‘There is an instinctive approach that I stick to’

Ambika Shaligram
Friday, 24 May 2019

In conversation with critic and playwright, Vikram Phukan who was in the city last week to talk about ‘Writing on Theatre’

Vikram Phukan likes to describe his ‘gaze’ as that of an outsider, of being a minority. A Hindu from a Christian dominated Shillong, as an IT engineer with financial firms in the UK where he was an Asian amongst the whites, he describes these influences as those that have shaped his ‘gaze’. He also describes his stay in the UK as ‘being surrounded by profusion of art’. There, he watched plays, operas and hoped to pursue it more actively through his work. 

After his return to India, he began blogging on theatre and then started writing for noted print publications. He also worked as a playwright contributing to Sunil Shanbag’s Stories in a Song; Limbo, directed by Manish Gandhi; an Indian adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Price; and collaborating on Patchworks Ensemble’s The Gentlemen’s Club. Phukan’s latest work is Those Left Behind Things, a play on Iranian asylum-seekers which he has written and directed.

Recently, Phukan was in Pune to address the session of Kaan Drushti, organised by Natak Company, where he spoke on ‘Writing on Theatre’. We caught up with him after the session in which Phukan spoke extensively on theatre, artists, audience and his writing. 

SUBJECTS AND TREATMENT
Talking about various trends in theatre viz early years’ theatre, queer and caste-based plays and so on, Phukan says that a play can be experimental or commercial depending on the subject, theme and treatment. “It is true that people in experimental circuit take up much edgier work. Queer theatre has been happening for the last 10-12 years, before mainstream even took cognisance of it. The portrayals are much more complex in experimental plays. I think a queer play can be entirely about queer theme or it can be about characters. I have seen this musical called Balle Balle, which has a gay character. It showed him in a much more flamboyant, flashy way. I would put it down to the visibility of gay characters,” he says.

Continuing on the topic of subjects and themes, he adds, “There are some subjects that lend themselves to experimental treatment. In mainstream, as you know, not everything is being tried and tested. There is a lot of caste-based theatre that’s coming up. Obviously, the mainstream doesn’t look at caste the way experimental does. Here, the treatment will change. But the fact that caste-based theatre is taken up doesn’t mean that the experiment will work.” 

WOOING THE AUDIENCE
Commercial and experimental theatre has co-existed and it always will. However, it’s the number of audience that turn up will make their ventures a viable enterprise. Phukan says, “Everyone has to do the kind of work they are interested in doing. Mohit (Takalkar) is inclined towards a certain kind of theatre and is making it viable in a much more compact way. He has to serve his own artistry. There are audiences for both kind of forms. There are some people, I know who will never see a commercial play. There are some people I know who come sparingly to experimental plays because they find them too intellectual. The experimental circuit has to do something more to garner more audience and the audience too has to be more open to giving chances to the form.”

WRITING ON THEATRE
Phukan writes curtain raisers and profiles artists which he calls as “supporting the theatre eco-system”. When he has to review a play, the first thing that he looks for is, whether it is successful in conveying what it wants to say. “A play is geared towards a certain response. If that response come across, then I look at the overall structure. I have seen some well made plays, in terms of well performed plays, that don’t achieve their aim. For me, just the production values will not cut it. All types of theatre keep happening in all types of spaces. Some have the power in what they present, but they don’t have the palette, and some beautifully mounted plays, with soft focus world and everything nicely arranged, don’t have a strong content,” he says making a point.   

While writing reviews, the playwright doesn’t adhere to either the views of the artists, makers or the audience. “I write it to my ability,” he says, adding, “I don’t want my writing to be cognisant of the fact whether the artistic community or the first time audience is going to read it. There is an instinctive approach that I stick to. There are some articles of mine that seem to ride a wave and there are some that haven’t been shared. It so happens that these (latter) articles are the ones I found satisfying to write.”

He reckons that artists have to understand that the reviewers have to be candid and honest. Sometimes reviewers, Phukan admits, give the feedback with a sense of entitlement. “When something comes on a piece of newspaper, they think of it as authoritative, which could be one reason they react to it. I think the merit of the article should be based on what is written and how it is written,” he adds.

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