I got up from my seat with goosebumps. The deeply disturbing end, where dystopia seeps into what one would assume to be the safest of spaces, leaves a literal chill. Except, what appears dystopian is not that removed from reality today.
The play Grease Yaka Returns is both timely and timeless. Performed by Sri Lankan theatre group AnandaDrama at the National School of Drama’s annual festival Bharat Rang Mahotsav in Delhi, it explores how “othering” or alienating sections of people, aided and abetted by apathy, prejudice, an irresponsible media and opportunistic politics, is a scourge that ultimately spares no one. It ends with unmistakable references to Nazi Germany and a world — including India — going Right.
The fact that it is in both Sinhalese and English is hardly a barrier, given the nuanced acting, the effective visual language and the brilliant lighting and background score.
Grease Yaka (greased demons) is an urban myth in Sri Lanka about greased men involved in violent crimes. The play alludes to this legend by using colour (dark skin versus fair) as the tool for discrimination. It explores how, when amplified in various ways, especially through the spread of “fake news”, a colour bias grips people. And how this leads to the eventual destruction of society.
“Although the play was conceived in a Sri Lankan context, we felt that the many themes it explores were universal — from the process of ‘othering’ to fake news, cyberbullying, harassment, inter-generational conflict, and how commercial forces exploit our insecurities,” the play’s co-director and co-writer Nishantha de Silva says.
The play uses multiple settings to drive home the point, and while one can argue that this may be repetitive, the theatrical device serves the purpose well by building up to the play’s hard-hitting denouement. And by cleverly interspersing the scenes with humour, it draws the audience in, which is necessary for the shock the climax intends to create. The transitions are seamless and the stories easy to follow. In one of its most memorable scenes, the theatre group recreates, with minimal use of props, scenes of television channels peddling fake news.
“The play approaches a societal problem in a very personal way. We have narrated the story through the individual’s lens in a montage format, because we wanted it to serve as a warning to each one of us to look within ourselves as individuals, and act responsibly,” adds Rajitha Hettiarachchi, the other writer-cum-director of the play. “Instead of conforming to societal mores and noise, it is imperative for us to examine our decisions and act wisely, especially given how division is manufactured in society today by exploiting prejudices that we all harbour.”
The characters, Hettiarachchi adds, are realistic and grounded. “We wanted the audience to identify with them and observe how they became puppets to opportunistic forces.”
The Grease Yaka Returns team says it is very satisfied with the response to the play in India even though a considerable portion of the script was in Sinhalese.
The play does not just hark back to history — with references to segregation and racial purity — but, like many of Shakespeare’s works that explore tragic flaws in heroes, it deals with what can be called the tragic flaw in humankind. It does not offer solutions. But it holds a mirror to society and the reflection is ugly. If only we as a society would recoil on seeing this reflection the way in which fair-skinned people cringe at the sight of dark-skinned ones in Grease Yaka Returns , art would have served its purpose.
The Sri Lankan production is one of the much talked about plays at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav, the largest theatre festival of Asia established over two decades ago by NSD. This year the festival, with plays in over 20 languages, is travelling to four more cities — Dehradun, Shillong, Nagpur and Puducherry.
Featuring 101 plays, including 10 by theatre groups based abroad, the focus of the 21st edition of the Mahotsav is on “post-modernism”. The festival includes entries from Russia, Bangladesh, the Czech Republic, Nepal, the US and Sri Lanka. It started on February 2 with Amol Palekar’s Kusoor , a crime drama, and continues till February 21, when Ratan Thiyam’s Manipuri play Laiembigee Ishei will ring down the curtain.
Richa Bansal is a Delhi-based development communications specialist