Love — a lingering logic unknown to the brain.
Love — a reality known to that heart, which beats in emotional time.
That heart — of a person who wears love
on their sleeve.
This love on the sleeve — an avalanche of emotions for someone of the opposite sex or for a person of the same gender.
Love between a man and woman — does Indian society approve of it?

Love between humans of the same sex —
does Indian society approve of it?

Almost never.

Flashback: Set in Poona (Pune) in the pre-independence era, written by veteran playwright Vijay Tendulkar, the Marathi play Mitrachi Goshta, addressing same sex relationships (perhaps for the first time in Indian theatre) was brought to stage in 1981, with Rohini Hattangadi playing the lead. Never mind the powerful script and star cast — reportedly, the play ran to near empty house before it went on to make an impact.

The lingering question then: how can lesbian love be addressed in such an open arena?
Fast forward: Set in a college in Karnataka in the year 2018, adapted into the Kannada as Ondu Preetiya Kathe, Ujwala Rao playing the lead, and supported by a powerful cast comprising Shrunga BV, Vyjayanthi Adiga, Vishal Patil and Sunil Kumar, the play has, over the past year and a half, been staged 22 times! Slowing, steadily inching towards full house.

Point taken with interest. Yet, as audiences chatter with aplomb after the show, the lingering question prevails: How can lesbian love be addressed in such an open arena? Preposterous!

Never mind the exclamations — the impact of the message rendered with an amicable mix of intense emotions, seasoned with wit and prepped with timely stage play, is definitely an antidote to gender bias, especially in the Kannada
cultural sphere.

The intent of the message, thanks to the group Bangalore Theatre Collective (BTC), is loud and clear, through a subtle play of emotions — sometimes rendered with gusto, and at others with a heartbreakingly bickering demeanour.

But the intent to adapt Mitrachi Goshta into the Kannada came as a suggestion to BTC group member Venkatesh Prasad, via a friend. “To be honest, I really did not plan to direct a play on this theme in the first place,” he says. “We were looking for a good play as the third production of our team, and I was reading many scripts, both from India and from the west. A friend suggested this play in Marathi, we got the English translation of it, and I started reading it. The very first time I read it, I decided that I wanted to do this play. The text was an eye-opener for all of us in many ways. It was so surprising that there was no play written in Kannada on a woman’s homosexuality in all these years! We had the sudden realisation that there is very less literature, very few movies, and very less theatre work on homosexuality in Kannada.”

Heart set on bringing the story to Kannada audiences, Venkatesh and team BTC were confronted with the question of whom to approach for the translation. “Since there was no reference material at all for such a play in Kannada, and given that we wanted to represent the issue with sensitivity, I decided to translate the play myself,’ says Venkatesh.

Team BTC went on to take relevant creative freedom in contemporising the setting of the play to a present day college story in Karnataka, taking care to nurture the script with sensitivity via consultations with LGBTQIA+ activist and editor-journalist Romal Laisram.

In the present, sitting amidst a near-half auditorium full of people at Ranga Shankara, Bangalore, Ondu Preetiya Kathe being enacted for perhaps the 19th time, I find myself empathetic and angry with the protagonist, at once. These emotions are akin to the intense love and hate I feel for an Indian hero, running around trees with his lady love, passing judgements on her if her emotions towards him are to waver. In effect, as a person who does not belong to the LGBTQIA+ community, I see no difference between homogenous and heterogeneous love. I see emotions of love take the protagonist on a high, and dump her inside a deep precipice,
in real time.

Nearly eighteen months ago, Ujwala Rao stepped into the skin of the protagonist Preethi Shenoy, handling the intensity of the latter’s evolutionary journey, and impending doom as a lesbian in love with another who chooses a male lover to embrace the accepted norm of heterosexual partnerships. At the end of 22 shows, Ujwala continues to find the experience of essaying Preethi’s character enriching. “Preethi is someone who is extremely unapologetic and obdurate. Some of the audience love her for it, and some hate her for exactly that,” she explains. “We are used to seeing a woman portrayed as being likeable and nice for the audience to empathise with her. This, I feel is a devise used to talk about women while still trying to protect the ego of the patriarchal audience. Honestly, I am tired of seeing such stories on stage. Preethi was a refreshing change in such a scenario. She challenges the audience to see her for who she is — an unabashed, audacious girl who has her flaws, but is also very sensitive and capable of holding an enormous amount of love for her people. To play Preethi was such an empowering experience for me. I don’t know how successfully I have managed to take Ujwala out of my performance, because Preethi isn’t very different from what I wish I could be in many situations.”

Supporting Preethi’s role is the often supportive and sensitive friend Ajay, essayed by the dynamic actor Shrunga BV. Talking of the challenges of playing this important character, Shrunga explains: “Ajay is a complex mix of being initially shy, then curious, helpful, selfless, patronising, moralistic, later selfish and guilty, just like most of us. He is quite a relatable character with a proper emotional arc in the play. That creates the biggest challenge, which is, not to not make it Ajay’s story! It is his closest friend Preethi’s story told from his point of view, and the focus is Preethi. The audience sees Preethi mostly the way Ajay paints her picture. If Ajay sees her love for another girl as just that, without being judgemental, the audience sees it that way too. To take up that responsibility has been quite enjoyable for me as an actor. In fact, this play has been a mirror to my own privilege, prejudices and limitations. I believe it has made me a more empathetic person.”

