Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first woman photojournalist, died earlier today. The last time I saw her was in 2010, when the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts organised a retrospective of her photographs at Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art. Vyarawalla came in a wheelchair. If you bought a print (they weren’t wildly expensive) and went up to her, then she’d sign it for you. I remember watching her patiently and determinedly writing her name on each print that was held out to her for a signature. It was obvious that even the act of writing her name exhausted her (she was 95 or 96 at the time) but she didn’t say no to anyone. Her handwriting was incredible. It looked like printed calligraphy, particularly because she was using a black marker.
I found out about Vyarawalla’s passing during the interval of “OK Tata Bye Bye“, written by a young-ish woman playwright named Purva Naresh. Naresh’s play is part of the Writer’s Bloc festival that’s on in Mumbai right now. Anyone who clicked on that link (it goes to a YouTube video), apologies if you don’t speak Hindi. Naresh’s play is partly in Hindi and partly in English, but that “promo” for “OK Tata Bye Bye” is entirely in Hindi. Naresh says that the play is about caste-based prostitution in India and the preconceived notions of outsiders. In the interval, while I scrolled down my Twitter feed, a gentleman sitting in the same row as me groaned, “Why do chicks always write shit like this, yah?” He then stood up and said to his companions, “Chal. Let’s go and get some booze,” at which point it was gently pointed out to him that this was the interval, not the end of the play. While this man was clearly not the most intelligent or articulate creature of our times, I thought he had a point. “OK Tata Bye Bye” fulfilled all the clichéd expectations that an audience tends to have when it’s a woman writing: infidelity, sentimentality, a touch of autobiography, soapbox moments, and a douchebag male character. Pre-interval, it rambled. Post-interval, in an effort to introduce twists to the tale, the plot completely gave up on logic. The direction was unexciting. The acting was good. The writing was a disappointment to me since I’ve seen Naresh’s “Abodhana” and it was an utterly beautiful little play. “OK Tata Bye Bye”, in comparison, was weak. It’s characters were flat. The relationships weren’t particularly well-charted. Most importantly, the story didn’t make sense.
“OK Tata Bye Bye” is about a couple, Pooja and Mitch, who come to a village to make a documentary. This village is just off the highway and known to be a place where women of a particular caste are traditionally prostitutes. As they try to get one of the women, Seema, to talk on camera about being a prostitute, the audience learns Pooja and Mitch are not a happy couple. Mitch has Pooja do all the hard work and orders her around. She protests occasionally and when she does, he’s charming enough to distract her. (I’d have boxed his ears, but then that’s me.) Also, the two of them haven’t had any sexual relations in a while, which is something that seems to make Pooja insecure about having Mitch roam around freely in a village full of prostitutes. After much coaxing and false starts, Pooja is able to get Seema to talk on camera. The same day, another prostitute by the name of Roopa (she’s Seema’s best friend and a quiet one shown as very unwilling to become a prostitute; a stark contrast to the ebullient Seema who declares she enjoys being a prostitute) gives Mitch a candid interview. Having got what they wanted, Pooja and Mitch are about to leave the village when they learn Seema has been arrested because the police think she’s spilled controversial information in her video interview. Pooja makes Mitch hand over the both Roopa and Seema’s interview tapes. Mitch breaks up with Pooja because she values the prostitutes over the interview tapes. Soon it is revealed that Roopa, who isn’t technically a prostitute because she hasn’t had any clients so far, planned this whole thing. Roopa had Seema arrested so that Pooja would hand over the tapes. Somehow Roopa not only knew that Mitch would give the tapes but she also figured that he would break up with Pooja if she insisted they give the tapes to get Seema out of police custody. Not just that, she did all this to strike up a relationship with Mitch, in the hope that he would take her to London with him. The play ends with Seema leaving with Pooja and Roopa leaving with Mitch. Because men are like that. They just go toodling off behind any woman who will have sex with them.
While “OK Tata Bye Bye” had a few moments, most of the play was, to me, preachy, mawkish indulgence. Roopa being the Machiavelli didn’t add up and in any case, that whole sub-plot happened on the fringes of the play’s central action, which was Seema being peppy and clever with Pooja while Pooja and Mitch grappled with the fact that they don’t have much sex. Mitch ogled at Seema first and then traipsed off with Roopa without any explanation (paging Dr. Freud…). I have a vague suspicion Naresh sees herself in Pooja’s character. That’s always a dangerous thing to do unless you’ve got the balls to be painfully honest, which Naresh definitely wasn’t and this made the play feel contrived. Of course, given the rousing applause that the play received at various points, I’m clearly on my own. As I watched it, part of me wondered whether I was expecting too much of Naresh and Indian theatre in general because “OK Tata Bye Bye” is better than a lot of crap that is I’ve seen on stage here, both in terms of writing and direction. But it’s still not good. Is it unfair to compare it to off-Broadway theatre? Is it unreasonable to expect that the scripts will be as well-written, regardless of the production budgets?
The other part of me kept thinking of how watching Naresh’s play felt like being stabbed with oestrogen shots every few minutes. I remembered Vyarawalla’s photography. One of the best-known images of Vyarawalla herself is at a photo-op with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Vyarawalla is the only woman in the row of photographers and she’s angrily trying to get someone out of her shot. She is unmistakably feminine but her concerns are that of any photographer, man or woman. Vyarawalla’s photographs aren’t all brilliant. Some are; many capture priceless and historic moments; none of them advertise her gender. Once you know the photographer was a woman, you may feel there’s a feminine gaze but it’s not blatant. Vyarawalla’s emphasis was on making sure each photograph had a narrative contained in the frame. Her focus was on the story. Of course the work of a photojournalist (particularly in the era when the field was emphatically male-dominated) is different from that of a contemporary playwright, but I can’t help wishing Naresh’s work had the same subtlety, restraint and fidelity for the story.