The process of transforming a story into a dramatic piece excited me: Lillete Dubey

Seasoned theatre director Lillete Dubey’s directorial teleplay “Womanly Voices” is an anthology of three diverse short stories from women writers. In an exclusive interaction with Deccan Chronicle, she revals why she is often drawn to powerful stories with strong female characters.

What motivated the selection of these specific stories for the anthology ‘Womanly Voices’?

My company and I are interested in original writing, specifically original Indian writing. One day, I was reading a collection of short stories by women from a publishing house called 'Katha' and found myself subconsciously attracted to strong female protagonists and female writers. Then I thought, why not create a play based on a collection of different short stories by women? People often think that women write only love stories, but they write on such diverse subjects and themes. And so, I went on to choose three stories that are very different in theme, tone and content.

The first story was 'Uttaran' by Wajida Tabassum and I found it to be very powerful. It was only four and a half pages long but had caused a big sensation when it was first published. It was even banned, leading to protests because it was so disturbing. The second story by Mahasweta Devi was about the tribals of Jharkhand and an idealistic IAS officer. Mahasweta Devi looked gentle and grandmotherly but she wrote incredibly strong stories as an activist. The third story I loved was set in the world of classical music and singing. It was about a blind child prodigy who has the voice of an angel. Set in Kolkata, it follows a music teacher who always wanted to be famous as a singer but never had the voice. He takes this child as a disciple and the story unfolds from there.

The play was well-loved and sometimes I think I shouldn't have stopped it but with so many things running simultaneously, I can't keep all the projects going indefinitely. This play is one of my favourites because it was so interesting to design. Only five actors played about 25 roles and portrayed men, women, children and anything else that was needed. For the actors, it was a very exciting, challenging and satisfying production. The actors and I did workshops, wrote our own dialogues and created our own script. This process of transforming a story into a dramatic piece really excited me.

Picture Courtesy : X

Throughout your theatrical journey, have you actively sought out plays that amplify women’s voices and experiences?

I have never consciously said, “Okay, for my next play, we should choose a woman’s story or a story written by a woman.” It has all been at a subconscious level. My last few plays, however, have featured very strong female protagonists. Be it 'Gauhar','Devika Rani' or '9 Parts of Desire.' Even Twinkle Khanna's play, 'Salaam Noni Appa', has women protagonists. It’s their story. So yes, probably without being aware, I am drawn to women's stories, women's issues and women writers. But I have also worked with Mahesh Dattani and have done plays penned by Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad, Mahesh Elkunchwar and Pratap Sharma (Tara Sharma's father). These are not female writers but some of their plays have themes that I have connected with at a very subliminal level. What actually attracts me is the material and the story. Only later, do I think about female or male protagonists. Many plays by male writers that I have staged also have some very strong male protagonists. Even the Zee Theatre teleplay, 'Dance Like a Man’ has nothing to do with women's voices. So, I don't go by anything except whether I like what the play says, the way it is structured and the way it's written. Do I like it as a dramatic piece? Will I enjoy doing this play, directing and producing it? Do I relate to it? To me, that's the most important thing. Some stories have drawn me to female characters, the female point of view or the female gaze but this does not always happen. It would be very boring if I gave myself a sort of mantra that I would only do plays about women. That would be very silly because it would cut off so many interesting areas of life including male points of view.

What were the main challenges you encountered while directing multiple stories within a single production?

I kept them all quite separate. The main thing was to make the transitions quickly because people don’t want to wait for a set, the actors and the costumes to change. I also faced four or five challenges. One was to turn a story into a dramatic piece. The second was that there were so many characters across three stories. So, I decided to just use two men and three women to play all the roles. That was very exciting for them, for me and challenging as well. They had to switch very quickly between roles: one minute they're a boy, the next minute they're playing a Nawab's daughter and the next minute they're playing a Bengali fishwife who's screaming and shouting at her husband.

In terms of direction, the challenge was to take three distinct stories and create a tight sequence. So, I co-designed a very simple set with Bhola Sharma that could be changed around quickly. There was not more than one minute between the first story and the second. When I did the play in a teleplay format with Zee Theatre, it was very easy. You can take the time to put up one set, then the second, then the third. But on stage, it has to happen very fast.