Lending the story depth and dimension is Vishal Patil’s role as the antagonist Vikram, who simply cannot seem to digest the fact that his girlfriend Lahiri, played by Vyjayanthi, is in love with Preethi, and having an affair with her. “Vikram’s character represents an extreme side of society. As a college going boy, he discovers his girlfriend is in a relationship with another person, and this gets him so crazy that he ruins Preethi’s life,” says Vishal. “Getting into the antagonist’s shoes, the question I asked myself was whether Vikram’s anger towards Preethi was as simple as being upset over another relationship his girlfriend was having. But I felt his anger had more to do with his male ego than about another relationship his girlfriend was having. His male ego went on to project Preethi’s habits of drinking and smoking — the same that he was into, in bad light. Vikram’s attitude is representative of many people in society. Every time I play this role, I really hope that at least a few people in the audience relate to my character, and realise how their actions could ruin someone’s life.’

Balancing the mood, creating lighter moments as dark, emotional shades take over, connecting with the grassroots, Sunil Kumar talks of his experience of keeping comic time as Ajay’s roommate Patila in a play as serious as Ondu Preetiya Kathe. “The character of Patila is a mix of a lot of emotions that reflect many layers of society. Though the scenes look like comic reliefs in a serious play, it shows the way certain people look at life with a simpler viewpoint,” he explains. “The character of the roommate in the original play is very different from what we have adapted, and this is a conscious decision. We did not want to make the play just Preethi’s story, but about people around her who represent various sections of society. Although Patila plays a comic part, he represents that section of society which is truly ignorant about homosexuality. In fact, Patila cares about his good friend Ajay, and also falls in love with the protagonist Preethi. But when he learns that Preethi is homosexual, he chooses to walk away. I found it immensely challenging to deliver timed-comedy without losing the soul of the play. Many people, who watch this play, relate to Patila’s character — they don’t have anything against homosexuals, and choose to stay ignorant about them.”

While all characters in the play have found actors who have been with the production since inception, Preethi’s love interest Lahiri, has seen many women play the part, primarily because actors were not keen on essaying lesbian characters. This is why Ujwala, who is assistant director to the production, is also Preethi. “And in playing the protagonist’s part, we made a clear choice not to sugar coat Preethi’s character to appeal to the audience. I am very happy with that choice,” she smiles.

What meets the eye is a clean; appealing set by HK Dwarakanath aka Dwarki of Rangayana and crisp production detailing. What touches the heart is compassionate and proficient acting in a Marathi story played to Kannada audiences in an endeavour to address societal intolerance for homosexuality. Well done, team Ondu Preetiya Kathe!

Venkatesh talks of how the sets and the actors came together to embody the message the play stands for. “Dwarki has been designing sets for all Rangayana plays for decades — he rarely designs sets outside of the space,” he discloses. “I approached him with great apprehension, and sent him this translation. He called from Mysore the very next day, and said he was interested in doing the sets for this play! He came down to Bangalore, met our team, and designed the sets. Given that the play spans three years with scenes in multiple locations, it was a conscious decision to keep the set simple, and emphasise more on the subject. The choice of keeping a neutral background was to make the play relevant regardless of location.”

For Sushma Rao, an integral member of BTC, Ondu Preetiya Kathe has meant a lot more than just another project. “When we started the journey, we did not imagine that we would be confronting actors, audiences and society at various levels. I had watched a production of
A Friend’s Story by AKVarious, Mumbai, which was featured in the METAwards. Our surprises came in when many of our friends who were part of the reading, were not very impressed with the subject. This is the third play by our team, and many advised us against staging it. ‘Why have yet another serious play that talks of this issue?’ ‘This might stereotype you as a team.’ ‘Is this an issue at all today?’ they asked. Reality struck us when actors refused to play the protagonist’s role. Worse still, none of these sentiments were communicated directly — we understood the undercurrents. With such gaping negativity, we were even more convinced to put the production together.”

As with any theatre group, BTC too, was hoping to stage a play that helped the team break even, if not fetch profits. But they chose the never trodden path, and made a conscious decision to go with the production. “If we had 70 people watching the play, we hoped that at least five would be sensitised towards the issue. And this has been our personal measure of success. We have, in fact, had varied responses from the audiences: ‘is this some kind of hormonal disorder?’ A friend’s mother remarked: ‘I am never ever going to stereotype my son’s relationship based on social acceptance.’ A senior audience member said: ‘I thought a lesbian love story will have vulgar scenes on stage — I was relieved this is just like any other love story.’ Bang on, we were doing what we really set out to do. Surprisingly, when we approached a few colleges to stage the play, some lecturers said: ‘what will happen if our students become like that!’ Well, we still have a long way to go. But the play has received great response in small and big towns outside Bangalore including Tiptur, Byndoor and Mysore. People loved Preethi, empathised with her, cried when she felt lonely, and cringed at Vikram’s lines. We have approached many regional festivals representatives, and they have very politely asked us whether we have any other play we’d like to stage. We changed our publicity approach from saying ‘this is a lesbian love story’ to ‘this is a love story’. Not surprisingly, we had more audiences coming in. We have learnt a lot through this production — it has been a journey we will be proud of. As a team, we are proud not because we staged the first lesbian love story in Kannada, but we have set precedence.”

Bravo, team BTC!

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