Innocence: Anmol Vellani’s stage adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial is an urgent rethink on today’s India

Ahead of the play’s maiden run at Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan Bangalore from May 10 to 12, here’s an exclusive interview with writer-director Anmol Vellani

13 min readMay 8, 2024
Written and directed by Anmol Vellani, Innocence is a stage adaptation of Franz Kafka 1925 novel The Trial

By Reema Gowalla

‘Not everyone can see the truth, but everyone can be the truth.’ ~ Franz Kafka

‘Dystopian’, ‘disconcerting’ and ‘deeply disturbing’ are among the terms used to describe Franz Kafka’s emblematic novel The Trial. Written between 1914 and 1915, the book was published only in 1925, a year after the death of the literary doyen. The plot revolves around a seemingly ordinary bank employee who suddenly gets arrested one day for unspecified crimes. Cut to 2024, revered theatre personality Anmol Vellani has now adapted the novel into a play, placing it in the context of today’s India. Titled Innocence — A response to Franz Kafka’s The Trial, the 135-minute piece is opening at Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan Bangalore on May 10, with more shows scheduled for May 11 and 12.

A Toto Funds the Arts (TFA) production, Innocence is a black comedy that “takes the form of a conversation between the world of the novel and the world of contemporary India”. In doing so, however, it remains honest with the novel’s broad plot line and its major characters. The cast includes actors Ashish D’abreo, Srinivas Beesetty, Manu Varkey, Rohit Dave, Sanjna Banerjee and Arvind Dev.

In an exclusive conversation with TheatreRoom, writer-director Anmol elaborately talks about what prompted him to adapt Kafka’s unfinished novel for the stage, the references he has made to India’s ‘emerging realities’ in the play, Innocence’s cast, set and soundscape, and more. Excerpts:

Q. Tell us about adapting Kafka’s novel The Trial for the stage…

A. Innocence is an adaptation of The Trial in two senses. One, the play is set in India today. So it’s a different time and space from what Kafka was imagining 100 years ago. Two, it takes a novel and gives it a theatrical life. It’s turning something which is written in one expressive idiom into another. Now, the more important decision I took was to write the play as a black comedy. The novel, of course, doesn’t relate to any genre or style of theatre, and so I had to find one for it. The black comedy style struck me as the appropriate idiom, because in it the characters play their roles very seriously. They assume everything that is happening around them and whatever they’re experiencing are perfectly normal. It’s not bizarre in any way, nor is it surreal. They do not even see it as oppressive or claustrophobic. And that’s very similar to Kafka’s style of writing, because when we think about it, his style of writing is factual and matter of fact.

His style is plain and doesn’t draw attention to itself. It seems almost unaware of what it is saying, which again is completely bizarre, surreal and disorienting. But the prose gives no indication that there’s anything unusual about it, because of the way it is written. The text is not heightened in any manner, which one might expect in a story of this kind. The stark contrast between the style and what it is saying is what leads to some of the disorientation, while on the other hand, it seems very familiar. The fact that he goes to court and meets a judge seems very familiar, but it appears strange at the same time. That’s what I think Kafka achieves with this contrast between the style and the content. And that is what I was trying to imitate or rather mimic in the play.

Now, the problem raised by one theatre friend of mine after reading the play is that the audience might laugh too much and, unlike the novel, the play may not be able to evoke dread, terror and claustrophobia. But the point is that claustrophobia, etc., is evoked through Kafka’s descriptions. A play cannot be descriptive. So essentially, the burden of communicating that dread falls on the shoulder of the protagonist. Whoever plays K has to communicate that loss, confusion, panic and eventually the sense of defeat. At this point, I don’t know whether the play would succeed in that sense. The adaptation is quite faithful to the plot and key characters. The sequence of events is also exactly the same, while the relationships among the characters are very similar too. That said, I’ve had to obviously drop certain things and add certain other things to make it a play. The idiom of drama has its own constraints, which I have to respect.

Q. On reimagining the piece for India…

A. When I first read The Trial, which was three decades ago, for me it evoked a grim, overpopulated, stifling and black-and-white world. But you can’t imagine India in black and white. You can only imagine this country in colour, with all its smells and sounds. I couldn’t get away from bringing that into the play. In that sense also, how the play looks may not remind you of what you have pictured while you were reading The Trial. There’s that kind of a difference that I brought into the play. But it’s also important to note that if you bring India in all its particularity into the play, you will lose Kafka entirely. You have to allude to India, but not bring it in in such fullness that you lose the sense that Kafka is creating — something that looks real, but isn’t quite that. So you’re feeling both things at the same time. ‘Oh yeah, I recognise this. This is familiar’. And yet you’re saying, ‘Hello, but it’s not quite familiar. I understand these characters and relationships, but there’s something odd about it’. That quality cannot be created in a fully realistic play, one that takes hold of all the particularities of the Indian context.

