Growing up in the label-intensive, post-independence, pre-liberal, left-wing Kolkata within Gandhian (of Indira and Rajiv) India, the young Anuvab Pal used to feed his idiot box addiction with Bangla TV. “It had everything Doordarshan didn’t: Knight Rider, Murder, She Wrote. Even if there was a typhoon, someone would be up there on the roof pointing the antenna in the right direction so that you could continue to watch A-Team.” It’s one of those typical scenes this 31-year-old playwright thinks makes the Indian milieu so perfect for contemporary plays. “Every day, I look around me and see such brilliant possibilities for stories, and such a culture of ideas that I can’t understand why we, of all people, steal ideas from others,” says Pal.
Beyond the self-deprecating jokes and anecdotes, Pal, the young country head for sales and business development at Thomson Financial, is also one of the most promising playwrights on Mumbai’s theatre scene. After writing four successful plays that played at various stages in the US, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, Pal’s most recent product is a story about six Indians willing to pay any price to shake hands with the US President. The President is Coming inspects our aspirations, Indian apprehensions about America as a superpower and our stereotypical notions of one another through the minds and mouths of six people, described as “Achievers under the age of 30” by India Today. Since its introduction, the play has courted house-full viewings across the city and played three shows in New York, while producer Quasar Thakore Padamsee is discussing taking it to Bangalore and New Delhi.
The play was born in January this year out of Writer’s Bloc, the semi-annual theatre workshop organized by Mumbai theatre personality Rahul Da Cunha’s Rage Productions and London’s Royal Court Theatre. “It is difficult to make inroads into the Mumbai theatre scene, and even though Anuvab’s good enough to make it on his own, Writer’s Bloc was a good entry vehicle for him into Mumbai theatre,” says Da Cunha. Good enough also for him to pick Pal as his partner on more projects he’s working on, including a rumoured film adaptation of Da Cunha’s stage super success, I’m Not Bajirao.
In September, Pal’s debut film script will hit the screens when the Loins of Punjab Presents, starring Shabana Azmi, Ajay Naidu and Ayesha Dharker, releases in India and internationally. The story about contestants in a singing competition in New York that’s sponsored by a Punjabi pork loin company is a comedy that Pal and his writing partner and director Manish Acharya hope will mark their entry into the Indian film scene.
The director and his scriptwriter met while the two lived in New York and developed a storyline in between coffee sessions at NY hang–outs. “We write together like jazz musicians compose music,” says Acharya. “We try and get each other to laugh. And while I go for the character, he goes for the gag.” Pal comes up with gags in between his day job at the financial information powerhouse; a job that caused him to move to Mumbai last year after living in the US for 12 years. “Why would I not come here? India is a comic gold mine,” says Pal.
Currently, working on a play called Nine Parties (basically about a couple that goes to nine parties), Pal admits he’s using the business of show business to gather fodder for his play. “I hate the parties and the business side of films, but it’s a good learning process,” he says. Pal’s miseducation about the Indian film industry included a recent meeting with a producer who, he says, pushed a picture of Romania and an advert of Raymond Weil in front of him and said: “See, there is money from Weil, and there is money from this tourist commission, I need film with both. And make it a murder mystery. And put a song in Paris.” And chuck plot and storyline both out of the window. Suffice to say Pal no longer needs Bangla TV for fun.
WHAT’S SO FUNNY?
Anuvab Pal finds inspiration in the oddest of places. Here’s what he thinks is perfect fodder:
1) The stuff they write on hoardings is simply brilliant. For instance, “Who is the Big B?” and there’s a Bollywood superstar staring at the face of a bag of cement. Wonder if Bill Murray would do the same thing?
2) Our desperate need to have an affinity, of any sort, to the West.
3) In India, celebrities sell everything, from cooking oil to cement to Internet connections, nothing’s too big or too small.
4) I grew up in an India where televisions were off at 10pm after ‘Krishi Darshan’, and there was a seven-year wait to get a Fiat. But, these days, we have accent trainers, grooming consultants, veejays, you name it.
5) The way folks use business English in daily language: “Net-Net, let’s hook up at 11.30...”; “it’s time for a face-to-face”; or “it was a great networking event over libations”.
6) Celebrity journalism. An actress friend told me she was at a party when a film journalist came and said to her, “Please do something, or say something, so that I’ll have something to file.” In the West, celebrities are always up to something, here they’re so cut and dry that journalists are desperate enough to describe a celebrity’s sleep pattern to make print.
The President is Coming will play in Mumbai at the Prithvi Theatre on 23 August at 6pm and 9pm; at Tata Theatre on 1 September at 6.30pm; and at Rangsharda on 2 September at 7pm.