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Nikhil Mehta: 'For the Record' raises questions around the authorship of culture, and the responsibility of representation

'For The Record', which won six awards at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards 2020, including Best Play and Best Director, will be staged in Delhi on July 7 as part of META 2022.

July 03, 2022 / 05:45 PM IST
'For the Record' is set in 1971. Its premise: A tribunal must pick three objects that represent India to the world.

'For the Record' is set in 1971. Its premise: A tribunal must pick three objects that represent India to the world.

Two years after it went virtual because of the pandemic, the 17th edition of the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) is all set to be staged in Delhi.

The off-screen event will showcase four award-winning plays from META 2020, including director Nikhil Mehta’s For the Record, which won the highest number of awards that year, including Best Play, Best Actor in a Lead Role (Female), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Female), Best Ensemble, Best Original Script and Best Director, an award he shared with Sahidul Haque for The Old Man. The play will be the first to be staged for META 2022 on July 7 at Delhi’s Kamani Auditorium.

Edited excerpts from a conversation with Mehta.

The play won six awards at Meta 2020. What was your initial reaction when your play received the maximum number of awards here?

The awards night was six months into the pandemic, when all theatres were closed with no reopening in sight. This recognition, at that particular time, was a warm reminder of why we do what we do...

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Two years later, it is a joy to be in the rehearsal room again with this show and we are really looking forward to performing at META this week.

What conversations is the play trying to draw you into? 

The play is set in 1971 where a tribunal is given the task of identifying three objects that represent India to the world. We recreate scenes from the tribunal transcripts and also perform private interviews conducted with each tribunal member. The show explores questions around the authorship of culture, formation of national identity and the responsibility of representation.

Of course, any question about how you represent an entire culture is complicated and, more often than not, an exercise in futility.

Paired with that, the heart of my own artistic exploration is questioning what modern Indian theatre looks like. What stories do we tell? Whose stories do we tell? What does it look like? What does it sound like? There really isn’t a singular easy answer to any of these questions, but there are endless possibilities. Cracking the possibilities open is the first step I hope our work takes.

Can you tell us about the process of writing the script? It’s a little unusual to have seven people writing one play.

For The Record is a particularly unique show because it is completely devised by the company, and yes, it has been written by the entire cast. Every rehearsal we’d improvise, create characters and enact imagined conversations. We'd then audio-record our work and overnight transcribe it into a written scene. The next day, we’d have one page of a script! We had a big wall where we would keep pasting all our creations and then moving them around like a jigsaw puzzle. The role of the director is to take all those improvisations and ideas, and try to structure them into a single narrative. It was hard, but very rewarding.

You also are the founder of Black Box Okhla which is a sort of collaborative space. How much emphasis do you put on collaborations?

The mission of Black Box Okhla is more than collaboration with people. It is a collaboration with ‘space’.  Our mission is to gift artists time to explore in space. Often, I feel that the way we make theatre, we don’t have an opportunity to engage with space. Fundamentally, theatre is how we tell stories in a particular ‘space’ in a certain ‘time’. And, if you can't explore the space, have a relationship with it, and build something with it, I feel an integral part of theatre making is missing. We call ourselves a performance lab. We invite people for a two-month residency to explore, develop and create new work here.
Deepali Singh is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist who writes on movies, shows, music, art, and food. Twitter: @DeepaliSingh05
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