Anthill: Swetanshu Bora’s new tragicomedy on mental health uses Kabir ke dohe as plot device

Premiering at Ranga Shankara on February 9, the play features Aswin Varrier, Deevas Gupta, Sumeet Borana and Tanvee Ravi

4 min readFeb 8, 2024
Swetanshu Bora is the writer and director of Anthill

By Reema Gowalla

Mental health forms a central tenet of contemporary cinema and theatre, and rightly so. However, a closer look at some of these films and plays would indicate that most of them shed light on issues rather than causes. Bengaluru-based actor and theatremaker Swetanshu Bora’s new piece Anthill delves deeper into what leads to problems like PTSD and bipolar disorder.

Written and directed by Swetanshu, Anthill features actors Aswin Varrier, Deevas Gupta, Sumeet Borana and Tanvee Ravi. Commissioned by Kolkata’s The Red Curtain, the play is set to premiere at Ranga Shankara on February 9 (at 7.30pm). The project began in June 2023 with three actors and a mental health counsellor. The intention was to make a comedy. But how would one do that with a topic as serious as mental health? So, they moved toward narrating a fable instead.

Sumeet Borana and Tanvee Ravi

Giving a sneak peek into the plot of Anthill, Swetanshu — who is known for his works like Metamorphosis, Guilt and Pagdi — says, “The play follows a man who lives in a fictional town, where he works at a clock-making factory. His girlfriend also works at the same manufacturing unit. After some time, they begin to have troubles with their boss. His work situation leads to stress and anxiety, resulting in him having sleepless nights and getting nightmares. Then one day, he discovers that his body is shrinking in size — he loses an inch of his height. But instead of being sad, he seems to be delighted about the physical change. He tells his partner that he’s been secretly wishing to shrink and become an ant, so that nobody can see or bother him. He just wants to become invisible.”

The narrative relies a lot on Kabir ke dohe. According to the director, Kabir singers, who travel from one place to another spreading the message of harmony and mental well-being, are an integral part of the play. “In fact, one of them tells the man ‘shrinking’ is a fantastic thing that’s happening to him, because it will send out the message to employers that workers need to be looked after well — in terms of being provided with better amenities and work culture,” he elaborates.

Aswin Varrier, Deevas Gupta and Tanvee Ravi

The plot also explores the protagonist’s childhood experiences — focussing on a violent past with his brother. “The entire play basically follows the journey of a man to understand how to make an honest and heartfelt apology. It concentrates on the journey of a person, who is trying to understand what is fundamentally causing the turmoil in his life and addressing that,” the writer-director adds. While Anthill has several characters, the shapeshifting mystical ‘boat woman’ is expected to particularly pique audiences’ curiosity.

Although the Kabir singers come in as philosophical touch points, they also serve as comics. Swetanshu says, “They talk about the deep meanings of his couplets, while also emphasising on the point of singing Kabir in this age of capitalism. At the same time, the singers question the limitations of Kabir. For instance, one of them asks, ‘Can we go to a dentist and ask for a root canal in exchange for two Kabir ke dohe?’ We can’t. Beyond the ‘feel good’ factor, how much do people really apply the things that Kabir spoke? In a way, the comic questioning also nudges the audience to think about that. Everybody is very appreciative of Kabir. But when you step out of your house, how much of Kabir’s wise words are you applying in real life?”

Deevas Gupta and Sumeet Borana

Anthill dovetails the elements of rhythm, song, dance, comedy and tenderness, without jeopardising the fact that the storyline primarily deals with the topic of mental health. “I didn’t want to create a piece that has a punchline after every three sentences; it’s not a sitcom. I wanted moments of tenderness and all the rasas in it. While watching the play, you’ll feel love, anger, hate and more. Considering the musicality of Anthill, we have used live music instead of recorded stuff. We’re really positioning this as a musical tragicomedy,” the director sums up.

Catch shows of Anthill at Ranga Shankara on February 9 (at 7.30pm) and at Medai — The Stage Bengaluru on February 17 (at 7.30pm) and February 18 (at 3.30pm). You can book your tickets here.