Saturday, January 17, 2009

Indian Plays in English

(Some parts of the blog may come across as arrogant. At places I could have "softened " the sentence by writing "In my opinion" and "In my view". But I think that it is redundant given that all the content here is "my opinion" or "my view". Bewarned that this is a purely subjective blog without any objective references.)

We are required to review an autobiography/biography of a successful person, as part of a course. Even before the assignment was announced I had been reading Somerset Maugham's "Summing Up". It is a viciously witty account by a remarkable writer. As I have also mentioned many times before, Muagham is my most favourite writer and I loved the book both for the content and the style of his writing. In the book, he lays down three characteristics of good writing viz. simplicity, lucidity and euphony.

Simplicity refers to the simplicity of both the vocabulary and sentence construction. And this is really a tricky thing for someone who aspires to be half decent. Simplicity changes with time and medium. I love Maugham's style and language. But I doubt if could be used at this age. One must remember that Shakespeare's language was often considered "racy" and unconventional for his times. Also, he invented words to suit the dialogue delivery. Similarly, Maugham's writing too was criticised for using colloquial phrases. Trying to be a show off only distances the author from the reader. On the other hand, people nowadays may "lk to rt lk ths". Should one then shamelessly pander to the audience? What about the artist as one who leads the way? Ah damn, we get into one of those chicken and egg questions which one can debate endlessly and arrive at an MBA answer like "It is a trade-off between X and Y". My opinion is, just do whatever works for you, after you are reasonably confident in your technique. Here is a nice story.

Drucker speaks of a great piano teacher he knew of when he was growing up in Vienna. Drucker visits him as the teacher is giving piano lessons to a gifted pupil. After she finishes rendering a piece looking at the notes, he asks her to play it again, this time playing it the way she heard it. This may seem funny. How are the two different?

Imagine you had to make something, say a chair. Of course, imagine that you are perfectly competent in making a chair and have all the tools. You are given a manual which is extremely well written. On the other hand, imagine, you saw a chair in someone's house and had to come home and reconstruct it. Would the outputs not be different? More importantly, won't the chair in the second case be more representative of you, have more of your style? Of course, the concern of your style in chair making comes into question only if you know to use the tools in the first place. Someone like me who got a C in workshop cannot be expected to reconstruct from memory when I could not even meet the basic requirements. I don't like Chetan Bhagat's "writing". It would be tiring to parody it. But the language is simple and the treatment is straightforward. If the book is called "One Night at a Call Centre" you know that the book is about a call centre. On the other hand, I have no fucking clue what the few pages of "The Moor's Last Sigh", that I read, were leading to.

The next virtue is lucidity. Lucidity is the ability to put forward an idea in the simplest terms, but without compromising the idea in any way. If it takes two paragraphs to express the idea, take two paragraphs. Don't take three, don't take one. But, you may ask, maybe it is possible to express an idea in two paragraphs if you used high falutin words, maybe it takes three if you use simpler word. That is left to the discretion of the author. If your intended audience is mass audience, then yes take three. (It is not to disparage the masses, well, ok, maybe a bit disparaging)

The one I am most interested in is euphony which refers to the phonetic quality of the words. Of course, most of us never realize that consciously. Somerset Maugham made his name by writing plays. He writes that actors sometimes asked for an extra word here or a word less there, so that the "flow" can be maintained. When we read a book, we too, in a sense, read it aloud in our minds and the phonetic quality of sentences are of great importance.

There is an ulterior motive for me to write this. In the 4th term, I had taken a course which consisted of lectures from artists. One of the components required us to stage a play on the artist's life as per our interpretation, a week prior to the artist's lecture. (Of course, I was not a great fan of this idea, given that this would cut into my "peace time", but I must say our team did put up an excellent show) After that we had a discussion on the play. (I know, oh-so-arty :P)

Usually, I try to maintain a low profile. But since I entered the class late, I was forced into the first 2 rows. And this is the problem. When I am in the last benches, I remain gloriously indifferent. Thrust me into the first few rows and at times I get the itch to put CP. (Class Participation) The discussion came to something about Indian plays in English and I started to say something. Unfortunately, the itch to put CP was magnified by the presence of this very nice looking lady. Normally, I do not like women cutting their hair short. If it is short by nature, good. If it is long, even better. But I found the lady quite attractive. Of course, it could be purely an attraction of opposites thing you know - someone in the arts as opposed to engineering. Being surrounded by geeky engineering women who kick your ass in courses (even the quanti ones) takes its toll. (It has been 6 years people, show some pity!)

Anyway... I started to say put CP and I kind of botched up the point. The problem was... what I wanted to say was, "Somehow I find English plays in India... peteru". I did not know how to say peter-u politely. There is no equivalent for that. You cannot say "I find English plays in India condescending and distant". These words are too harsh and not really accurate. Peteru is a more harmless word, it is a lightly sarcastic term for people who may be trying too hard to be "in". And that statement is more closer to the truth.

