Thursday, November 17, 2005

Hullabaloo at the Berkeley Theater

A bit of a blog kerfluffle has sprung up around the recent production of Manjula Padmanabhan's play Harvest at the Berkeley theater. It's the first time since 1914 that an Indian play has been performed at the Berkeley main stage, so this is a big deal in more than one respect.

The two sentence summary of the play is as follows:

A brilliantly comic exploration of the complex relations between developing and developed countries, Harvest stages a grisly pact between the first and third worlds. Set in India in the near future, a desperate man decides to sell his body parts to a wealthy client in exchange for a "Western" lifestyle for his family.

Sounds promising, doesn't it? I'm always up for black comedy. And there's more from this Hindustan Times article:

Chatterjee next will move to the future by directing on campus in November his West Coast premiere of "Harvest," a darkly comic and unsettling tale of globalism and organ harvesting in India written by playwright Manjula Padmanabhan, who will be on campus during the play's run. The Center for South Asia Studies also will host an exhibition on campus of Padmanabhan's graphic art.

After reading a copy of "Harvest" sent to him by a colleague in Australia a few years ago, Chatterjee said he was "totally stunned." The play won the Onassis Award in Athens when it was first performed in the late '90s and was an instant success in academic circles.

"The play is set in the future, at a time when multinational companies have gone to the Third World not for software, minerals or fabric, but to harvest organs for their rich customers in America," Chatterjee said. "It's about India and the gritty Third World reality."

In "Harvest," Om, a just-laid-off breadwinner for a struggling Indian family living in a cramped Bombay tenement, decides to sell his organs to a shadowy company called Interplanta in hopes of reversing his financial plight. Om's family is monitored around the clock, receiving frequent video phone-type inquiries and directives from the supposed organ recipient, an icy young blonde named Ginni. Om's mother falls into a stupor, constantly absorbed by programmes on the TV provided by Interplanta. The family's lives continue to go awry.

William Worthen, chair of UC Berkeley's Department of Theater, Dance & Performance, said he included it in The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama, one of the most widely used books of its kind in the United States.

So far, so good. But apparently Manjula Padmanabhan (aka Marginalien) wasn't thrilled by the production; she posted the following at her blog:

The play was -- alas! Yet again! -- NOT what I'd like it to be. However, one great relief for me was that I was able to express my views to Sudipto; and he took it very well -- because I had also, at the same moment that I told him what I thought, also decided that I would NOT interfere with his interpretation. I told him that too.

He has added at least an hour of performance time to the play, including lines, movements and moods that are in no way part of the original. For instance, he has permitted his actors to use a number of Hindi-isms such as "arre", "beta" etc -- which I find very hard to accept because (a) I am not a Hindi-speaker and specifically resisted falling back on ethnic touches of that sort while writing the play (b) the use of Hindi is a reminder that the family would never normally be speaking English and besides the actual words and terms are cliches, utterly colourless in themselves. I far prefer the play to inhabit a language-neutral space by remaining in ONE language, rather than attempting to balance uneasily between two.

Yet, for all that I disliked -- and it was/is a real dislike -- I recognized that this production, being fuelled by students and their youthful energy, had a kind of vulgar logic. The four principal characters were played by South Asians . . . and it seemed very important to them to explore the specific ethnic identities of their characters. It's hard for me to express what I want clearly, but it's something like this: since I don't feel the need to underline the fact that I'm Indian/SouthAsian, it is utterly unimportant -- no, more than unimportant, actually unattractive -- for me to make a big deal about that identity. I want to go the other way -- I want to universalize the experience of being whatever -- Asian/Indian/whatever -- and to explore the notion of sameness-in-otherness. Whereas for this production, what seems to have overwhelmed the tone is the heavy spice of Indianness.

