A Play Written By A Group....

May 27, 2010

We’d gone to attend

an exhibition of Indian art

recently, and there I met

Sanjiv Bajaj

who told me he’d staged a play called “Birds, Bees and Biodata” , about two years ago. He said the play was “group-written”…that is, the people who formed the cast of the play, and otherwise helped with its production, got together and created it!

Sanjiv is a radiologist by profession, interning at Washington University; not your "typical" playwright...and he told me (later, when he came home) that "Birds, Bees, and Biodata" had actually made money for NetIP the network of Indian professionals in St.Louis, which sponsored the play. This was so much at variance with my experience of the plays staged by young theatre groups in Bangalore, which always seem to struggle to make ends meet. I was very intrigued...then he said he was beginning to write another play the same way. So I decided to go and see what it was all about. Every Monday or Tuesday, depending on Sanjiv's extremely punishing schedule, (he seems to exist on almost no sleep!) the group from the last play, and some newcomers, too, gather to put the play together. Sanjiv cooks and provides dinner to those who come early; he has a crock-pot that he uses to good effect. The new play, nameless as of now, has been taking pretty concrete shape over the past few weeks. I started attending from the second seesion, and enjoyed the process so much that I go whenever I can; I've missed out only one week because of the San Diego trip. The basic skeleton of the play, about an ABCD (American-Born Confused Desi!), who has totally rejected his Indian roots, but has to go to work in India, was outlined by Sanjiv. The buildup in the play is the piling up of the protagonist's frustrations with India, and the denouement deals with the way he ultimately starts liking the place. First, the list of the various scenes and what they would do for the development of the story were created. Then, each scene is fleshed out, with all of the people who are there (not everyone comes every week, obviously!) adding enthusiastically to it. Characters take shape from their cardboard cutouts; one character (the family servant) was found to have hardly any role at all, and he was cut out altogether. It's great fun to watch, and I am learning on many levels. Some of the group have been born in the US; others have come here to study, and been here for a short time. It's interesting to learn what they feel are situations in India that bug returning "desis"; the shortage of water and electricity, the mosquitoes, street food (or even the excess of home food!) that can upset digestions.... ....And above all, family interference in one's affairs, particularly when it's do with matrimony! Almost unanimously, they say that parents bug them unceasingly about getting married...one of them described the typical conversation that goes on after a meeting, when the person says no to the prospective alliance: "What's wrong with that boy/girl?" "Nothing *wrong*, Ma, it's just that I don't want to marry him/her." "But if there's nothing WRONG, why can't you say yes? S/he is so highly qualified and has the same interests as you do...." How to explain to one's parents that a match that looks good on paper doesn't seem so in real life? was the common song sung by everyone! It's also fascinating to try and understand their perceptions about what India, and the US, mean to them, and I find that these young adults (they are all in the late twenties or very early thirties, I'd guess--so far I haven't met anyone who's married.) have their feet firmly on the ground, and have a very good understanding of the ground reality of life in the US today! Plus, they are neither over-critical of India, nor defensive about it. As each person adds a bit of conversation, or describes a situation that could add to the play, Sanjiv plucks their ideas, or sometimes the actual words, out of the air, and puts down the dialogue as the discussion moves along. He keeps the general drift of the play and he gets to choose the dialogues that stay; but lots of other things, like the way a certain character would handle a situation, or even the names of the characters, keep changing...and will evolve even more as the play gets written and editing starts. Of course, diverssions occur with predictable frequency. One situation reminds someone of something funny about India, and everyone shares a laugh about it, and after some larking around, general consensus decides if this could be included in the play or not. Sanjiv is pretty good about keeping things on track, without taking away the fun of the proceedings...a difficult balance to achieve! He does try to see that not much internet browsing or texting goes on during the evening. Sanjiv also has to decide on the length of the scenes, the climax of the play, and then the later working out of the tension. In this sense, he is the author of the play; he's created the premise, and he decides on what's in and how it's treated. The lighting and sound were taken care of by professionals at the venue that he had booked last time; the cast comprised of...colleagues at work, friends, and even people whom he approached in public lifts! Considering this kind of eclectic approach, the production seems to have worked very well...a tribute to Sanjiv's capability for organization. There is a lot of laughter at each session, and last time, when I announced that I was leaving shortly, I told them that I would be facing a lot of stuff that they mentioned, including having cold water showers if I forgot to switch on the "geyser" (water heater)! Props were of the simplest form last time, and costumes were the cast's own clothes; that's pretty much what it's going to be this time around, too, it appears. So there are no major expenses on these counts. A friend of mine asked, "Who will the play belong to if he wants to sell the rights?" Valid question, must ask Sanjiv this next time! The last play was staged just thrice, and Sanjiv does not want to stage it again, he wants to move on...so perhaps that's what will happen to this play, too!

Here are some of the people in the group at last week’s play-writing, as we had cake to celebrate his birthday, which had just passed.

pawan zainab sanjiv niti jaspreet divya 230510 play-writing