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Doubt as old as the devil

P Anima | Updated on March 10, 2018

Twilight zone: A scene from the play Blackbird, which deals with the after-effects of a physical relationship between a 12-year-old girl and a 40-year-old man

Blackbird perches itself in the middle of a vast grey zone, making quick-fix answers difficult

It was abuse. But love too. It was depravity. And a crime. Blackbird plonks itself in the middle, in ambiguity. She was 12 and he 40. And they had a physical relationship. The play is never an easy watch. If binaries are a comfort, they are absent here. Blackbird shakes the audience out of the cocoon of right and wrong, and drags everyone into the realm of grey, into the lives of Ray and Una. At the core is paedophilia, a word never uttered, but which hangs heavy in the air, having singed the protagonists’ past and now haunting their present. Blackbird is hard because it robs the liberty to judge.

Scottish playwright David Harrower’s decade-old play has been much in demand on the international stage. Director Benedict Andrews made Una last year, a film where Rooney Mara gave new layers to Una. In India, Akavarious put up a production a few years ago with Shernaz Patel and Akash Khurana in the lead. The text is potent, complex and risqué. For the actors, they are meaty but daunting parts. Apart from Mara, Michelle Williams has played Una. Jeff Daniels and Ben Mendelsohn have taken on Ray’s part.

In the Hindi adaptation of Blackbird performed at the National School of Drama’s ongoing annual festival Bharat Rang Mahotsav, Swanand Kirkire plays Rajesh/Pawan and Saloni Luthra is Una. Himanshu Kohli, co-director along with Prashant Kumar, recalls Kirkire, songwriter and actor, taking five minutes to compose himself after reading the script. Kirkire came back and said, “I have to do it.”

Kirkire makes Rajesh/Pawan Everyman. In his white striped shirt folded at the cuff, dark trousers, growing paunch and grey hair, he is anyone, anywhere — in the bus, elevator, office corridor or the vegetable market. By making him Everyman, Kirkire makes it difficult to judge him. The audience even laughs when he refers to his beer belly. When he mentions menstruation, it is in a whisper, probably a taboo word in his vocabulary. You want to believe him when he cites reference books delineating paedophile behaviour. He argues, characteristic by characteristic, that he is not one among them. That what he felt for the pre-teen, whom he watched from the window having a tiff with her best friend, was love.

And yet that doesn’t absolve his crime. Fifteen years later, a 27-year-old woman meets a 55-year-old man in an office storeroom. Cardboard boxes stuffed with toilet rolls and stacked to the ceiling make the set. The floor is messy. The man and woman constantly talk about the need to clean up — much like their pasts.

The man works at the office, having worked his way up in a company selling dental goods. He has a new name — Pawan Oberoi, one he claims to have chosen randomly out of the telephone directory. After six years in prison, he has a new life and an older woman for partner. Pawan appears to have moved on. Una, however, is trapped. “ Maine kaati hain tumhari sazaa (I have undergone your punishment),” she tells Pawan. Unlike him, she has no new name or home. She lives in the same street, bearing an unseen scarlet letter. People look at her differently. She has lost her friends. She reminds Pawan that he was her father’s guest.

Blackbird’s tenor is determined by the actors. Luthra plays Una with a forthrightness that belies her coiled past. If Pawan is suspicious, she is candid. She taunts, questions, explains and then chases after him. When she tracks him down after over a decade, it is to find answers. And to address her own warped feelings. “You left me in love,” she tells him.

Kohli admits they were challenging parts for the actors to get into. Kirkire and Luthra were almost as distant in years as Pawan and Una. “We required them to be comfortable with each other. We held workshops and activities,” says Kohli.

Kohli read Harrower’s play and instinctively knew it had to be performed. And he and Kumar were convinced it had to be in Hindi. A disturbing play is easily beyond our realm in English. Instead, the directors wanted the audience to be accounted for — no society can delink from the crime emanating from it. Relating to a story, says Kohli, creates an unfathomed impact. “I have watched Vagina Monologues in Marathi and its effect on the audience is very different.”

The directors set about translating the play, which proved challenging. “ Blackbird is such a tight play! There’s not a word to remove or add,” says Kohli. It took the duo five months to complete a translation that stuck to the original’s meter.

The play has so far been performed in small spaces — in somebody’s living room watched by a handful sitting around the actors. Kohli doesn’t want to trade experiencing a play for a bigger audience. A play is not merely to be watched, he says. “In a small room, the audience becomes the third person peeping into somebody’s life. The dynamics is between main, tum aur woh log (You, me and them).” That kind of participation is often missing in an auditorium. “The audience becomes the fourth person.”

Participate, the capacity crowd at Shri Ram Centre may not have. But they watched in uneasy silence as Pawan and Una battled their demons. The audience gasped as a young girl — daughter of Pawan’s partner — walked into the room looking for him. Just when they were willing to concede it might have been love after all, they were drawn back to a cesspool of doubt. There are no sides to take. No judgements to pass. None to exonerate. For it is all grey.

Published on February 17, 2017

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