She starts off questioning the director's decision to add a fair amount of material that she herself hadn't scripted. But then she gets into what seems to me to be an ABCD vs. desi-from-desh distinction. But I'm a little confused about what exactly the problem is on the second point; to some extent it sounds as if she might have just been happier to see non-Indians cast in the primary roles, since they would have been less invested in being "ethnic," either in the sense of the actors' self-consciousness or the reception of the play by the audience.

(Here is where I remind the reader that, since I haven't read the script, or seen the play, everything I've said should be taken with a grain of salt.)

Things gets a little anxious when the mother of one of the actresses, and then the actress herself, show up in the comments to protest Padmanabhan's reference to her background.

Finally, another of the actors in the play, Asanwate, has a thorough and, in my view, compelling defense of both the director's choices and the overall approach to the play at the blog Ergodicity. One of the best moments is when he (?) quotes passages from the screenplay, such as the following:

The DONORS and RECEIVERs should take on the racial identities, names, costumes, and accents most suited to the location of the production. It matters only that there be a highly recognisable distinction between the two groups, reflected in speech, clothing, and appearance.

I gather that Padmanabhan's objection is that the director chose to cast along racially appropriate lines, which seems questionable given that she is evidently underlining the "difference" between the "donor" and "receiver" groups. Elsewhere Asanwate makes several other good rebuttals to Padmanabhan's post, including the salient objection that the Hindi-isms she isn't happy about can be justified because the script states that the play is set in Bombay.

Are there lessons here? I'm not sure. On a basic level, I think it's great that a prominent university like Berkeley chose to put on this play. And I also admire Manjula Padmanabhan as an up-and-coming writer to watch.

But a lot of that accomplishment has unfortunately been a bit dampened by this sour blog debate: who needs critics when we tear ourselves to pieces on our blogs?

* * * *
(Incidentally, Harvest still playing this weekend, in case any readers are in the Bay Area, and want to get in on the "drama.")


Kanya said...

I think you are absolutely right about the ABCD vs desi distinction. Asanwate's defense is also right on the money. This is an interesting discussion from a literary point of view: universalism vs particularity. As some discussions about 'realism' point out, the more particular, the more universal an idea is. There is a certain desi crankiness in rejecting 'ethnicity' as though it dirties her hands and takes attention away from larger philosophical issues. It also expresses a desire not to get involved in what is seen as a US brand of racial politics. After all, if Padmanabhan wants to be 'universal' and 'portable' what's the problem with taking the show to the US? I think some of the work we need to do is to broaden the implications of these racial politics and show their connections to other contexts.

8:44 PM  
msingh said...

It seems to me that the whole furore is more to do with the tone of language and 'attitude' in Manjula Padmanabhan post. In a comment on Manjula Padmanabhan post Grazia Manzone, the mother of one of the actresses in the play make the point

"...why did you not manifest with a firm and positive attitude (and not in a whining way like you do in your BLOG) your thought BEFORE and NOT after the hard work of Director, actors, crew? Why did you give permission to interpret your work in such a way and complain so much after?"

Constructive criticism is one thing, but when personalities enter the debate things can turn sour.


8:19 AM  
tilotamma said...

Wasn't this also make into a movie by Adoor/Nihalani?

Is that the 'AGAIN' in the author's post?

11:42 AM  

Did she read Ishiguro's new book on a similar theme and with a similar treatment, minus the third world. I hope she's hasn't copied it.

1:11 AM  
asarwate said...

The "AGAIN" refers to Padmanabhan's constant frustration at the (mis)-interpretation of her play. She didn't like the film either, but she says in the comments that she has seen one production of the play that she liked, and that was in Greece for the Onassis prize performance.

The tone of her post was in the end what was so irritating to those involved with the production, because she had been so friendly in person. What bothered me is that she uses the authorship card to trump other interpretations without attempting to create one herself. It betrays a certain misunderstanding of performance and how it can be effective, viz. the universality/specificity debate.

Oh, and my name is Anand Sarwate, so it should be "asarwate" if anything (although I don't mind my name being used).

3:24 PM  

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