‘Words and stories can be dangerous’: playwright Sonali Bhattacharyya on radical history

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The Guardian

For much of the 20th century, the grey, gargantuan Dunlop factory in Bandel, West Bengal was the main source of work for local families. But from the 1990s onwards, the factory was closed more often than it was open. “People would turn up every day hoping to get a shift,” says the playwright Sonali Bhattacharyya. “It felt like a throwback to what I’d read about the dockers in Victorian times.” Her mum’s family were among those reliant on the shifts the imposing tyre factory provided. The work’s unreliability caused extreme financial anxiety at home.

One of the workers affected was Bhattacharyya’s madhya māmāe, her middle uncle on her mum’s side. A factory worker and trade unionist, he was also a storyteller. “It’s a bit of a cliche in south Asia that the Bengalis are all dreamers and thinkers and poets,” Bhattacharyya says over Zoom. “But there is also a radical history in West Bengal. I love the fact that my uncle has both of those spirits of Bengali culture.”

Bhattacharyya’s new play takes inspiration from her worker-dreamer uncle. Soon to be taking over the main stage at the Young Vic theatre in London, Chasing Hares examines the growing insecurity of work, the dangerous repercussions of protesting against poor labour conditions, and the power of stories to encourage community action. “It talks about the idea of imagination as refuge, and storytelling as a vehicle for social and political change,” says the director Milli Bhatia, who joins Bhattacharyya from a midweek rehearsal. “I felt so incredibly lucky to get my hands on it.” Bhattacharyya beams.

In Chasing Hares, it is not a rubber factory the drama is based around, but a clothes factory. “I felt like that would speak to people. We know so much about the garment sector after things like Rana Plaza,” Bhattacharyya says, referring to the catastrophic collapse of a building in Bangladesh that contained five garment factories, which killed more than 1,100 people. When she started writing the play, in 2018, the culture of work was shifting around her. Since then, with India’s months of farmers’ protests and Britain’s university and railway staff currently fighting casualisation, the play feels even more pertinent. “The workplace precarity that my mum’s family had been so used to was increasingly becoming the norm here.”

On the factory floor, Chasing Hares follows Prab, a worker who used to be an outspoken trade union member, fighting for better workers’ rights. “But he is now a new father,” Bhattacharyya says, “so has made a decision in order to retain employability, and to be able to provide for his family, to try to shrug off that reputation of being a troublemaker.” When his boss’s son holds a Jatra, a performance showcase, Prab becomes entangled in the creation of stories that are, Bhattacharyya says, “imbued with the radicalism of the utopian politics he’s had to deeply repress”.

Ayesha Dharkar and Scott Karim rehearse Chasing Hares. Photograph: Helen Murray

With the Jatra, Chasing Hares takes on a play-within-a-play form. A Jatra is a type of Bengali folk theatre, traditionally performed in the open air and in the round, often at large expos. “Growing up, when we’d go and visit back home, we would go to expos,” Bhattacharyya remembers. “I was never allowed to go to the Jatra, it was always on too late. But it would be hours and hours of entertainment. You’d take snacks in, and spend all night listening to music, poetry and plays.” She and Bhatia wanted to echo the sentiment of these events in their production. “The language of Jatra has been a huge influence on our conception of this production,” Bhatia says. “The design, the way we think about space, where the audience are within that. Because they were touring, they would employ one set-piece to represent an entire epic world, so one thing has great status in a space. We’ve been really inspired by that for our production.”

The team have examined the history of the art form and its evolution in detail, from its origins in the Indian epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to the way they became more political during the independence movement, resisting the British occupation. “That’s what we’re exploring here,” Bhattacharyya says, “how the democratic nature of the form and the potential for subversive nature of the form can be reignited. That’s what Prab is trying to do in the play, to drag this medium back into a people’s medium, which will speak to this injustice they’re facing.”

Bhattacharyya and Bhatia had been wanting to work together for some time before Bhatia, who is best known for directing Jasmine Lee-Jones’s Olivier-nominated Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner, directed a rehearsed reading of another of Bhattacharyya’s plays. That was King Troll – The Fawn. “We were a bit shy before we met,” she recalls, while Bhatia puts her head in her hands and laughs. “It was a bit like a date. I was like: ‘I think you’re really cool,’ and I was hoping that she thought I was really cool as well.”

Politics are key to their work. “I’ve been involved in political activism since I was a teenager,” Bhattacharyya says, “but it’s more recently that I’ve seen a really tangible connection between my work as a writer and my activism. I think it’s because things got harder, and it feels self-indulgent to keep them separate.”

Bhatia feels a similar sense of urgency: “The first thing I ever directed at 18 was because I wanted to raise money for a refuge I was working for, so the root of my work as a director has come from trying to address an injustice.” Over time, she has become aware of the similarities between the two forms of community address; facilitating the process as a director is a lot like organising a protest or a movement. “You consider who your audience is,” she says, “how you want to hold them in a space, which voices you want to prioritise, and what you want them to consider or action when they leave the space.”

“Milli is one of those directors who really walks the walk,” Bhattacharyya says. “She’s fostered a really collaborative and democratic room. It’s not just in the context of the work, it’s in how we create the work, and how we make a more inclusive and accessible theatre industry.” Both writer and director felt it was important to have a cast and crew with connections to the world they’re exploring. “It’s an extraordinary feeling to sit in a room with a cast and creative team entirely made up of artists of the global majority,” Bhatia says. “There’s a shorthand, an understanding about why this matters to us. I hope more rooms will look like this.” Outside the rehearsal room, she is excited to be seeing a surge of work being produced by south Asian artists. “We’ve always been here, but the work I’m seeing coming out now, and the space we’re taking up – it’s our time.”

Just before the pandemic hit, the play won the Sonia Friedman Production award, and shortly after, the Theatre Uncut Political Playwriting award. Throughout the process of the play, Bhattachharyya has kept her uncle in Kolkata in the loop. When Irfan Shamji, who plays the character loosely based on her uncle, had specific questions about the character, Bhattachharyya suggested asking the man himself. She sent them to her cousin who put them to her uncle, who then wrote answers in Bengali and got someone to translate, before sending them back. “It was tremendously moving reading those and sharing those with Irfan,” she says, “to read his thoughts on his position as a father, as a labour organiser, as a writer, as a dreamer.”

Handing down knowledge and stories through generations like this is key, Bhattacharyya argues, to the way culture shapes what we believe is possible. “Stories are about remembering. What have people done before? What has worked? How have people stood up? That can be an inspiration but also a model for how we go forward and how we can build a better world.” To make real change, Bhatia agrees, progressives need to better understand the power of stories. In rehearsals, they have talked about activists in India being arrested for their tweets, and writers being put on CIA watchlists. “We know that words and stories can be dangerous,” she says. “That’s because they have the power to effect change.”

Chasing Hares is at the Young Vic, London, to 13 August.

July 18, 2022 at 12:42PM Kate Wyver

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