The overhead lights are fading in and out rhythmically, as in the controversial French movie Irreversible. In between the disappearance and reappearance of yellow luminosity, two forms are somewhat visible on the stage at the Experimental Theatre at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai. Nandita Das, dressed in a brick red kurta and black tights, has a crumpled forehead; her husband, Subodh Maskara, kitted out in a white shirt and grey trousers, peers into the darkness beyond the stage and greets an imaginary audience.
The fade-in, fade-out effect turns out to be a warm-up for the rehearsal rather than the style in which Das’ stage debut, Between the Lines, will eventually be lit. The play will be staged in several cities after its premiere in Ahmedabad on Sunday.
The 105-minute production is about a lawyer couple whose marriage goes on trial when they find themselves on opposite sides of a criminal case. Das’ Maya is trying to free a domestic abuse victim accused of attempting to kill her husband, represented by Subodh’s Shekhar (Das and Maskara also play the roles of their clients). Courtroom arguments find their way back into the living room. Maya is convinced of her client’s innocence; Shekhar is dismissive and eventually hostile.
“If Subodh has his way, he would turn the play into a comedy,” Das jokes. “But he doesn’t have his way.”
The couple starts hitting each other with their lines. The greeting card sentiment, “To have a winner by your side is like being a winner yourself”, soon gives way to, “You are disgusting, don’t talk to me.” The rehearsal has its moments of forgetfulness—the talk-heavy script is by Das and Divya Jagdale—but the couple has an easy, palpable chemistry. A line of dialogue, “We’re a package deal, two for the price of one,” could well apply to them.
Das and Subodh wed in 2010. The play brings together sophistication and inexperience—Das has acted in over 38 films and made a movie, 2008’s Firaaq. Subodh, an entrepreneur, has never been on a stage before. “This is a historic moment,” he says to no one in particular at the end of the rehearsal.
Subodh’s Marwari business family, with roots in Kolkata, has its fair share of mavericks. His uncle, Pawan Maskara, has directed plays—as a child, Subodh was recruited as a prompter. His brother, Abhay, promotes art through Gallery Maskara in Mumbai. Subodh dabbled in the arts but mostly spent several years in the pursuit of profit. The birth of his son Vihaan two years ago led to a three-month break that seems to have been indefinitely extended. “I questioned myself on what I was doing in life,” Subodh says. “I am now going to do only those things that give me joy.”
Subodh attended a few acting workshops before rehearsals started for Between the Lines in August. Held five days a week at a hall inside the couple’s apartment complex in Mumbai, the rehearsals have become all-consuming. “From morning till 1am we’re in the play,” Subodh says. “That is disconcerting at times, but I have been in high-pressure business situations, so I have learnt to compartmentalize my life.”
As the play’s producer and one half of a cast of two, he is having it easier than Das, who has been juggling writing, acting and direction. “I felt that I could handle the play since there’s just the two of us,” Das says. “But you can’t be your own third eye in theatre. I haven’t had the time to focus on my own performance to go beyond what comes instinctively to me. But as long as there isn’t a false note, it’s okay.”
Das sounds rather like Maya, also a superwoman multitasker. “It’s uncanny that I am doing this play at a time when I am being pulled in five different directions,” she says. The script’s tone—critical of male chauvinism but with enough room for negotiation—reflects the 43-year-old actor’s personal graph. Maya’s changed attitude towards her wifely duties is more evolution than revolution. “That has a lot to do with where I have arrived in my life,” Das says. “I am at a stage of greater negotiation.” Part of that negotiation comes from being married to Maskara, who is from a more conventional world than the Left-liberal universe that nurtured Das—her parents are artist Jatin Das and writer Varsha Das. “I used to have much more strident positions earlier, but Subodh has helped me see things in a more nuanced way,” she says.
Between the Lines is based on a script written by Purushottam Agarwal, an academic in Delhi, which Das was supposed to act in alongside Farooque Sheikh. The play didn’t materialize, but Das filed it away as a possible future project. She bought the play from Agarwal and signed up Jagdale as her collaborator. The script is by no means final. “Theatre is a really live medium that comes together after about 50 shows,” Das observes. “I am still adding and deleting lines.”
Some of the dialogue emerges out of domestic situations. “A lot of real-life conversations have come into the play—such as the bit when Maya complains to Shekhar that he is able to sleep soundly when their son has a fever,” Subodh says. “That’s me. We talk about it and the next thing I know, it’s in the play.”
Having a writer-director for a wife has its advantages too. “I have somebody 24 hours whom I can talk to,” Subodh says. “She is patient and encouraging but also critical. We take liberties with each other—mine are unpardonable but hers are acceptable. I’m just pulling her leg, things have been very stressful for her.”
At the rehearsal, the crew gathers on stage to mark the moment. They form a circle and link hands, and Das gives a pep talk. “Let’s relax,” she says. The spotlight comes on proper, and Das and Subodh take their places. “Okay, enjoy,” a crew member tells Das. She laughs out loud.
Between the Lines will be staged on 30 September in Ahmedabad; on 6-7 October in Mumbai; on 19-20 October in Delhi; on 27 October in Kolkata. For details, visit chhotiproductions.com/productions.