I live in surreal, dystopian present: Manjula Padmanabhan (IANS Interview)

She lives in a “surreal and dystopian” world and thus hasn’t been too impacted by the lockdown triggered by the coronarirus pandemic, says playwright, author and illustrator Manjula Padmanabhan, who nonetheless is “learning new ways of reaching beyond the walls” of her “cosy personal space” as it is important for artists and writers to engage with the larger world.

“I don’t think it’s made a huge difference to the way I work! I have always been extremely house-bound so for me, the only change is that everyone else is living the way I’ve been living for many years. Of course, I worry about infection; I do what I can to avoid contact. But as someone who writes about dystopian futures, I am not terribly surprised to be living in a surreal and dystopian present,” Padmanabhan, who currently divides her time between India and the US, told IANS in an email interview.

“I’ve been slow to make contact with local artists or writers. I like to spend all my time writing, drawing and thinking about the projects I’m working on. I don’t like promoting my work so, as far as possible, I avoid doing it! But it’s important for artists and writers to engage with the larger world. I am very grateful to social media, computers and electronic devices because they’ve made it possible for people like me to communicate remotely with the world. Even now, in my mid-60’s, I’m learning new ways of reaching beyond the walls of my cosy personal space,” she explained.

A writer, artist and playwright, Padmanabhan grew up in Europe and Southeast Asia before returning to India as a teenager in the late 1960s. The popular comic strip character “Suki” that she created first appeared in print in the 1980s and was recently revived in The Hindu Business Line. In 1997, he r play “Harvest” won the Onasiss Prize for Theatre in Greece. She is the author of several acclaimed books like “Kleptomania”, “The Three Virgins and Other Stories”, “Escape”, “The Island of Girls” and “Hot Death, Cold Soup”. She has also written and illustrated a number of books for children, among them Mouse Attackers and Mouse Invaders, and a series of picture puzzle books.

Her two-volume collection of plays, “Blood and Laughter” and “Laughter and Blood”, just published by Hachette, brings together for the first time her full-length plays and short performance pieces.

“Publishing a script makes it easier to share it. But plays need to find an audience. Before that can happen, a production company, actors and director need confidence in a script. A playwright must have the support of a group of actors in order to continue to write plays. It just so happens that at the time I wrote my first play (“Lights Out”), I had friends who were interested in performing it.

“After ‘Lights Out’, however, I wasn’t able to get a theatre to work with me. Instead of getting discouraged, I just continued to create scripts. I had a few readings now and then. After ‘Harvest’, my fifth play, suddenly won an international prize, it seemed to make sense to try to publish all my scripts in one volume. That was at least 20 years ago.

“It’s taken that length of time to make it happen, and during that time, the number of scripts also grew. So now there are two volumes of collected plays – even though only two or three of them have been performed,” Padmanabhan elaborated.

How does she maintain a balance between the three worlds of playwright, author and illustrator?

“All three ‘worlds’ are closely linked. My writing is very visual, my drawings are often narrative and in some ways, a play combines the two. For instance, as a cartoonist, my drawings literally tell a story. Cartoons are very much like tiny play-scripts, with my drawings taking the place of living actors. When I’m writing, I can see the events of my stories as a kind of mental movie. I’m sure this is true of many authors. The only difference is that I can create physical drawings from the pictures I can see in my mind,” Padmanabhan explained.

Two of her plays, “The Mating Game Show” and “Harvest” (picturised as “Deham”) have been serialised by eminent director Govind Nihalani, though sadly, the former never went on air.

“Govind was interested in ‘The Mating Game Show’ almost as soon as he read the script. When BiTV (Business India Television) came into being (in the mid-1990s), he along with many other creative and idealistic directors, looked forward to producing programs that could address social issues in an honest and fearless manner.

“Then the whole wonderful dream collapsed and with it, the hope of broadcasting this show faded. I wrote MGS without worrying about censorship, which is perhaps the main reason that it could never be released. The collapse (of BiTV) was so disappointing and for so many people in the industry. I saw several episodes of show and really liked what I saw. It’s a great shame that it died unseen,” Padmanabhan said.

As for “Deham”, it “was very well made, but ahead of its time. It was a quiet, provocative film made in the style of ‘art cinema’ at a time when science fiction demanded big budgets, flashy productions with nonstop action. It was, I believe, received with shrugs and uncertainty – similar to ‘Harvest’, on which it is based. I think Indian movie goers were unused to seeing Indian characters in an SF situation, simply because it was so unfamiliar”, she said.

What then, is her message for the literary community in the present times?

“I won’t pretend that I spend much time thinking about the ‘community’. Like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice Through The Looking Glass” (that followed ‘Alice in Wonderland’), it takes all the ‘running’ I can do, just to remain in place. I have very little energy left over for thinking about what others like me are thinking or doing,” Padmanabhan concluded