‘You have to become a bit besharam’

What makes shamelessness the need of the hour? Award-winning playwright, theatre director and screenwriter Purva Naresh in conversation with Danish Husain

Prerna Chawla and Nishi Doshi in 'Ok Tata Bye Bye' (photos courtesy Aarambh)
Prerna Chawla and Nishi Doshi in 'Ok Tata Bye Bye' (photos courtesy Aarambh)

Purva Naresh

I’m very excited that a festival celebrating 14 years of your production company Aarambh is on from 12–17 March in Mumbai. At the beginning of your preparation for this festival, you had asked me if I knew any besharam nazm that portrayed shameless women. And I recited Kishwar Naheed’s ‘yeh gunehgar auratein’...

Yes! I called you in the middle of the night, like a besharam aurat (shameless woman)! I really reached out to the right person for shamelessness. We are using that nazm in Bawli Betiyaan. But my one-line summation of the festival is: “Besharam Express is about to arrive at Platform Prithvi.”

Purva Naresh (photo courtesy Aarambh)
Purva Naresh (photo courtesy Aarambh)

All the plays feature besharam characters, from tawaifs to sex workers, to women trying to be Madhuri Dixit in a ladies’ sangeet to little girls carrying love letters. Besharam Express is overloaded with these characters.

All are trying to raise their voices, become belihaaz (disrespectful) and behaya (unashamed). Mostly women, but also men. Like Munnoo, the role you play in Bandish, or Zahoor Chacha, played by Harsh Khurana in Roshe Roshe.

Can we call them allies from the opposite gender?

Yes. They are my female protagonists’ allies, these men. There’s lots of besharmi. Women breaking the mould of the ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’ image.

To set the context and orient the readers, tell us about the productions and highlights.

There are two venues: Prithvi Theatre where the plays are and Prithvi House where the Mehfil-e-Fringe is, with individual sessions, masterclasses and new performances. The entire festival is called ‘Rang Manch ka Rang-Punch’.

The five elements that distinguish our festival are poetry, new writing (in Hindi mostly), music, dance, humour. Five plays across six days.

Aaj Rang Hai is on Hazrat Amir Khusrau’s life and work, an exploration of the Ganga-Jumni culture and also the politics of language, how khadi boli evolved.

Roshe Roshe: The Ballad of Zoon is a love story about a Kashmiri poetess, Habba Khatoun a.k.a. Zoon.

Amanjit Proach, Ipshita Singh Chakraborty and Niya Kumar in 'Roshe Roshe: The Ballad of Zoon' (photo courtesy Aarambh)
Amanjit Proach, Ipshita Singh Chakraborty and Niya Kumar in 'Roshe Roshe: The Ballad of Zoon' (photo courtesy Aarambh)
Aakash Sarawal

I see Zoon as a feminist poet. The question I ask is: why would she choose to lament and sing lovelorn songs to her husband (who was exiled by Akbar) instead of joining him when given permission? What is the place she’s at, and what does her choice indicate? Poets versus Warriors. What makes the state: land or people?

Ladies Sangeet is a laugh riot.

It’s more than a laugh riot. It explores gender fluidity and interpersonal family dynamics, and challenges patriarchy, as all your plays do. It’s very layered, with a lot rolled in.

I so love you for noticing this. Ladies Sangeet was written eight years ago, when it was not an easy conversation to have. Talking about the male gaze, the definitions of female beauty set by the market and our classical traditions and aesthetics, and the way women normalise it as well. It’s all there for those who care to look carefully.

Then there’s Bandish, about what freedom and fear mean when you have independence and the enemy is not the colonial power. Ok Tata Bye Bye is about a sex worker demanding self-respect, not sympathy, asking not to be patronised.

Ipshita Singh Chakraborty and Nivedita Bhargava in 'Bandish (20-20000Hz)' (photo courtesy Aarambh)
Ipshita Singh Chakraborty and Nivedita Bhargava in 'Bandish (20-20000Hz)' (photo courtesy Aarambh)
Neville Sukhia

Themes of women’s liberation and domestic violence, secularism, communal harmony, coexistence, syncretic culture run through the plays. What about the fringe?

