Malayalam play stresses nationalism is not about anthems and borders

Nona, directed by Jino Joseph, lays bare the lies and falsehoods being propagated by governments leading to the destruction of social fabric. People must realise racism and fascism will affect them

Photo Courtesy: Jino Joseph
Photo Courtesy: Jino Joseph

Ashlin Mathew

A saffron hue takes over the hall with a rising tempo playing in the background. The kind when you hear in a movie and you know it is a ‘chase’. And like reptiles you see orange-shadowed men creeping up and you realise they are chasing, but in slow motion, a man who is just about to be beaten up. And from there on you are ‘hooked’.

This Jino Joseph-directed Malayalam play, Nona (Lies), which won four awards, including Best Play and Best Director, at the 13th Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (Meta) in New Delhi last week, builds its theme around the façade of lies that contemporary India is built on. It also won the Best Light Design and Best Stage Design awards. Joseph’s earlier play, Mathi (Sardines) on loss of identity, migration and capitalism, had also won awards at the 10th Meta Awards in 2015 and had bagged the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award.

The protagonist of the play, Prasanthan, who has recently come back to his village, is seen prodding his childhood friends to draw the map of India in his courtyard as a tribute to the country. He is back in the village after bagging a contract to shoot an ad film based on ‘India Shining’ for the government. “The image or the map of India which is drawn on the courtyard of the central character Prasanthan’s house worked as a dramatic technique which offered us an open space to communicate the concerns within the framework of theatre and maintaining the natural flow and genuinity of expression,” says Joseph.

However, Joseph says extra effort was taken to avoid any direct mentioning of the politics. Peppered with dialogues such as “per capita income is equal to national income divided by population”, and “If the country is growing, why is there a need to advertise it? People will feel it,” the play points towards the lies that the country is under the grip of. Prasanthan’s father Govindan first expresses his doubts about the schemes his son is weaving, but Prasanthan is able to convince his family about the fortune awaiting them. Soon, it becomes clear Prasanthan has other intentions, including creating caste discords, unlike anything the village has ever seen.

Nationalism cannot be limited to an anthem or to the borders. Human beings are beyond the limits that the geographic and religious borders offer. The play calls for the concept of a global citizen

However, towards the end of the play, the mother and younger brother of Prasanthan wipe off the map of India, which was drawn in their courtyard, to a thundering applause. “Nationalism cannot be limited to an anthem or to the borders. Human beings are beyond the limits that the geographic and religious borders offer. The play calls for the concept of a global citizen and stresses that we the people of the world’s biggest democratic country should cross and vanish the boundaries,” adds Joseph, who believes we need to question everything as if we fall silent, we could lose it all.

Experimenting with a movable set, Joseph says it was created to show the different layers and narratives in the play. “The set isn’t an inspired one. We have tried so many designs. The current set is multi-purposeful. It is moving and not static. So, the set itself was a lie. Even though it took the actors more than a month to get comfortable on the set, it offered a visual treat for the spectators and more than that the map of India which is drawn on the courtyard will be visible only with such a design of slopping set,” elaborates Joseph.

Hoping to involve and draw the general public to engage with the narrative around us, Joseph says people don’t realise the enormity of issues, unless it stands on their doorstep. “They’ll be alarmed of these crises only when they reach at their doorsteps. People don’t realise that pseudo-nationalism, racism and fascism are issues which can affect them,” points out Joseph. In order to portray this predicament in a much relatable setting, the director chose to set a contemporary issue against the backdrop of a village.

Joseph, who has no formal training in theatre, says he grew up watching dramas in churches and temples during festivals. This has helped him become an inclusive and experimental director. Nona was born out of collaborations between villagers in Koduvally, a village near Kozhikode, who had just formed a new theatrical group, Black Theatre, and had invited Joseph to help create and direct a play. “In fact, the group was formed along with the production of the play. There are more than forty members on and off the stage. They belong to various walks of life. There are children, working people, daily labourers and two or three amateur actors to motivate and groom them,” points out Joseph.

Their training was often improvisational and began with a workshop which included games and exercises that would help the director analyse and identify the strength and weaknesses of the actors. They were then moulded into the characters they played by making use of their skills, body language and mannerisms. “The play is formed as a result of the collective effort of the entire village itself. So, it definitely becomes their play, their own play. That means the script, characters, direction and other elements cannot be extracted from each other, and simply it’s not that easy to apply this play anywhere else with another group. Then the entire chemistry will be spoiled,” notes Joseph, whose last play Aarachar, was an adaptation of author KR Meera’s novel of the same name.

Coming from Kerala has helped Joseph because theatre is still a relevant force. “Theatre is always a medium of protest, campaign and struggle. It directly communicates with the people and can relate with them. A single play is more powerful and far reaching than a thousand processions. Theatre has played a crucial role in the socio-political and religious changes that happened in Kerala. Kerala was politically strong and plays of organisations like KPSC, which are anti-feudalistic, paved way for many socio-political movements,” says Joseph.

In fact, in Kerala productions are increasing. “More productions are happening. I firmly believe that this is my politics, activism and work of art. The issues discussed in the play are of contemporary relevance and works reflecting these concerns happen very rarely. That’s why I selected the topic,” says a contemplative Joseph.

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