Playwright, director, actor, and teacher, Mahesh Dattani has donned many hats over the years. Ahead of the country’s first Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa, where he will be conducting script writing workshops, he speaks to T+L India about being socially responsible as a writer.
What brought you to theatre from advertising and to the socially relevant topics that your scripts deal with?
My stint with advertising was very short-lived. Soon after graduating as a Bachelor of Arts, I turned to Advertising as a way of earning honest money as a copywriter. However, it didn’t take me long to feel disillusioned. I did not want to use my skills as a writer to sell a product. My preoccupation with theatre was growing. Although initially I did not see it as a way of bringing about social awareness, I did realize its power after I wrote my first play Where There’s a Will. This was my way of engaging with society, as I am otherwise socially inept!
How careful do you have to be when portraying women characters?
I try not to make my characters as representational of their gender, class, religion or sexuality. However, as a professional writer, I am aware that they may be perceived as representational. I do need to keep that in mind, but at times, I must choose between honest portrayals and politically correct ones. I feel I serve my characters better by being honest in revealing their actions. Yet at the same time this artistic freedom needs to be handled with a great sense of responsibility. I am a socially responsible being first, but many a times the artist is not a socially responsible being. So, it is a bit of a moral/artistic dilemma. I think every artist goes through this. There is no real answer.
Some current playwrights you think should get more attention?
There are some very successful young playwrights like Anupama Chandrasekhar and Abhishek Majumdar. Anupama’s plays have received professional productions abroad in prestigious venues like the Royal Court Theatre. However, her plays have not been performed extensively in India. Abhishek has the advantage of being a playwright and director, and he is perfectly capable at handling both jobs with ease.
What obstacles do new playwrights face in getting attention?
For more talented playwrights to be recognised on home turf, we need more capable directors who can look at original writing with a more experienced eye and truly create something new. Most directors I know would rather work with ‘tried and tested’ plays, because of their inability to explore virgin territory, a hallmark of any creative person.
Tell us about The Script Lab project.
I have been doing script labs for the past thirty years, initially at my studio in Bengaluru, and now as a freelancer. We are all aware of the paucity of good scripts both in theatre and in cinema. This is not because there is a dearth of talent, but the real paucity is one of intention. Nobody wants to invest time, money, and intelligence in developing good scripts, the backbone of any form of story-telling. I am hoping that some good scripts will emerge from this lab, scripts that I will be happy to consider for direction or recommending them to producers and directors both in theatre and in cinema.
Tell us what’s exciting at the Serendipity Arts Festival and where we will find you.
Personally, I am looking forward to the amazing multilingual production of The Tempest. Also, I will be conducting a workshop for playwrights and screenwriters at the fest.