Mallika Writes: View from the Bridge

Decisive Moments

I remember the day clearly. It was the end of a strangely mixed time. Four months previously, doctors had given me two verdicts on the same day; one that I was pregnant, the other that I had hepatitis. I had then spent four months in bed, very yellow, and very restless. Finally on the 2nd of April the doctors declared me well enough to get out of bed and travel to the US to join my husband. I was to travel on the night of the 12th. On the 11th, a telegram arrived from the French Embassy in Delhi; “:Peter Brook and his team of five would like to fly to Ahmedabad to meet you tomorrow. Would you be available?”

“What on earth for?” was my first reaction. I had been following the story of Peter Brook’s soon-to -be- produced Mahabharata in the papers, and had desultorily read about his search for his Krishna or Draupadi in India in an otherwise international cast. Curious, I sent back a telegram saying that I would be available.

At that juncture my knowledge of the international professional theatre scene was average. I had heard of Brook as one of the Greats but had never seen anything produced by him. And I had never wanted to take part in professional theatre being content with my dance work and having escaped from the world of Bombay films. But I had a sense of the excitement surrounding this production which had no limits on how long the production would last each night, and which was to be sponsored by many different countries.

I was yellow and skinny from the jaundice. There was as yet no sign of the pregnancy. And my hair fell nearly to my knees. They arrived, a pink, white- haired cherubic looking old man with steely blue eyes; a big bear of a man who said he was the playwright; two women costume designers and a severe looking woman casting director. I walked into my sitting room where they were and felt myself appraised. No, I didn’t really speak French. No, I had never been on the professional stage as an actress, but yes I had done many films.

I still didn’t know which part they were toying with offering me. They muttered to each other in low tones and in French; then Peter turned to me and said; “We would like to offer you Draupadi, if we think, after auditions, that you can do it. Would you be able to give an audition with my assistant in New York? Then if he thinks you can do it, we will fly you over to Paris and I will take another audition.” And he smiled his smile which I was to get to know so well over the next few years.

I flew to join my husband in New York. Before auditioning I went to see a production of Brook’s to make sure that I liked what the man did. And I was bowled over. I auditioned, passed, flew to Paris, in a daze gave a bizarre audition at 3a.m. with an actor who leaped into the lighting cabin one moment, and down next to me the next, and was offered the part. Jet lagged and exhausted, at 7 a.m. I took the flight back to New York.

Several anguished months of indecision followed, the worst sense of being torn apart I have ever felt. Persuaded and supported by husband and mother, I left a few months later, with a 5 week old baby in toe. Paris was gray and raining and the rehearsals were in a cold 6th floor walk up. 14 hours a day. Baby, nanny and I would traipse up. Feeding times for the baby meant French learning sessions with one of the actors. For the rest it was endless improvisations and tryouts of scenes.

My first shock, and first battle, came because of the interpretation of Draupadi; here was my favourite Shakti woman being reduced to a wimp! Many others followed, often met by Brook’s stony look or warmth-less smile. Once, at the end of my tether at his apparent lack of approval in spite of all my thespian attempts, lonely and miserable in Paris, disliking the angst prone environment and the politics of rehearsals, I requested a private audience. I burst out in tears, and all my emotions came tumbling out. He listened hands together, fingers touching each other. At the end of a fifteen- minute outburst, anguished and asking for understanding, some warmth, he said, “Ah”. Another time, after yet another discussion on the interpretation of a scene, he turned to me and said, “ Mallika, working with you is like working with Princess Margaret”. “I didn’t know you had worked with her”, I said, not endearing myself to him any more. Hour after rehearsal hour of no encouragement, only a demand to try another way. Month after month of frustration that nothing I seemed to do was any good. Then a breakthrough - not through him or from him but from audiences at the previews. Another year of working, performing, rehearsing more and more, one to one sessions with him where I finally managed not to be diffident; and one day, as though in passing, “Yes, of course you are very good”. It took over three years before a truce of grudgingly mutual respect for each other and for our differences was reached. But another three years could not turn that into warmth or affection.

Why then do I consider my relationship with this man pivotal in my life? My first two years working with him were perhaps the unhappiest in my life. Yet he forced me to face loneliness. He pushed me into introspection, into learning how to garner all my intellectual faculties to argue my point, to make a winning defense of my point of view. He stripped me of false vanity and modesty, and the eternally useless question, “If I do such and such, people will laugh at me won’t they?” He taught me to peel away at the skin of a character like an onion till you reach the nothingness which is its essence. And he pushed me into putting my entire being, publicly where I put my mouth. Everything I have done since, in the field of performance, took root from those years of having to fight for my right to say what was right.

8th Feb
Times of India, Ahmedabad


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