Next, I want to write a novel and direct an opera: Abhishek Majumdar
Recipient of The Playwrights Realm’s International Theatremakers Award 2021, Abhishek is currently directing a wordless film in Abu Dhabi and looking at opening his new plays soon
By Reema Gowalla
Abhishek Majumdar is often in the news. His plays are received at the Royal Court in London and at Ranga Shankara in Bengaluru with equal warmth and awe. Some are also questioned, attacked and banned. ‘Kaumudi’, ‘Muktidham’ ‘Pah-La’, ‘The Djinns of Eidgah’, ‘Salt’ and ‘Desdemona Roopakam’ are among the dramas that have punctuated his oeuvre over the past decade. Painfully real and disturbingly relevant, his stories probe politics and history to spotlight conflict and oppression. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Abhishek was also involved in a number of relief activities, the experience of which echoes in the plays he has penned in recent times.
Recognising his contribution to the theatre, New York’s The Playwrights Realm has honoured him with the International Theatremakers Award (ITA) this year. In a conversation with TheatreRoom, Abhishek talks about how this award will lead to new possibilities; his first film project; how raising his daughter has been a beautiful journey; and more. Excerpts:
The impact of ITA on his future work
This award is important because it’s a recognition for my past work. I hope it will make some things easier in the future, especially when it comes to working in different places. Most of my projects have either been in Europe or other places in Asia, but not much in the US. After facing a long halt due to the pandemic, the first play that I directed in the US is finally opening in 2023. In terms of this award having an impact on my craft, I don’t see that happening immediately. But of course, in the coming years, it will help me sign up for new projects in different countries, paving the way for more artistic collaborations.
Working in different places with different people
I am inclined toward making plays that are intellectually and creatively exciting. As far as working in different places is concerned, I think there are two primary reasons. First, I am interested in stories that involve different people, cultures and subjects, some of which I don’t even have access to. This quest automatically leads me to different places. For instance, while working on ‘Desdemona Roopakam’, I learnt a lot about the folk forms of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Again while making ‘Pah-La’, I came to know about Tibetan Buddhism, the struggle in the region as well as the kind of communism followed in China. Second, I have been lucky to be part of some very interesting projects and also see them through. A lot of times, projects — commissioned and otherwise — do not see the light of the day. My process, however, has also been to keep making art no matter what.
In the past two years, I have been in conversation with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) to devise a new piece of work together. In the meantime, I am also working with a women’s theatre group in Kolkata, which to me is no less important than RSC. I keep working with collaborators whose craft interest me. My journey has not been very programmatic. There is no big plan in place. That said, every now and then I like to change my lens somewhat. That movement keeps me going.
My play, ‘Des’, which had received the Sanhita Rangmanch Award in 2020 is taking the stage in 2022. It’s a satire set on the night of August 15, 1947. The story revolves around the many beliefs about our country at play that one night; it’s about how misinformation spreads — something which is true even today. There is another Hindi play, called ‘Bibhuti Rachanabali’, which is also opening next year. It’s a monologue and the story — the first half of which is set in Bengal and the second half in the Himalayas — is about a cook at Ramakrishna Paramahamsa’s ashram. The protagonist Bibhuti is an atheist, but everyone believes that he is going to attain great spiritual heights. Essentially, this piece is about what it means to be seeking god.
Meanwhile, I am directing a monologue, which will open online in Brazil next year. The script is in Portuguese and it’s written by a Brazilian writer. Then, there is a new piece that I am writing for The Royal Court Theatre. Plans are afoot for a tour of ‘Pah-La’ in Tibetan next year, which will open in India (covering Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru), Germany and the UK among other places.
The making of ‘The Water Station’
This new film is based on a wordless play of the same name by Japanese playwright Ōta Shōgo. The plot is centred on loneliness, love and sustenance. I am new to filmmaking and currently enjoying the process. But in a way it’s also scary because there are times when I don’t know what I don’t know, and that’s a tricky situation to be in. I always wanted to make a film with no dialogues in it, because, I feel, the most fascinating aspect about this medium is that it’s image-based and one can do a lot even without speaking much.
I am fortunate that New York University Abu Dhabi has given me the opportunity to direct this film. Here, I am working with theatremakers from around the world who understand the importance of this play. How often does one get to work on a film which is black and white, has a slow movement and is completely bereft of any commercial consideration. Even otherwise, the earnings made through my work are mostly accidental. I am interested in making work for a community, but the commercial side usually takes a back seat in my projects.
Cut to the team of ‘The Water Station’, our cinematographer and movement artist are from Kerala, sound designer is from Bengaluru, while the actors are from around the world, thanks to the university’s global student body. This diversity is making the process more contextual and intriguing.
Another film soon, then?
I am not sure about making another film yet. Apart from theatre, the next thing that I want to do is write a novel, which I have been thinking about doing for a long time. I also want to direct an opera, and I am excited about these two things right now.
‘I am deeply inspired by my daughter’
At this point, she has set her heart on becoming an archaeologist, a fireman and a singer. And as parents, my wife Pallavi and I are okay with her becoming more than one thing at a time. It’s difficult to say if she is learning anything from me, but she is definitely absorbing a lot from the house and her mother, who is a painter. They spend time together on the canvas, and the young one already has a very strong visual palette. Yes, she is artistically inclined, but we don’t want her to pursue the arts just because we are in that field. She is free to choose a career for herself. In fact, the joke making the rounds at home is that she will turn into a rebel and one day announce that she has opted to become a chartered accountant!
I think she has a good amount of exposure to different ideas and experiences, which will help build a mind of her own. In fact, I am the one who feels very influenced by her at most times. There is so much going on in life, but I don’t feel very pressured. It’s okay if some things don’t work out, I’ll still have her with me. That way, I think it’s a greater gain for me than her.