Picture Courtesy : DC

From your perspective, what are the key social issues that theatre and the arts in general, should be addressing today

I am a big believer that we do theatre, films, or write literature because we feel the need to tell a story. Now, in that process, there may be things that need to be said, but first, you have to write a story without necessarily having a very big agenda of educating people about this or that. If something attracts me to a subject and I feel, “Okay, this is a well-written play that also deals with important issues,” then I will do it. As for issues, I have done plays about child sexual abuse, homosexuality, Gandhian philosophy, Buddhism, classical dance and also on classical music.I've also done ‘9 Parts of Desire’, which is about war and the survivors of war, especially women and children. Whether it's Zee Theatre’s 'Dance Like a Man,' where a boy who wants to dance is immediately classified as gay, or any other issue, each play has something significant to say. But I chose them because I knew I would enjoy doing these plays, not just for the message. I picked these scripts because I liked the way they were written and what they were saying. ‘Womanly Voices’ also talks about several things. The first story, 'Uttaran', talks about caste and class conflict between a dai's daughter and a Nawab's daughter who keeps giving her 'uttaran' to the former. She has never had a new dress in her life. This is very real to me. I remember a time when my children had a maid who used to take care of them. I used to feel very embarrassed when they brought expensive clothes. This economic difference is so strong and big in India. What must people feel when they come to your house and see how you eat, dress and spend compared to what they are paid to help you? Surely, they think something.

To me, it's a very relevant subject. 'Uttaran' is about how this disparity and frustration drive a woman to do something quite horrendous to take revenge. One of the stories also deals with the tribals and their plight. We are so unaware of the lived realities of the tribals. I am very much attracted to well-written dramatic stories that also address social or psychological issues. Even Gandhian philosophy and non-violence interest me. What was Gandhi thinking? Why did he come to such an unusual kind of solution?

My current play, a rock musical, is a massive production of the 'Mahabharata'. I want young people to see the 'Mahabharata' in a way they've never seen before. I love the text. It is one of the richest, most interesting epics with so much to say on so many levels. I first did it in '98 and have revived it after 26 years and marvel at how relevant it is. Every time we're rehearsing, we're discussing war, 'Dharma' and right versus wrong. Look at the world today—Palestine and Gaza, Ukraine and Russia. Nothing has changed since the 'Mahabharata'. The greed for power and land remains the same. This production is in English, very contemporary, with words and songs that are relatable today. It features some of the best professional singers and is beautifully mounted.It includes 'Kalaripayattu', Kathak and a vibrant musical score composed from scratch. Krishna's sermon on the battlefield from the Gita is also part of the play. It’s all about doing your work to the best of your ability and leaving the rewards to the universe. I am mentioning it because it is going to be staged in Bangalore at the end of July, in Mumbai at the end of August and in Chennai in November.

What's been your most memorable directed/produced play till date and why does it stand out to you?

I produced and directed Jaya play but I am not in it. It has 24 people, 10 dancers and 14 singers. You know, it's a huge production and it doesn't include me. I produced, directed and created the piece but it features absolutely professional singers like Sherrin Varghese, who was in the 'Band of Boys' and Megan Murray, who is featured on a Grammy record. It's certainly one of my most loved plays and my passion project. I really loved it both as a production and for its subject matter. This is one of my top favourite plays for sure.

A scene from Womanly Voices

Picture Courtesy : Instagram

How has your experience as an actress influenced your approach to directing and vice versa?

I call some directors actors' directors because they know how to deal with actors and how to get the best out of them. Being an actor has always helped me because I can work very easily with actors. I know all the problems actors have, their strengths, their weaknesses and how to overcome them because I am an actor. Many directors are very good technically. They are excellent at visualizing and are very skilled, but they are not necessarily excellent at getting the best performance out of the actor. That is a different skill because you need to be a very good actors' director. You should know how to work with actors and that, I think, is where my own acting experience helps me a lot.

Picture Courtesy : Instagram

You have had a diverse career in film, television and theater. How do you navigate the different mediums and do you have a personal preference?

My personal preference always has been and always will be, theater. There is nothing that excites me more than theater. Whether it's acting on stage, directing, or producing, this, to me, is the topmost creative space. Absolutely the top. It cannot be compared to the screen. At the same time, I very much enjoy working on projects for the web. Television, I haven't done for many years, unless it's an ad or something. But I normally now only do web series and, of course, films. I enjoy both of these mediums very much. They are great fun and they give me a different kind of satisfaction. But for complete fulfillment, I always turn to theater.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle )
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