It’s a response to the political situation around me: Ajay Krishnan on his play Gajram the Great

Ajay Krishnan got a The Hindu Playwright Award nomination for the play

Ajay Krishnan has a thing for irony and absurdity. His award-winning first play, Butter and Mashed Banana, is about a boy who goes on to become a world famous author but faces extreme opposition to whatever he says or does in his country. His second one, Excavators, is about a man who digs a hole into the earth and while digging, is visited by a pregnant lady, an old visually-impaired man, a local gangster among others. The setting of his plays are deliberately minimal and the dialogues, simple. Ajay’s lines usually evoke laughter but also provoke thoughts on the state of affairs worldwide.

Ajay’s latest play, Gajram the Great, is in a similar zone. It is about a cursed king’s desperation to hold on to his crown and the misadventures that follow. Along with V Balakrishnan (Sordid), Deepika Arwind (Phantasmagoria) and Deepro Roy (Azad Theatre), Ajay, for Gajram the Great, has been shortlisted for The Hindu Playwright Award 2019.

He discusses the play, the genre of political satire, writing comedy and more in this interview.

Excerpts:

What was the inspiration for Gajram the Great?

The idea stemmed from watching the political situation around the world, which is about centralisation of power. And, it comes at a cost of freedom and rights. I thought it would be interesting to respond to it. I was at the Toji Cultural Foundation, South Korea, last year when I got this idea. I had a month there to read and let the idea brew.

The play reminded one of Amar Chitra Katha…

I tend to veer towards comedy. The other question was about the form that the play could take. I thought I could borrow from structures of folktales and fables. I basically wanted to plot a simple story about what happens when a king becomes paranoid about losing his power.

The play is set in Manchapuram, which is an actual place in Karnataka. Is it linked to that?

No. I was working on another play, inspired by Don Quixote (a classic Spanish novel). The ideas of both plays kind of bled into each other. When I had to name the kingdom in Gajram the Great, I thought of playing with La Mancha.

The play is a political satire. Do you think the genre attracts a mass of spectators? If yes, what makes it a popular genre?

I think theatre can reflect the ridiculous distortions and the problems of the society in an absurd, funny way. It has a long tradition of doing this. Yakshagana, even today, is loaded with political references. It is always responding to what is going around. One of the big strengths of comedy is that you can slip in serious ideas with the laughter.

Writing comedy can be tricky. Can you explain your process?

More than realistic drama, I have managed to write comedy. In terms of process… it is like writing any other form or genre: you read, watch and observe everything around. In comedy, I think, one is always filing away little notes — like a ridiculous incident or a piece of news that is absurd and things that are stranger than fiction. At some point, some of those ideas spark and catch fire to become a story or a play or even a 10-minute sketch.

Still from Ajay Krishnan’s first play, Butter and Mashed Banana

Still from Ajay Krishnan’s first play, Butter and Mashed Banana
 
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Special Arrangement

Amidst the funny lines in Gajram the Great, there are also some serious matters you say, for instance, the power of art. When you write the play, do you ever think that a serious line might stick out or change the mood of the play?

Every play has different moods over the course of it. It is good. Dark subjects are the best places to mine ideas for comedy. I enjoy watching such comedy. Even if you take Dr Strangelove, it is such a funny movie but there is seriousness within it.

Do you expect the cast to stick to the script or are you liberal with letting them modify the lines?

I don’t think it is a play in which actors need to religiously stick to the script. I would see that happening with a more realistic play, where each line can be psychologically revealing of the characters. I will let the director change things. Especially in terms of humour, I think there are places where improv can add a little bit of colour.

Are you closely involved with your plays till their staging or do you distance yourself after handing over the script to the director?

It has been a mix of both. I have directed quite a few of my plays. In other cases, I trust the director to do what is good for the play. Generally, it tends to be a conversation with the director where you suggest things. When it works out well, it is an enriching process for the director and the writer.

A character in the play constantly breaks the fourth wall. Any particular reason?

I have loved the works of the major Indian playwrights like Girish Karnad, Vijay Tendulkar and others, who have adapted this technique (of breaking the fourth wall) from traditional theatre. They use it beautifully in their work.

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