Actor and Playwright Jacob Rajan unmasked - Indian Ink Theatre Company

Actor and Playwright Jacob Rajan unmasked

By Sarah Catherall (Stuff)

When Jacob Rajan wanted to take his acclaimed play, Krishnan’s Dairy, to South Island audiences in the late 1990s, one theatre owner dismissed him outright.

The South Island, he was told, didn’t have any Indian dairies. The play about an Indian dairy owner and his arranged marriage would bomb, Rajan heard. But the Indian actor and his collaborator, Justin Lewis, scorned the advice, taking the play around South Island theatres to sell-out crowds. “Despite the skepticism, everyone loved it,” he smiles.

Sitting in a sundrenched living room in his home nestled in native bush in Wellington’s Ngaio, Rajan can look back on that moment as just one of the many gems in his theatre company’s 19-year history. With seven plays in its repertoire, he and Lewis, the Indian Ink company co-founder, use masks to tell stories, guided by a passion to create theatre that is beautiful, funny, sad and true.

This year has already been momentous. Rajan turned 50. The ink is still wet on a film script he wrote for his first play, Krishnan’s Dairy, which is being taken to the big screen by South Pacific Pictures. For the first time since he took to the stage in 1997, the charismatic actor with a string of awards to his name will watch his latest play, The Elephant Thief, from the audience. He has written himself out of the script. “We’re growing up,” smiles Rajan.

“We’re looking to our legacy. I still want to act, and we will still write plays for me to act in, but we needed a step away from that treadmill to refresh and get some new blood into the company. I’ll also have a much clearer headspace when I return.”

The master of the mask has grown in other ways, too. The plays and their themes are an insight into the issues that have been gripped him over the years. When he wrote Krishnan’s Dairy in the mid-nineties, Rajan was in his mid-twenties, and fascinated by his parents’ arranged marriage. “I started thinking about how can you quantify love? Can you say that one love is better than another? There was the idea of falling in love versus growing in love. I was bombarded these images of romantic love, and all the time, I was coming home to a marriage that was rock solid.

“For each of the plays, somewhere there will be a question. For Krishnan’s Dairy, it was, ‘How did my parents’ marriage work?’ That little spark ignites everything.”

His latest concern being acted out on stage is the state of the planet, and the world he – and Lewis – are leaving their children. On in Wellington next week, The Elephant Thief weaves comedy, music and masked characters to consider humankind’s impact on the planet. What prompted it? Media reports warning that elephants would be extinct in the wild in 50 years, while a scientist predicted that human beings would disappear in a century.

“That floored us,” says the father of three. “When you look at the world we’re leaving our kids, I’m worried. We started thinking about the idea of those elephants going. If humans disappear, who is going to miss us? Because Nature will go on. What do we do? Pretty big questions, but with typical style, we approach those with comedy.”

Rajan wrote the script for The Elephant Thief in a nondescript garage on the edge of his driveway which doubles as his office. It’s where he has penned many of his plays, and more recently, the film script. But, he confesses, “I find writing really difficult. I work with Justin but we work in different cities. Justin gives me the framework around which to be creative. He will require this scene to do this, and I will have to enter that cave alone. I will go down to the office and stare at the blank page.

“For me, it’s not the flow of inspiration, it’s just pounding out words each day. It’s just writing and rewriting. And Justin having a go, and back and forth. It’s real journeyman work.”

His inky dark eyes shine when he talks about what he loves best. Watching his words come to life during rehearsals, when the performer described by Lewis as charming and charismatic tweaks the script while donning different masks. “I have the best time trying to solve the problems on stage, and that’s a joy. It’s just fun. We spend most of the days laughing.”

Have all the plays been resounding successes? Rajan shakes his head. The Dentist’s Chair “didn’t quite work”. While it was one of Indian Ink’s biggest shows, with two musicians and four actors, it had not a dot of Indian content. The genesis of it was that the electric chair was invented by a dentist, in a play about capital punishment. “We didn’t quite crack it. We had taken the Indian flavour away. It was a bit much for the audience to think, ‘What happened to our lovely Indian characters?’.”

However, The Dentist’s Chair will get a second shot. Indian Ink has been commissioned by an American theatre production company, South Coast Repertory, to rewrite it. Rajan looks quietly excited. He’s dusting off the old script and rewriting it for an American audience. “We’re intrigued by this idea that human beings so often get it so wrong, the idea of trying to be good, and how that moral compass trips us up. It’s a huge opportunity for us.”

After writing and producing works for the stage, each one taking two years from conception to birth, writing a film was “a completely different language. At the heart, it’s the same story, but you have to think in terms of image. Film is all about the eye. Theatre is all about the ear. Thinking into that space is challenging but really enjoyable too. It took us several drafts and lots of consultation with script experts, but I think we got there”.

“We have so much more control in theatre. We book a stage and go from there. To get so much in alignment in film takes such a long time. We’ve done our bit, so it’s over to the film company now… I feel like I’m in a coma, waiting to wake up.”

Why Krishnan’s Dairy, rather than one of the others on the big screen? Rajan gazes out the window. His mother worked in a small hospital shop. “I remember as a child seeing all those lollies and the colour and the vibrancy, just the treasure trove that a dairy is. It lends itself to that visual treatment, and yet the dairy is still such a common New Zealand icon that we walk into and walk out of without much thought. If we can turn it into a world that you think of a dairy from now on that would be a great thing.”

There have been many highlights over the years. Some haven’t struck him till later. At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1999, Krishnan’s Dairy premiered with critics in the audience. On stage, Rajan thought his voice sounded awful. His guitar was out of tune. But when he went to the shop to get the review supplement the next day, the show got a five star review, a Fringe award, and was on the front page. The four-week season sold out by lunchtime. “I almost got it too easy. I thought, ‘Edinburgh’s not that big a deal’. Now I say, ‘That was extraordinary’.”

He toured The Guru of Chai and Kiss the Fish around the United States to standing ovations last year, and also took the first one to Kerala, where his parents hail from. Next year, Indian Ink will celebrate its 20th birthday with a revival of one of the early shows – possibly The Pickle King, a love story set in a Wellington hotel, featuring a heart surgeon who works as a porter. Debuting a decade ago, Rajan talks about the issues still prevailing today. “If you hop into any taxi in Auckland you find you’ve brought the average IQ down.”

Now one of a trilogy of Indian Ink plays studied in schools, he says: “It would be nice to bring it to the younger generations.”

Rajan was four when he emigrated with his parents from Malaysia. They had big plans for him to chase a medical career, but the only time he has picked up a stethoscope was as a doctor on Shortland Street. “Fair enough. I feel that with my children too. This is not an easy life. I’ve been really fortunate in my collaboration with Justin, because Indian Ink is now probably one of the most successful independent theatre companies that has been around this long. But the pressure is intense. This country is so small. We can’t sit down with one show for two years like you could in London.”

Of his work, Lewis says: “Jacob loves audiences and is driven by a desire to entertain audiences but also to move them emotionally. He is a master at playing multiple roles and as a writer this translates to an ability to create characters that are fresh, full and profoundly human.”

When asked to name his favourite play, Rajan shakes his head. “I can’t do it. They’re my children. You can’t have favourites.

“I love acting with other actors, but I also love the solo show. Guru of Chai has taken me all around America. Kiss the Fish has stunning Balinese masks. And this new baby, which is so fresh we’re excited to see how the audience likes it. That’s the unknown thing. You make this baby and you fall in love with it, but you wait for everyone else to say, ‘It’s gorgeous’.”