Therefore, when an audience sees a play in which all the characters are Indian, the setting is Indian and everyone speaks in English, that premise itself creates a distance. This is entirely different from an Indian actor playing a Hamlet role. The audience would find the latter very acceptable but not the former.

What is the problem? I contend that the fundamental differences lie in the way Indian languages are pronounced and the inflections in our voice while pronounciation. We are an effusive people, prone to demonstrations of emotions. The English are a people known to pride themselves for understatement and restraint in emotions. There is bound to be some disconnect when you use their language to express our emotions.

To demonstrate the difference between peoples, consider the difference in the sense of humour between the two peoples.

Compared to the west, our sarcasm can be really caustic. (Goundamani-Senthil jokes would be brutal if translated to English. It would be a good day for Senthil if he got away with "You black pig head"/ Karuppu panni thalaiya) The metaphors we use in our double meanings (not double entendres :P) are also more interesting (Refer Petromax) and varied and at times too far fetched. Third, there is quite a bit of self deprecation. Fourth, compared to English comedies there is a lot more slapstick humour. But most importantly, the inflection.

Exhibit A:

In one of S Ve Shekhar's play, there is the following situation:

In Tamil:

Patient: Doctor Doctor, kaala aani irukku

Doctor: Adhuku inga yen ya vara... nalla calendar-a eduthu maatiko

In English:

Patient: Doctor, I think I have a nail in my foot

Doctor: Nail? Why do you come here? Go hang a calendar.

Exhibit B

In Tamil:

Random Person: Annaen, enakku chappal vaanganum.

SVS: Poyi vaangiko

RP: Aana kadaiyile poana size-a kekaraangaley

SVS: Naan onnoda kaal size trace panni tharaaen. Poyi kaatu. Nalla velai underwear-ku en kitta varaliyey

In English:

RP: I need new chappals. (The lack of the Annaen Annaen itself reduces the comedy)

SVS: Why are you asking me? Go buy in a shop.

RP: I don't know my size.

SVS: Okay, I will make a drawing of your foot so that the shopkeeper can give you the correct size. (Aside) Thank God he does not need new underwear.

For those who understand Tamil, you can really see the jokes falling flat. For those who cannot, I think you get my point.

Why is that? Part of the comedy is in the way the patient conveys the urgency. He says "Doctor doctor" in a manner that acts as a cue for comedy. Note the repetition of the doctor. No english author ever repeats something like that. That is the point of sound of inflection coming in.

To take another example. There is a famous Vivek line "Epdi irundha naan, ipdi aayitaen". Half of the joke is in the way he delivers it, that look in his eyes when he says that. If you were to say that as "How my situation has changed"/"How the tables have turned", you see it lacks that punch. On the other hand if you say "How I was, How I have become", maybe it comes near the sense of the situation. It is a bit "I walk english, I talk english" level, but it carries that punch.

So the point is... I think plays written in English staged in an Indian context for Indian audiences should get more natural. They currently come across as peteru max. It appears that I have nicely identified the problem but have not offered a solution. Well, the moral is, authors who aspire to write more contemporarily need to look at succesful work in their local tongues and apply lessons from that in their English writing. To apply it to my own "writing", I faced a difficulty when I wrote the story "Romances of the Past". Somehow I could not invent characters by the name Ram and Lakshmi as the lead characters of that story. Somehow it does not gel. On the other hand for the story, "Big Man, Mad Dog and Velachery Vimala", I think the lines sounded consistent with the premise even though the whole story is written in English.


Brat said...

I partially agree with your point of view. English plays in an Indian setting might need to be localized a bit more, but my reasons are slightly different from yours. At the risk of taking an overly simplistic stance, I think the key to this problem lies in realism, or the lack of it.

But then again, there's a flip side to that coin. In my opinion, Tamil comedians (as a simple example) tend to deliberately mispronounce English words in order to achieve a certain level of success in making the audience laugh. While this may be a successful ploy, this form of English is also quite far from the true level of English spoken in our country. The average Indian speaks decent English, and I don't think magnifying tiny grammatical and pronunciation errors represents the reality any better.

To sum up, I think some English plays go overboard with the level of English - yes, but I also think most Tamil movies go overboard with the level of English (the negative way, of course). Could we settle on the two extremes compensating each other, rather than thrive in mediocrity? ;-)

themiddler said...


Agree on the deliberate tendency to mispronounce bit. I must also concede that some shows make out us as kuntrier than we are!

"Could we settle on the two extremes compensating each other, rather than thrive in mediocrity?" Haha... damn that elusive balance!

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