There’s Bang Bang Bangaini, which is directed by Asmit Pathare and co-produced by your company. I wrote that to detox myself. I was writing a play for the Arts Council UK for Curve Theatre, and got bored and stressed. I wrote a draft to have a laugh. There was so much torture and pathos, I just couldn’t bear a ‘take me very seriously’ approach, so I made it a mad loony black comedy.

I had come to audition for that draft and I did not get the role! Little did I know I would end up doing several plays with you.

Bang Bang is more polished and ambitious in terms of space. Bawli Betiyaan is more informal—modular performances that can go anywhere. The texture is truth. The testimonials of young girls who also break into wicked songs. They’ve been nudged to tell the stories of their own dissent. Bhali ladkiyan se buri ladkiyan (from good girls to bad girls). When did they become the bad girls, even to their parents? These sweet girls who revolt one day and tell their parents, gently, firmly: I have grown up, I have my boundaries, I have my choices. Then there are masterclasses. One on the song of poetry by Naresh Saxena...

Your father, one of the greatest living Hindi poets...

He agreed, he’s in town, editing his own film on poetry at the age of 85.

Every artist puts out their art within the larger context they are within. Your insistence on shamelessness: why that choice in today’s setup?

In the context of gender, because girls have to break that lihaaz (decorum) and sharam (shame) to register their voices. For example, the girls performing in Bawli Betiyaan are ready to share their stories with the world but not their parents. I hope one day they can. I am very inspired by Mallika Taneja’s Thoda Dhyan Se in which she is almost naked. In one of the performances, her father was in the audience, it didn’t matter to her, she was a performer, she was putting out her theatre into the world.

I was shit-scared the first time my mother came to see me doing the sarapa (a man crossdressing as a woman in the Dastaan) with all the jhatkas and nakhras. When she said she loved it, it was such a relief. So, I understand that trepidation.

Hitesh Bhojraj and Danish Husain in Bandish (20-20000Hz), where Husain (right) plays the sarapa role (photo courtesy Aarambh)
Hitesh Bhojraj and Danish Husain in Bandish (20-20000Hz), where Husain (right) plays the sarapa role (photo courtesy Aarambh)
Neville Sukhia

Yes, you have to become a bit besharam to tell a piece of truth. At home you could be a ‘sweet girl’, in college you could be an activist. Standing up to your parents is the most uncomfortable moment for both. That moment of shamelessness. But also, over the last 14–15 years, despite the cracks and fault lines always being there, we knew the line between good and evil, between being petty versus being an outright bad human being.

Today, that line has become murky. We wear our ugliness on our sleeves. In fact, it is a matter of pride. We have become so used to jumlas, to saying hateful things just for impact. To be cunning is a virtue, to be cruel is practical. Besharmi ka mahaul mein hum agar lihaaz todke saamne nahi ayenge, hum haar jayenge (In an atmosphere of shamelessness, if we don’t break out and come forward, we will lose).

In one sense, you’re suggesting that with lihaaz vanishing, why not channelise shamelessness for a better cause? Rather than hurt, maim and sow divisions, why not use besharmi to break the patriarchy, and call out people.

This is the time speak out. This is not the time to be khamosh (silent) and polite. We don’t have to be vitriolic. We have to match the strategy of the other side. Once, to be silent was to be respectful, to hold on to your gravitas. Now, to be silent is to be an escapist.

I’m interested in your earliest influences. Didn’t you train as a dancer, and then branch into screenplays and playwrighting? I have seen all your plays. Clearly there is an evolution. Take us through your journey.

I was three years old when I was put into kathak class which is totally lasya and feminine, and five when I started learning to play pakhavaj, a male-dominated percussion instrument. My father said to me when I was around 14: “You are wowing everyone with your energy and effort, but what are you really doing other than achieving mastery over your muscles? How are you turning that movement into something meaningful? In kathak you can use text, you can use abhinaya to say something, but how would you do that with the pakhavaj? When does your craft become art?”

I grappled with that for a long time. He said to me, “It’s easy for you to become a good kathak dancer, with practice and good gurus, and you’re also a girl, you’re fair, you have long hair, you’ll be accepted. Even someone who doesn’t know anything about dance will stop and look at a woman dancing, so you already have an audience. But why should they watch you doing a hundred chakkars? Why not use that energy to draw, say, water for the needy?”

