In Conversation: Anuvab Pal and Rahul da Cunha
Anuvab Pal is a comedian, playwright, screenwriter and author who can count among his oeuvre the hit plays The President Is Coming and Chaos Theory and the cult film Loins of Punjab. Rahul da Cunha is one of the local theatre scene’s most well-known and respected figures, an ad man turned play writer/director of such successes as I Am Not Bajirao and Class of ’84. The two longtime friends and collaborators—da Cunha directed Chaos Theory—will reunite this weekend for the opening of their latest play The Bureaucrat, a political satire set in 2011, about a hapless government official called upon to prevent his son from staging a “Kapre Utaro Middle Classes” protest during a state visit by French president Nicholas Sarkozy. We met with the duo at Bandra coffee shop Salt Water Café to find out about their working method, their conflicts and dealing with failure. Edited excerpts:
Tell us what the play is about.
Anuvab Pal: The play is about a single day in India’s most powerful political office and it’s about an aging bureaucrat who is sort of past his prime who is called upon to solve a particular crisis that involves a young VJ who happens to be the bureaucrat’s son. And it involves a particular stretch of road in Delhi—Janpath which this young VJ plans to block and have a protest. And it’s about how this older bureaucrat stops this from happening or doesn’t stop it from happening and therefore finds himself in a personal crisis with his past, his family, etc.
What inspired this?
Rahul da Cunha: Last year.
AP: A lot of stuff we were feeling last year.
RC: The country falling apart basically.
AP: In short.
RC: There is no country left. This morning, if the government is trying to bribe the army, we have no country left. Who are your custodians of cleanness? Anuvab’s play basically sort of takes a whole bunch of issues head on. The true line is about a bureaucrat who has got no hope. It covers everything from corruption to bribery to farmer suicides. It’s a play about truly modern India. It goes into stuff like this young VJ who is the son—when he talks about his life, he talks about how he was a VJ for MTV when MTV played music and now there’s no music and it’s all about Hindi. He says “My language is English and my language is music” so it tells us also about a country where we’ve dumbed down so considerably that…look my father has a huge amount of hope for this country. To him he says that as long as I’ve lived here, it’s always been a screwed-up country, that it can’t really get much worse than this. I’ve lived in this country through the ’80s and ’90s when there was a huge amount of hope you know. So basically Anuvab’s play satirises and laughs at this whole thing and kind of puts the audience plonk in the middle of something they’re going through.
AP: The difficulty of a topic like this is it’s very easy to take sides, to say this is good and this is bad. But I feel like the politics in journalism does that for us. People have decided what’s a scam and what’s not a scam and the media has decided for you. And everyone’s decided what you should decide on your behalf. And we wanted a drama that doesn’t do that—that just throws up a bunch of stuff to the characters who are in it, driven by their personal motivations to do what’s right, however morally wrong but in their mind and in that situation the right thing that they can do.
A lot of your plays are about, shall we say, younger people, and it’s fair to say you’re both above 35. So how do you research youth behaviour?
RC: I’m 68.
AP: I’m 75.
RC: He used to be a youth. Anuvab’s been back [from the US] for eight years now. And in this last period in time, the most changing trend is young people coming to the theatre. When I started doing plays in the ’80s in Bombay, the audience was largely older people watching largely English-speaking plays. Arthur Miller and Shakespeare done by English actors. What’s happened now is a complete shift—I don’t know which came first, the audience or the subjects got younger but today we’re both quite clear the audience we want to reach out to are the younger people whatever that means. With all the dangers of them SMSing through the show and taking a phone call from mummy. Those are dangers we live with but they’re spending money.
AP: Maybe there’s something culturally we’re going through together and young people can relate to that. I feel that they’re clever enough to want to see their lives reflected on stage as opposed to 50 or 60 years ago where people would want that divide. Show me Victorian stuff and then I’m going to go back and live my life. It becomes theatre that’s alive. The English do it all the time. Theatre that’s speaking to audiences constantly; the medium is alive so well in England because people are writing about what they’re living through. The riots happened in July , [The] Tricycle [Theatre] opened a play about the riots in September and it’s a hit.
Do playwrights get no love here?
RC: They are getting it more and more now because there’s more original writing happening than ever before. The playwrights that we had earlier were either dead or above 70. Today, there are young people writing and it’s very different from the cinema that we watch. Audiences are not going to see plays for the reasons they go to see film. When they go to see films, they want to leave their brains at home.
