Monday, September 05, 2016

A Rumination About Death

Bollywood star Kalki Koechlin talks about the English language play, 'The Living Room', which she has written and directed

Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the opening scene of the English language play, 'The Living Room', actor Neil Bhoopalam, as Death, is sitting on a stool. He has a white face, a red bandana across his forehead, a black overcoat and red shoes. He looks at the elderly house owner Anna Nils (played by Sheeba Chadha), who is sleeping on a sofa in the living room of a house, and says, “Anna Nils, are you ready?”

And when Anna shakes her head, Death says, “She is not ready.” Then Anna says, “Are we on TV? Is it one of those shows?”

This elicits laughter amongst the audience at the JT Pac, Kochi, during a performance on August 21. 'The Living Room' is a moving, as well as humorous rumination about death, about our childhood memories, and the thoughts that go through our mind when we are told that the end is near.

The play has been written by Bollywood star Kalki Koechlin, who is also its first-time director. Asked about the inspiration behind the play, Kalki says that, two years ago, she woke up in the middle of the night, at her home, in Mumbai, and wrote down two pages of a conversation between an old woman and death.

Of course, I have been touched by death, like everybody else,” she says. “My grandparents died when I was quite young. Those were big experiences for me. My parents are dealing with sickness and the fragility of old age. All these may be the reasons.”

Incidentally, this is the first play that Kalki is directing. And she had some nerve-wracking moments. When the play opened in Bangalore, a few months ago, during the first ten minutes, there was a complete silence. “I was thinking, 'Are they not understanding the play? It is supposed to be a comedy',” she says. “But suddenly a chuckle came and it was such a relief for me. Now, everyone felt they could laugh. People thought that because the subject was death, you are not supposed to laugh.”

Clearly, she is learning from her experiences, and also enjoying her stint as director. “For three months, before the show opens, you are working very hard, doing the music, lighting, costumes, overlooking the production details, and handling the actors,” says Kalki. “Then when the curtain goes up, you become an audience member. And it is such a pleasure to watch it unfold in front of you. Seeing your actors discover new things in the script is also a thrill.”

Asked about the charm of theatre, as opposed to film, Kalki, who has acted in films like 'Dev D' and 'Margarita with a Straw', says, “A play keeps evolving, unlike a film, which, when it is complete, is over. I keep changing the music and the lighting. Some of the scenes have been re-written. The spontaneity of a live audience helps you to be on your toes all the time.”

But can English-language theatre be able to stand on its own two feet? An optimistic Kalki says, “Theatre has always struggled to exist, even in Shakespeare's time. But it will survive, because theatre is a part of life. It is all about questioning the norm and expressing societal changes.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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