Anupama Chandrashekhar’s play Free Outgoing played at Ranga Shankara this past weekend. The cast of 7 actors from Chennai and Bangalore were directed by esteemed director Mahesh Dattani. It had been a very long time since I had seen a social drama, especially one in English, and especially one based in South Indian Chennai.
The play runs more than an hour and centers around the life of a single mother whose life orbits around her children. She works two jobs to make ends meet and has mundane concerns about water shortage, exam scores of her children and her life is on a go go go pace. At the start of the play, her biggest concern is the performance of her son Sharath who is not matching up by any accounts to the over achieving daughter Deepa, who also has focused ambitions of becoming a doctor. Nothing amiss than the plot in any middle class family. But life falls apart.
Deepa becomes the centre of attention of the whole nation when the video of her being intimate with her boyfriend makes the rounds as an MMS. Soon, she is expelled, her brother too a day later and all are bound to each other in a house arrest, and the house begins to tear apart from within. The focus is on how a mother tries to keep her family intact in the sensless swirl of events that follow, judgements that are dealt and the loss of dignity.
Pallavi MD as Malini the mother, held the play together with her performance. She and the actor playing Sharath were the two reasons why the play is watchable. Pallavi’s performance was captivating and very energetic and was brilliant in the scene where she sees her daughter’s mms video. But apart from those two actors, the play was disappointing. At best the treatment of the play was TV Soap Opera-ish with blame being pushed at one person or the other for the issue. To engage in this meant to hear the pleas of a mother for fairness, a negotiation for survial of a family but the silence of Deepa. This is why the content of the play fails for me – where it loses the plot according to me. Let me explain.
Teenagers desire freedom from their adolescent life, they are always trying to push the boundaries set around them about what is acceptable or not. Negotiating, taking risks come naturally to them. Deepa is no different than any other teenager. She engages in a sexual act with her friend and believes she has the anonymity of one of the many teenagers who are doing the same. Only her privacy is violated. Reminded me of Tylor Clementi who jumped the George Washington Bridge after his roomate captured him being intimate with his male friend in a webcam.
Society behaves rigid and inimical as shown by the moralistic teacher, the father of Deepa’s lover, the neighbour. What is disappointing is so does Malini. It feels like Anupama Chandrashekhar pays homage to the tv dramas of the 70s and the 80s. Who cares about Deepa? There is this whole, bitterly familiar. “Oh we am victims, we were violated boo-hoo” by Malini where she does not even listen to the suggestions of her son to address the press with some inner strength – some transformation. What is disappointing is that, Anupama may be portraying this as what happens in real life, her play does not even attempt to show an engagement in a different solution. There must be another way. One wonders why she did not even attempt to interpret this situation as someone who lives in this day and age through the voice of someone closer to her age. May be the repeated pleas from Sharat to Malini to address the press, to not back down, was the other voice inside Anupama begging for a different solution – she quells it repeatedly through Malini.
For one thing, it was the plot, for the other, it was the long scene changes and the music that made the play hard to sit through. If the audience was engaged, it was to see the performance ability of Pallavi MD who mostly held the whole play on her shoulders.
When the lights came up at the end of Free Outgoing, one was left shaking their head in sheer disappointment. May be the playwright wanted Deepa’s silence to bother us, to anger us, to provoke us. But to what? You ask a close ended question and mumble an answer – an apology – making Malini the Martyr and Deepa the fallen daughter. An older theatre veteran was unforgiving in her comments, when she said, “Why did that Deepa not kill herself… at least that would have been some drama.”
May be another competitor team can reinterpret this differently. I am sure it is permissible in theatre.