How did you guys meet?
AP: A long time ago, I’ve been a big fan of his.
RC: Like all lovers, online.
AP: But on a real estate site.
No, really. How did you guys meet?
AP: I’ve always been a fan of Rahul’s plays. So Rahul and Mahesh [Dattani] were the only people writing about the country and experiencing it whether it’s a murder mystery or college years and I thought that was saying something, which was that these people were writing about the lives they were experiencing and that sort of blew a door wide open for me. That theatre didn’t have to be about people wearing wigs and saying “Hello Bartholomew” and “Good evening Eustace”. We grew up with that; it didn’t have to be that. It could be contemporary and alive as anything else so I when I was working in New York, I was trying to get Class of ’84 there with a theatre company that I had begun working with.
You guys are good friends and collaborators. Does that lead to any conflict when you work together?
AP: It only gets tense this week. After April 9, we’ll be back at Royal China having dinner.
RC: If we can make it through this week and as long as our respective spouses keep the knives away.
AP: With Chaos, two nights before we opened we chucked out the entire beginning and that was a bit nerve wracking.
RC: It makes a huge difference when you both do the same thing. I’m directing this one but Pal also knows I write plays so there’s a certain trust when I say this is not working, can we look at a re-write and knock it off. I’m not saying it as a director, I’m saying it from a writing point of view that it’s either not helping the plot go forward or it’s being repeated again somewhere. So we’ve knocked all the crap out. We trust each other.
AP: You both have to want to write the same thing. Let’s say either of one of us had a very different sense of humour or were not getting each other’s humour, then stuff would be added or lost for no reason. Like today there was an issue with the monologue and I knew exactly what the problem was. It was not saying what it was supposed to say.
Do either of you harbour a desire to act?
RC: I can’t act. He did a monologue.
AP: I get teased a lot by my friends and theatre colleagues.
RC: But so does Shah Rukh Khan but that doesn’t mean you stop acting.
AP: This is exactly what I mean.
So opening night, you guys are backstage…what’s happening?
AP: I usually smoke a lot.
When do you heave a sigh of relief because you know the play is a hit?
AP: By 10.30pm.
RC: Over the years I’ve figured out one thing and that’s I’m not going to wait until opening night to figure that out. Three or four days before the show opens, there are people I trust in the city who I will call in, say a week before, to give me an idea of how the play is moving. I go into opening night fairly certain how well the play is working. How well it does I don’t know because that can depend on all kinds of factors.
Stoppard and Pinter are now so well known that their names have been turned into adjectives. You can say something is Stoppardian or Pinteresque. If Pal and Da Cunha were to become adjectives, what would it entail?
RC: Pal would become Palovian.
AP: That would require theatrical culture to care enough.
RC: He’ll become Palovian. Just ring that bell and he’ll be there wagging his tail.
AP: Palesque sounds like it could be a pale Campari drink. An apertif. It would entail a culture to care about the writing they’re listening to. I think we’re a long way from that.
What about Da Cunhian?
AP: It could be a school.
RC: It’s only bad because it could be Daconian, because of our laws. So that’s kind of dated.
AP: A Da Cunhian turn of phrase.
Are you drawn to a particular kind of humour?
AP: I find failure quite amusing as opposed to success. My romantic hero is always a failed character. Because life is expecting him to do something that he has previously failed to deliver. Or people who are delusional about their failure or success. Like I can open a call centre—they are delusional about their circumstance but believe in it. The Great Gatsy is one of my favourite books because the fact that he can be a billionaire is delusional to everybody except the great Gatsy. Which is why F. Scott Fitzgerald is such a great writer. And at no point do you not care about the great Gatsby because he thinks he’s the great Gatsby. If the audience doesn’t love the bureaucrat, the home minister, the situation then they won’t care about their journey and they’re all failing in massive ways. They’re all terrible terrible human beings but right in their own way. That I think is far more interesting than good people.
The Bureaucrat opens at the Sophia Bhabha Auditorium on Sunday, April 8.Tags: Anuvab Pal, plays, Rahul Da Cunha, The Bureaucrat, Theatre
Sophia Bhabha Auditorium
B. D. Road
Phone2353 8550/6662 5661
Relevant DatesSunday, April 8
Ticketing & Price InfoRs150, Rs250, Rs350, Rs400, Rs600, Rs800