Q. Although counted among Kafka’s notable works, The Trial was an unfinished novel. What inspired you to choose this book in particular?

A. Yes, The Trial is not a complete novel, and therefore, I had to create an end. We don’t even know the end that Kafka intended. The editors later put together the last chapter according to their best guess of how the novel was supposed to run. I’ve kept to the novel’s sequence of chapters, but it’s quite clear that the end is incomplete. It just fizzles out at the end. In fact, there’s a chapter in the middle also that’s incomplete, and the editor says that this is an incomplete chapter. So, I had to fill in those gaps or what appeared like gaps to me. Therefore, eventually, I may have created something more complicated.

Well, all good storytelling also has some reference to what has happened before. It’s constantly reincorporating elements that have already been revealed in the play. I had to do something like that and create a new ending. Of course, the basic idea remains, but there’s much more to it in the play than what is there in the original novel.

Q. Like your recent play, Apne Ghar Jaisa, Innocence also seems to be a commentary on India’s present socio-political situation. How would you describe it?

A. I immediately saw a play in The Trial when I first read the novel in the last century. That said, I never felt any urgency about writing this theatrical adaptation. The urgency took over some time in 2015. I started writing the play in 2017 and it was completed in 2021. But then there was the pandemic. I’ve gone through at least three versions of the script. The urgency came to me because I suddenly began to experience India entering Kafka territory on multiple fronts. I felt the urgency about doing this play, which may not have existed two-three decades ago. I can point to so many events that we are undergoing as ‘Kafkaesque’.

Just recently I read in the newspapers that the judge [Additional Sessions Judge (ASJ) Pawan Kumar] hearing the ‘NewsClick case’ asked the police [Delhi Police Special Cell] on what charges did they take the founders of the independent media organisation into custody? And whether or not a written charge sheet was given to them at the time of the arrest? The court said if there was no charge sheet, how are the defendants supposed to defend themselves? And therefore, what the police have done might be construed as illegal. And that is the story of The Trial. What happens in the book is that one morning out of the blue two people come to the apartment of the protagonist K [Josef K] — who works as the chief clerk at a bank — and inform him that he is under arrest. But they don’t tell him why. He never gets to know what the charges are while he’s battling the state. This is pure Kafka.

There’re a number of things that have happened in India recently that would remind you of Kafka’s writings. For instance, look at the Electoral Bonds scheme that purports to clean up illegal funding but does exactly the opposite. Then, there’s a judge who sits on a bench to decide on a case in which he is the accused, and that bench exonerates him. You can go on about the number of Kafka things that have been happening in the country over the past 10 years. There I was writing this play, and all these things are happening around me. Even during the Congress era in 2012, legislation was introduced where companies could be penalised retrospectively for doing something 10 years ago. That means you could be innocent today of something you’ve done, but tomorrow you could be held guilty. Now, that again is pure Kafka. As I was working on the script of Innocence and these things were happening around me, including CAA [Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019], inevitably references to these events began to enter the play.

At times, I felt that I was not so much writing an adaptation, but moderating a dialogue between The Trial and the emerging realities in India. But I had to be careful, as I said. I couldn’t make it so particularly about all these events that I lose that disorientation that Kafka is trying to create. What the NewsClick founders are going through is baffling.

Again, [Delhi Chief Minister Arvind] Kejriwal is in jail. For what? There are hundreds of documents they’ve submitted, and there’s a mention of him twice to thrice, because two or three people turned approvers at a very appropriate time, just before the elections. This question has been asked by the judge [the Supreme Court bench of Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Dipankar Datta], as to why it was so essential to put him in jail at this time. Couldn’t they have waited until after the election? These are the kind of events that have pressed themselves onto the script I wrote.

Q. Set design, lighting and soundscape were among the most curious and crucial aspects of Apne Ghar Jaisa. Can we expect the same in Innocence?

A. To me, if the set, sound, light and the other elements of theatre (costume, makeup, etc.) do not generate a meaning of their own, they’re not doing something that is worthwhile. Design is not just there to give you context, to give you the real situation and the real space in which the characters are present. What I’m looking at always, as I did in Apne Ghar Jaisa, is what can I do where the set, lights and sound are themselves talking to you. In fact, if you got rid of them, you would lose something the play is trying to say. Or it wouldn’t say it as fully and won’t create layers of meaning, symbols and metaphors that might be created by the way you played with all these elements and appurtenances of theatre.

