As a part of its annual theatre festival, the National School of Drama (NSD) organised a three-day seminar on ‘Marginal in the Market of Theatre’. One particular session dealt with issues of gender and sexuality. Mangai, a theatre director from Chennai, who has worked extensively with the LGBTQ community in Bangalore and Chennai, made a presentation on issues arising from such work. In her view, theatre for this community becomes a tool to move from victimhood to dignity. The view is ‘if we don’t talk about it openly, things will never change.’
She shared an interesting first attempt in this genre by Komal Gandhar, a short-lived theatre group created by commercial sex workers and their children in Kolkata. Later, Meena Seshu and her organisation VAMP, working with commercial sex workers in rural Maharasthra, wanted to go national with one of the plays, but did not manage.
Mangai then talked of her own production ‘Unsettling Memories’ created by a collective of people in Chennai on their rejection by their own families. Another production by her created with Sangama in Bangalore is ‘Musical Chairs’. She hopes to explore the impact of the reimposition of Section 377 in her next production. Mangai sheds light on a largely unexplored realm of contemporary practice through questions such as : how does one mainstream LGBTQ themes? Do we tend to replicate the stereotypes through which the society at large sees them? Are we limited in our reaching out to general audiences?
Many of these questions come to the mind while viewing ‘A Straight Proposal’. The complex world of the marginalised gay is rarely explored in contemporary Indian theatre or cinema. At best, he is caricaturised as in some of the characters in the film Fashion, or appears sleazy as in Page 3. But for an open look at reality, Happy Ranajit’s A Straight Proposal is a bold first time. Of course, there have been a few rare exceptions as in two of Onir’s films, or in Karan Johar’s short sequence in the film, Bombay Talkies.
Two years ago at the same fest, Sunil Shanbag brought an incomplete play by Chetan Datar on the gay scene Dreams of Taleem. Happy Ranajit, winner of the best actor in the Meta Awards 2010, is an NSD graduate and a gay activist. He has openly addressed issues of gender and sexuality through his many productions over the last few years.
The play succeeds in telling the story of a closeted gay, finely played by Dilip Shankar, who begins to question his own circumstances as a school teacher in Dehradun. Meeting an ‘out’ character in New York, he shares excerpts from his diary that come alive. An army officer for a father, a first relationship with a servant at home, getting involved with one of his friends and later even the principal of the school where he works, the play charts his lifestory. Powerful and poignant by turn, the play occasionally ‘stereotypes’ the gay and straight characters.
Perhaps a stronger team of more seasoned actors would help this production become more nuanced. While some scenes are well visualised, others seem to still need a lot of scene work. There is an interesting use of scenography, lighting and music. In a country where Sec 377 still holds sway, A Straight Proposal happily confronts the power that be in a non-linear narrative style.