Set in the fictional town of Zalilgrah in 1989, Riot is a dramatic adaptation of Dr. Shashi Tharoor’s novel by the same name. It chronicles the journey of Priscilla Hart, an American student as she seeks to work for the empowerment of women. She believes that women need to resist their own subjugation. Providing a background to her fight against patriarchy is the communally hypersensitive India, where Hindutva first gave its call. It also introduces us to Lakshman, the idealistic District Magistrate of Zalilgarh who, along with his friend and Superintendent of Police Gurinder, is faced by the momentous task of maintaining peace between the two communities. The story depicts the never ending conflict between those who feel they were unfairly treated by history and wish to rewrite it; and those who they wish to write out of history. As the story moves, we see these various characters set upon a collision course striving to gain the upper hand.
What’s the play about?
This novel was written by Shashi Tharoor in 2000. We actually got the idea of doing this play in 2012. A friend of mine – Bharat Gupta – was reading it, and the idea of dramatizing it just occurred to me. We had just done a play – 9 Jakhoo Hill, which was well received. We just thought that we should do something else.
The novel flows in bits, not in stories. The author utilises a lot of different media in narrating the story, and that’s why it’s unique. I restructured the entire story in chronological order, and decided which parts to keep – for example, we decided not to cover the parts relating to India’s global image, and the aftermath of the protagonist’s death. The play only takes the story to a certain extent. It’s sort of like patchwork – there’re many elements which had to be eliminated.
Shashi Tharoor’s writing is good. I wanted to take the story of Riot forward because despite it being set in 1989, it is still chillingly relevant. When Tharoor came to college last October, I discussed this with him, and he was very enthusiastic. Shabana Azmi had actually done a reading of this book in New York immediately after the Godhra riots, and it was very dramatic; she recited the parts about a Hindu fundamentalist.
In the conversation with him, about possibly staging Riot in college, he was immensely encouraging, he tweeted about it soon after. I think, the tweet was also posted on the college website.
We contacted his office in July, and we set a date for October, but that didn’t work out, so we settled for November. In fact, his office was amazing, very helpful – his secretary prioritized this over a lot of other extremely important stuff.
The play itself deals with the coming together of various subplots which give a message. All of this – all the conflict, and all of the events, eventually stem from individual hatred at a very elemental level. At least, that’s my understanding of it.
People should read this book. Having been a History student, Tharoor’s given a rich account of post Independence history. In the book, he provides arguments from the perspective of a Muslim professor and a Hindu fundamentalist, and both of them are so convincing that as you progress through the story, you are constantly reminded of them and you begin to wonder which side you are leaning on.
How’s everything coming along?
We’re a pretty big cast – we have about twenty people, all from different batches. So far, we’ve had the entire cast together only once or twice – it’s very tough to get everyone together because everyone has their own priorities and their own engagements. Putting up the play was only stressful as far as managing people’s schedules were concerned. But people eventually have become pretty serious and that is quite reassuring. Today (Thursday), we had a dress rehearsal. Now we just need a few tweaks here and there.
Will Shashi Tharoor be showing up?
Yeah. He’s tweeted about it 5-6 times. He’s quite enthusiastic.
Who else is on the production team?
Akshat, Akanksha, Devanshi, Ishaan, Jahnvi, Parul, and Rangashree. We’ve all tried to juggle time – other people took over if I didn’t come, and vice versa. We’ve cooperated very well with each other. I really think the production team and the 4th years have been extremely cooperative. We all need to be better teamworkers, and I think it’s imperative that you learn it now.
What’ve been the hardest parts so far?
Definitely just getting everyone together on time and starting. Otherwise, nothing really. I did face some difficulty in compiling the music, but that was fun too.
Have you faced any problems with the administration?
The Vice-Chancellor and the Registrar were very cooperative. The registrar had no problems whatsoever. I think the only thing we clashed on is that they didn’t allow us to hold practice at night, from 9 to 12. That would have really helped us, because it was a time that was mutually convenient for everyone.
I hear you also called some people in?
I was advised by people to call in certain theatre professionals. We went to watch a play at the India Habitat Centre, and I met someone I knew there, and he advised me to call Swaroopa Ghosh. She’s acted in Vicky Donor and Madras Café, and right now she’s about to appear in Piku with Amitabh Bachchan. She asked us for Rs.15,000, but we managed to bring it down to 10,000, although her work is definitely worth more than that.
She really helped in that she taught us how to shed our inhibitions on stage. When you’re in this – in a play – you need to be uninhibited, and she showed us the way. She was very good – people came more regularly for her workshop than they ever have for practice.
We also had another person helping us, Tanya Sharma. She’s doing her masters in theatre studies right now. She paid us ten visits, and those visits really mattered.
We took one of our actors to a thespian named Tom Alter. We told him that he was playing a role that we would have expected Alter to play had he ever appeared in a stage production of Riot. He wasn’t able to give us much time, but he was very helpful regardless.
I tried calling other people, and I tried to incentivise it. We took them to the book launch of Naseeruddin Shah, and later the team went to Dan Brown’s lecture by themselves. We have been trying to give them a better view of the world of literature, because understanding art is also a significant way of understanding human beings. One must be able to express themselves in this manner because art gives meaning to our lives.
Inshallah, the cast is able to execute all that they have been trained to do, their hardwork, those long hours of toil and sweat, and reap the benefit of their contribution. Hopefully everything they’ve learnt will help them.
Tell me more about your characters.
It’s a motley bunch – it consists of people from various parts of India. They’re all very good, but in the adaptation, I don’t think that they’re very well developed – I could’ve done that better.
There are many themes, like women’s agency, communal violence, romance. You get the kind of characters that are involved with this – people who are distressed, people who are in love, people spreading hatred. These stories intertwine to bring about the climax.
This play has involved a lot of hard work. There is just one thing that I would like to request the audience for: please refrain from walking in and out of the auditorium, using cellphones, or talking during the performance. It’s hugely distracting for the cast.
Activities relating to the theatre teach you a lot about human beings. I think we should have one solid performance every year by all the batches. We should definitely call in theatre professionals – they can help a lot. There should be an annual NLUD play. We were actually trying to stage one in third year: we even approached William Dalrymple, but he never replied.
To the audience who has read the book: Don’t come with any expectations – everyone has their own perspective and their own view when it comes to adapting literary texts to real life. We only hope you enjoy our version.
Riot is being staged at 4 PM on Monday, 24th November. It is directed by Akshat Srivastava, Akanksha Seth, Devanshi Saxena, Ishan Patnaik, Jahnavi Singh, Harshit Kohli, Parul Madan, Rangashree TK. This interview was conducted with Harshit Kohli.