There’s a similar kind of approach I have taken in Innocence. I’ve looked at what the set is trying to create. For example, the soundscape is largely unmusical. It’s largely composed of harsh noises — like mechanical sounds, noises in a factory and the sound of crushing of stones, etc. To me, the oppressive soundscape communicates the thing that music cannot. The set also has an eye which is lingering above all the time. It’s an eye that’s constantly looking at what is happening in the play, and is a constant presence. So much so that it becomes very disturbing to see this eye almost all the time. At some point in the play, one character tells K, ‘You’re being watched. You wouldn’t know by whom. Someone you’d never suspect’. There’s always this sense of an eye watching you. We all know about the Pegasus [spyware]. So, the question is with the kind of visuals that I unfold in the play, how do I create meaning?

Meanwhile, the lighting will be extremely disorienting. Just because it’s a morning scene, the light will not necessarily reflect the same. But rather create some other meaning, almost as if it is telling you what the protagonist is experiencing. The time of day will only be suggested by a metallic panel in the background, which changes shapes and colour depending on whether it is morning or evening.

Q. Tell us about the characters and cast…

A. Over the years, I have worked with Ashish in three plays. So, he was already in my mind to play the lead character. In total, the play has nine characters, but I’ve chosen to do it with just six actors. There are some actors who are doing more than one role. Then, there’s this important female character. In The Trial, K comes across many women at different points through the course of the narrative — his landlady, a nurse and a lawyer. These are all Kafka’s fantasies that have gone into the novel. So, I decided to collapse that into one character, one woman. She also has a challenge because she’s playing not two or three different roles, but the same character is disguising herself at different times. So yes, the actors have a lot of challenges, because of the play they’re acting in, the number of characters they have to play and the fact that it is quite a lengthy play.

Q. In the light of the responses you received for Apne Ghar Jaisa, what do you anticipate this time?

A. I think Apne Ghar Jaisa has been followed by controversy. [Premiered at Ranga Shankara in November 2022, Apne Ghar Jaisa is an adaptation of Barry Bermange’s Oldenberg. The play has two central characters Sanju’s mother (played by Padmavati Rao) and Shakeen (enacted by Abhitej Gupta)].

It’s surprising that young people from the theatre didn’t like the play. I think, partly that’s because spectators have become very passive and like to be told the story literally. If there’s a symbol or metaphor — like in the case of the blind man [Shakeen], who comes in as a messenger in Apne Ghar Jaisa — I wanted him to be read in a certain way. But instead, I get asked questions like, ‘Why is he blind?’. I think questions like that come up because people are used to being told everything — that the theatre must say everything that the play is about. But I don’t think that’s quite right. I think the play should be allowed to create different meanings in the audience’s mind. People should go away from the theatre saying, ‘What was that?’ Was this what it was about?’ ‘Was this what it was trying to say?’. I like that kind of a response.

In Innocence too, I think I can expect two kinds of responses. One, people will reject it. They’ll say, ‘Oh, this is not Kafka’. But what I’m trying to suggest is that, yes, if you go into another idiom, to another space and time, you’re going to lose Kafka. But you’re not going to lose everything, because the original piece is respected. You can’t read the play and not be able to say to yourself, ‘Oh, I know where that comes from’. It’ll be clear. But people will have that reaction. I’ve actually found most existing versions of The Trial — whether in cinema, television or on the stage — very poor. And that’s because it tries to bring Kafka’s texture into the theatre, and that doesn’t work. In the play, you have to find the idiom that is the right way to create that same kind of impact. I can also anticipate people saying, ‘Oh, there’s not enough about India there. It’s not particular enough’. ‘You just alluded to these things, but left them hanging’. But I’ve done it to stay true to Kafka. I do suggest the India I’m talking about, but don’t go into the details of that reality. So, I expect that kind of a reaction as well.

The crew of Innocence comprises Veena Appiah (production manager), Sreenivas (associate director), Arun DT (lights designer), Bharavi (lights consultant), Nikhil Nagaraj (sound designer), Rency Philip (set designer), Appupen (character visualiser), Vidyaa Masand (costume designer), Garima Misra (costume manager), Ramakrishna NK (makeup), Manjunath Devraj (stage manager), Mythili P (photographer) and Ashtronot (poster designer).

Catch the opening shows of Innocence at Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan Bangalore on May 10, 11 and 12 (at 7pm) . You can book your tickets here.