He challenged me to think about why my art should exist. I kept grappling with that, kept performing, then went into film school, where my rebellion was to not fall into the cliques socialising, smoking and drinking.

I was pulled aside by a female camera woman and told, “This long hair, these curves, this entire getup as a dancer, don’t you think you’re taking women back many years, when we’re trying to break the mould? You are refusing. You are still the same woman I have seen in Satyajit Ray’s movies or Ritwik Ghatak’s movies. You haven’t done anything to modernise myself.”

All these things stayed with me. One of my most difficult conversations was with my mom about my divorce, which was very amicable, when she asked, “Why?” In Lucknow there was silence: everyone knew about it but nobody spoke about it. And that crept into Ladies Sangeet. These real- life incidents kept creeping into my work. Why should I expend so much energy? Wah-wah lootne ke liye (Just for the applause)? Is there a purpose? Does it have any context?

The same thing has seeped into my writing. Am I trying to say something of importance? Right now, what is happening around me are the silences, the ignoring of things, the normalising of the suppression of freedom, of hate-politics. How am I going to capture this time? I’m trying to shake, shift, create some dialogue.

When did it crystallise into “I want to write”? And where did you begin?

I started writing film reviews for free festival passes! My editors said these aren’t reviews, you are making something personal.

At the film institute, we had to write. I came to Bombay, I had to find a roof over my head. I started writing for Subash Ghai, Rakesh Roshan, and realised these are all formulaic stories, craftily made.

I joined a corporate studio as film production head. Even at the institute, we were taught that money will play a very important role. You’re not a poet, who needs just a pen and paper. You’re not a painter, who needs just brushes, paint and a canvas. You’re a filmmaker, you will need money to make your art.

In the studio, I realised we were self-censoring from the fear of losing money.

Nowadays, we are self-censoring from the fear of many things.

When I came to Prithvi and started working with Dubey-ji (Satyadev Dubey) and Akvarious, I realised you could tell your stories more freely.

In theatre, you are chasing break-even figures, not profits.

The contract with the audience is to give them a story that they will not find on TV or in the movie theatres. This is the most beautiful contract: I give you my energy, you give me your energy and there will be a bridge of trust to walk into a space that doesn’t even exist.

In film, we try to make lies look real. Not in theatre. No one worries: how big is it, is it a hit?

What was your first work as a playwright?

I was given a book by Ruskin Bond and told to turn it into a play for children. That became A Special Bond, which actually had a season 2.

The first thing I created which was a mature piece of work was Afsaneh: Bai se bi-scope tak, which premiered at the Kala Ghoda Festival in 2008–09. Inspired by the lives of Gulab Bai and Beni Bai (my grandmother Beni Kunwar).

Aaj Rang Hai was done by my mother (Vijay Naresh) for Sangeet Natak Akademi. The music and research was there; I churned the two and whipped a fiction out of it.

Then Shernaz Patel invited me to a Writers’ Bloc lab. Karl Miller. Ellie Dodson. Abhishek Roychowdhury. Very respected names. We were all in the same room, and encouraged to find our voices, our flavours.

Curve Theatre, Leicester reached out to me and commissioned a play. Someone saw that and invited me to Melbourne.

One thing led to another. People actually commissioned me to write ‘my’ play. Not ‘a’ play. 

What is your advice for the younger playwrights trying to create a mark for themselves?

The biggest challenge is to survive.

Very few playwrights are part of literary fests. Getting your plays published is a problem. No one chases playwrights. Especially women playwrights— other than Sapan Saran, who just published her book.

No one comes to me the way they come to my father. Theatre se ghar chalta nahi hai, jalta hai (theatre doesn’t run a home, it burns it).

You have to make the time to write. It doesn’t have to be sophisticated.

TV serials once focused on so-called ‘women-oriented’ stories, but in the interest of patriarchy. That was the irony of television. It killed the idea of ‘stay with the character’.

Film capitalised on ‘stay with the plot’.

But OTT content started merging the two. A lot of plays were being read and suddenly playwrights became important for the Writer’s Room.

You have to read to write. Padhiye, phir likhiye (read, and only then write).

‘Rang Manch ka Rang-Punch’ is on at Prithvi Theatre, 12–17 March; ‘Mehfil-e-fringe’ is on at Prithvi House, 13–17 March.

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