Putting contemporary social issues at centrestage, Rashma N Kalsie’s play Melbourne Talam tries to capture how three Indian immigrants assimilate in Melbourne. It also becomes the first Indian play to debut at the MTC.
It took Rashma N Kalsie three years to write Melbourne Talam, the first Indian play ever to make its debut at the prestigious Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) this May. In writer terms, plays don’t happen overnight. ‘It is collaborative, it has to go on the floor and tested – again and again,” says Kalsie. But now that her project is seeing the light of the MTC, this India-born playwright who has trained with the likes of Mahesh Dattani, a celebrated director and playwright of India, believes this is a big step forward for Indians who are in the field of theatre here in Victoria.
Talam, a Sanskrit word, means beat or rhythm. The play’s tagline, “You have to time it right. If you follow the beat of the city, your life never goes off-key,” is an insight into the rhythm of the play. Talam becomes the central metaphor in the struggles of three protagonists who come from three different cities of India as they try to fit into the pace of the city. Quite literally then, Melbourne Talam follows these three people who spot each other in a crowded city station and miss their train. As they wait, they reflect on their respective lives in India until a sudden and calamitous event changes their lives and their future in Australia.
Kalsie says the play is very close to reality and drawn from real life observations and experiences, including her own. “As an immigrant when I came in first, I had a few-months old baby and I had to share a house with a bunch of students, so I have seen what all students go through. My brother too came here as a student, I know how hard it was for us to send him here.”
So there are three protagonists who come to Australia on different visas — the boy from Punjab on a student visa, the Telegu Brahmin professional from Hyderabad on a 457 work visa, and the girl from Delhi on a spousal visa. “Their problems and their struggles are universal. Money is always tight, our values are at conflict and accidents are more tragic here. Loneliness is something we all deal with here and accept it as part of life. The play is inspired by real-life stories including a suicide by an Indian student. Some Indians do well here but assimilation comes at a price. And I truly believe we never stop being Indian and we never quite become Australian. My big message through this play is: There’s no shame in going back if things don’t go well for you,” says Kalsie.
As the story unfolds, you get to get discover who is ‘happy outside’, or who is finding it hard to fit into the talam of the city. Like the lessons in music, you have to time in right; if you miss a beat, your talam goes off, explains Kalsie, adding, “It’s about finding your own talam in the city. And it could be any city – Chicago, New York or Mumbai. It’s the same people. We just get used to the place in the city we live in.”
Kalsie’s play delves into social issues but it is also laced in humour. She hopes her story is optimistic and easily recognisable by the many immigrants who make up Melbourne.
To its credit, Melbourne Talam has for the first time in the history of the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) made it to the playlists on the syllabus of grade 11 drama students. That means schools are already booking shows and the play is being published by Currency Press, a major publisher of plays. The students will be reading the scripts, watching the play and holding pre and post show discussions.
That for Kalsie is an added incentive. “It means we are sensitizing youngsters to what immigrants go through. It is very easy to bully them on the road, to laugh at their accents but once you know where they are coming from and how hard it is for us to make out what is going on or understand the conversation, we will learn to participate in the conversation.”
Kalsie, 47, is not new to theatre and the arts. She shot into the limelight when she was asked to participate in a playwrights’ workshop led by the renowned playwright, Mahesh Dattani, in 1998 in Delhi. The workshop was sponsored by India Habitat Centre and TAG, a theatre company to select and train 15 playwrights from across India. A lecture series on Natyashastra, an ancient text of performing arts, by Dr. Bharat Gupt, initiated her inquiry into the ancient Indian dramatic tradition.
In Australia, Kalsie says she had to get her footing right and understand what was going on. In 2012 she applied for grants and got support from the Council. Thus she staged her first play The Lost Dog in 2012 at Dandedong as part of the Indian Diaspora Dramatics Association. The story unfolds in a cafe on the Great Ocean Road where two Indian boys, an old Aussie couple and a bunch of teenagers run into a lost dog. While the old Australian couple grapple with a fast changing Australia, the Indian boys are debating if Australia can ever be home to them. Enter two happily drunk Australian boys and the play turns even funnier. The Lost Dog explores the broad issues of human displacement, alienation, identity crisis and racial biases.
In 2014, she developed the play further, found professional actors and staged it again in Dandedong. By then she had found her niche.
Kalsie’s resilience is striking as in 2013 she became an Ambassador on MTC Connect program, an initiative of the MTC and Multicultural Arts Victoria since 2013. That gave her a window of opportunity to showcase her work at the MTC Neon Festival where she had a successful reading of her play Melbourne Talam in 2015.
It was a breakthrough for Kalsie who got to collaborate with MTC literary director Chris Mead who formed part of the development guiding in dramatology. “The play itself had a long development with the actors who also developed it on the stage. There were little changes that kept coming up. Sometimes what works in the page does not come out well on the stage. I had to see that it was collaborative.”
This May when Melbourne Talam hits the MTC, it will be the first Indian play to be screened in the 200 years of theatre history in Australia, claims Kalsie. “It’s not just about me. I think this play is a big step forward for the Indian community and Indians who are in this field. Now there are more and more aspirants of second generation Indians who want to become actors or writers. Very few first generation immigrant Indians sit down and pursue arts because it doesn’t pay anything. You only try to make money to pay the bills when you come here as a first generation immigrant. So very few artists immigrate and first-hand immigrant stories are only told by the second or third generation. Besides, there are not enough plays or roles for Indians, which is why Indians have not broken into the MTC yet. If they are doing a Macbeth they are not obviously going to cast an Indian. And as for writers, it takes a lot of confidence because you have to sell 15000 tickets on a main stage show. “
For Kalsie, the feat of having produced an Indian play for the first time is the most remarkable thing right now. She is positive all theatre lovers will love Melbourne Talam.
There is also preliminary talk of MTC exploring Indian markets. “We are trying to work out venues and see how it will work financially. So they might want to take Melbourne Talam to India.”
In her experience, Kalsie admits there is not much money in theatre. “I am told just a few playwrights in Melbourne make an earning through theatre. However, I can’t think of any other way of living, this is all that I do, I can’t do anything else,” she confesses, adding, “I love dialogues, I think it comes to me naturally. I am flexible though as I have been through the process long enough.”
For the future, Kalsie has a few projects in India up her sleeve. “I am workshopping and rehearsing a bilingual play that has been crafted on the format of Prahasana (farce) which is one of the genres or Dasarupaks as prescribed in Natyashastra. The public reading is on 10th December at the India Habitat Center, Delhi. I have also been commissioned by The Mask, a Chennai based NGO, to write a play for a fund raising event.”
Kalsie happily shuttles between India and Australia “because at the end of the day, I cannot tell 500 stories about Australian Indians. I need to keep creating more stories and be between two continents.” Perhaps it is a way of also pushing the boundaries that theatre can do.
By Indira Laisram