He grew up in a turbulent Manipur amid the insurgency and the direct impact of that can be seen in NSD graduate Joy Maisnam’s play Andha Yug. The TAAM drama ensemble play traces the last days of the Mahabharata war until the last moments of Lord Krishna’s life.
The moral centre of the play lies in Krishna and his presence, which reveals to us that the ethics are always available to human beings, even at the worst of times. It deals with the gruesome impact of power politics, self-centeredness, and the prime casualty of war – humanity and ethics, as well as a lack of a larger vision and a failure to understand consequences of one’s moral choices.
The play became the widely acclaimed one and won the META (Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Award) in four categories including, Best Play, Best Costume Design, Best Stage Design, and Best Innovative Sound in 2019.
We spoke to the alumnus of London International School of Performing Arts about his award-winning play which had recently had a virtual show as part of Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards and Festival 2021. Excerpts from the interview:
Tell us something about the play. What was the idea behind it and how has it evolved?
I had done the role of Ashwathama in the same play (Andha Yug) in 2002, and I truly enjoyed the play; its essential focus is on the war, and as I was born during the most difficult times of Manipur, it touched me a lot.
Manipur was battling for freedom from India, and I used to live in a region where one can effortlessly listen to the gunshots. I grew up in such a strained circumstance that once I was in 10th standard and going for my tuition classes, I saw three or four dead bodies lying around, and it became the story of each day.
In my play, particularly the final scene where the dead bodies are strewn on the ground was similar to the visuals I had to confront almost every day while growing up in Manipur. Those who trusted the government and surrendered to the armed forces vanished into thin air, and no one knows where they are. Those who are on the upper strata of the society get every opportunity, and individuals like us get nothing. We have to “earn” even the basic right to survive. Just to portray this unforgiving truth, I made this play.
Ashwathama became old and no one was there to take care of him. We are like Ashwathama, who are alone in the society. Bodies play an important role, they reflect the emotions. Everything is symbolic in the play; from making of the houses to the war or use of lights. And it took time to create those symbols.
Your play has received the award for best sound design as well, can you please explain the importance of silence in the play?
Basically, when Dr. Dharamvir Bharati wrote it, it was replete with dialogues. I chopped off much of it in favour of visuals. I wanted to see if I could pull it off. Silence is important to me and rather significant. Before coming to NSD, I have experienced bomb blasts close to my home. In 2004, I saw a car flying from one end and falling before me. Smoke clouds were all over. The following day’s newspaper headlines screamed that there were 11 dead. And then there was silence.
One day, the members of the armed forces were dragging two men. I did not know who they were as they were about 40 ft away from me. They were made to sit and the army men then shot them on the spot. The sound of gunshots was so loud that I was incapable to hear anything else but the sound of their boots. They came towards me and told me, “Don’t tell anyone.” I was so stunned that I was incapable to utter anything. I just nodded. The hush, which I felt that time, was probably louder than even the gunshots. I needed to express the same quiet in the play.
The play is in Hindi. Being from Manipur, did you struggle with the language initially?
It was one of the main struggles and the person who made a difference was my wife (Sajida). Back then when we were in NSD, she was my girlfriend. I was unable to understand what the faculty was attempting to teach, so I started recording the lectures on my walkman. My roommate would then explain those to me in English. Now my English isn’t too good either! It was on Sajida to make sense of this world I had got myself into! She would teach me Hindi each day for half an hour. Juniors and seniors used to tease me for my language skills or the lack of it. I had to cope up with all of that in order to achieve something. However, in a play, language is just a device to communicate, but the emphasis is more on acting.
How was your childhood in Imphal? How did you get into theatre?
My father was an actor and I was a football player. I played up to state level. I had to leave football because of a leg injury. We were exceptionally poor; so much so that on many days we would not have proper food on the plate. The staple food in Manipur is rice. For a family like ours, one would cook around four kgs of rice each day. However, we used to cook only half a kg. This was cooked in the morning and then we would put a lot of water in it and eat through the day.
My father was ill and couldn’t get out of the house or work for about four years. We had to sell every bit of land and property that we had to make ends meet. 1993 to 2005 was my battling period. I had to leave my studies; I did not study for eight long years. I went for some job interviews here and there but got rejected everywhere. I was going through serious depression. I was unable to share the emotional turmoil I was going through with anyone.
I would lock myself in my room and write whatever came to my mind on the wall of my tiny room. There was a time I did not have money to buy even my underwear. But I never took the wrong path, the easy way out. My friends are earning in lakhs and crores by selling marijuana in Manipur.
We were in dire straits and in desperate need for money. I had done some plays in Assamese and Manipuri languages and one day I asked my father if I could pursue a career in acting. My love for theatre had started from watching him rehearse for his plays at home; I would learn his dialogues and act out the scenes on my own. But he was never keen on me joining the profession. In fact, he laughed it off when I asked for his permission.
In 1997 I started acting in Manipuri movies and by 2000 I was also performing in local plays. But things started to change only when I came to Delhi. But it took me time to adapt to the culture and people. Even the basic things required adjustments. We used to sleep at 8 pm in Manipur but people here would sleep past midnight! Back there, students don’t question the teachers, education is a one-way process, but here you need to ask questions in the class…there were so many such things. But, one needs to adapt and so I did.
I do not ever want to go back to the life I had lived between 1993 and 2005. But it was those 12 gruelling years that really made me the person, the actor, the artist that I am today.
What is the main difference you see between the theatre of northeast and that of this part of the country?
Theatre in the north-east focuses more on the physical aspect whereas here the focus is more on dialogues and speech. North-East theatre is mostly based on body movements, they explore through the physical exercise. There is a lot of song and dance as well.