In the opening scene of the English play, The Living Room, actor Neil Bhoopalam, as Death, is sitting on a stool. He has an ashen face, a red bandana across his forehead, a black overcoat and red shoes. He looks at the elderly house owner Anna Nils (played by Sheeba Chadha), who is sleeping on a sofa in the living room of a house, and asks, “Anna Nils, are you ready?”
And when Anna shakes her head, Death says, “She is not ready.” Then Anna says, “Are we on TV? Is it one of those shows?”
This elicited laughter among the audience at the JT Pac, Kochi, when the play was staged on August 21.
The Living Room is a moving as well as humorous rumination about death, about our childhood memories, and the thoughts that go through our minds when we are told that the end is near.
The play has been written and directed by Bollywood actor Kalki Koechlin. Asked about the inspiration behind the play, Kalki says two years ago, she woke up in the middle of the night at her Mumbai home and wrote down two pages of a conversation between an old woman and death.
“Of course, I have been touched by death, like anybody else,” she says. “My grandparents died when I was quite young. Those were big experiences for me. My parents are dealing with sickness and the fragility of old age. All these may be the reasons.”
Incidentally, The Living Room is the first play that Kalki is directing. And she had some nerve-wracking moments when it was staged in Bengaluru a few months ago. During the first ten minutes, there was a complete silence. “I was thinking, ‘Are they not understanding the play? It is supposed to be a comedy’,” she says. “But suddenly a chuckle came and it was such a relief for me. Now, everyone felt they could laugh. People thought that because the subject was death, you are not supposed to laugh.”
Clearly, Kalki is learning from her experiences, and also enjoying her stint as a director. “For three months, before the show opens, you are working very hard, doing the music, lighting, costumes,
overlooking the production details, and handling the actors,” says Kalki. “Then when the curtain goes up, you become an audience member. And it is a pleasure to watch it unfold in front of you. Seeing your actors discover new things in the script is also a thrill.”
Asked about the charm of theatre, as opposed to films, Kalki, who has acted in films such as Dev D and Margarita with a Straw, says, “A play keeps evolving, unlike films, which when it is complete, is over. I keep changing the music and the lighting. Some of the scenes have been re-written. The spontaneity of a live audience helps you to be on your toes all the time.”
But can English-language theatre be able to stand on its own two feet? An optimistic Kalki says, “Theatre has always struggled to exist, even in Shakespeare’s time. But it will survive, because theatre is a part of life. It is all about questioning the norm and expressing societal changes.”