuvaro? They did a good job of it. The general trend however seems to be to write abstract plays which no one can understand. Murugabhupathi, for instance, writes plays I can’t understand at all, though he has a powerful command over the medium. His plays are visually exciting, but the problem is with his language. Arumugham has a similar problem. Again his plays are visually powerful.
That apart, who will write plays when there’s no one ready to perform them? A play’s true consummation is in production, in its performance.
The trouble with the few playwrights around today, and this applies equally to those writing in English, is that they have no theatre experience. They have never gone on stage, never spoken a line. They only do Neil Simon or Woody Allen plays, which hardly reflect theatre.
R: Back in the sixties, there was a flourishing Tamil theatre, largely middlebrow, by troupes like Sahasranamam’s Seva Stage. Then came Cho’s political satires and the new wave of theatre that people like K. Balachander brought. All that has disappeared today.
I: Nothing wrong with middlebrow theatre. People like Sahasranamam played an important role. It was what I call ‘sabha theatre’ that killed professional theatre. Sahasranamam was a victim. He was the ultimate theatre man. It was decades later that Koothu-p-pattarai revived professional theatre.
P: Shakespeare was the ultimate writer of popular drama. Nothing wrong with popular theatre, as long as it is professionally produced.
I: Our audiences will watch English theatre as it has snob value. It is like the local lending library which charges more for English magazines than Tamil magazines. When I was in the US, I came across an advertisement for a subscription lunch. Lunch with Jeffrey Archer cost 300 dollars. A week later, the same outfit advertised lunch with Vikram Seth at 150 dollars a head.
P: The same attitude prevails here in theatre. At Bangalore’s Ranga Shankara, tickets are priced at Rs. 100 for English plays and Rs. 50 for regional language plays. But this is an urban trend. It is in Chennai that people won’t watch Tamil drama. Out in the district centres, Tamil theatre draws huge crowds.
R: Will a National School of Drama kind of institution work in Chennai?
I: Provided there’s no government involvement.
P: And no interference from NSD, Delhi.
I: When NSD was established, the idea they said was to promote regional theatre. But under Ebrahim Alkazi, it ended up producing regional plays in Hindi. That was no way to promote regional theatre. The accent at NSD has been on producing plays. It had an annual budget of about Rs. 16 crore for 30 students, in 1988, while we at Pondicherry had a budget of Rs. 1.2 crore for all departments! I wonder if the NSD budget has gone up a great deal now.
P: It still remains at about the same level. About 11 crore goes to run the institution and about 7 crore funds the Bharat Rang Mahotsav, the annual international theatre festival NSD conducts. They take the festival to regional centres and perform plays free of cost, thus killing regional theatre.
I: The accent at the NSD should be on teaching, academics, not production. The selection of faculty should be based on theatrical experience, not academic qualifications.
P: Yes, a Sambandam, with a thousand performances behind him, rather than a Raja Ravi Varma, with a Ph.D, should be preferred for teaching appointments.
R: What about drama departments at universities?
I: A drama department in a university does not work here, unlike in the West, where there is a wide repertoire of plays to perform and a captive audience on campus. Here it should be a separate body like NSD, a residential school. We had traditional schools in the old drama troupes, led by people like Swami Sankaradas, or Gubbi Veeranna. Traditional indigenous theatre integrated music, drama and dance. It was really rooted in the soil.
The musical play works much better in Tamil than one with just the spoken word. My play Nandan’s legend was one such.
P: We want to do Sooravali, the Tamil translation of Tempest by Indira Parthasarathy. We need funding for that to happen. We need philanthropists who will support serious theatre.
I: People will support Tempest in English; but in Tamil?
P: We have lost some 20 years, but with support from sponsors and the paying public, we can recover lost ground. By investing in training, in the teaching-learning process.
I: As I said before, more plays will be written in Tamil, if plays are produced and people pay to watch them. Without that, there will be no incentive to write plays in Tamil.