Actor Jacob Rajan reflects on Advances, frustrations during 20 years at Indian Ink

By Dani McDonald (Stuff)

If Indian actors are to make a mark on New Zealand theatre, they need more Indian writers providing Indian roles, a director says.

Jacob Rajan, co-founder of one of New Zealand theatre’s most successful theatrical exports Indian Ink, is celebrating 20 years of being in the industry.

But those two decades haven’t always been easy, and finding Indian actors to fill roles has sometimes meant importing them from Australia.

“I think it’s hard anyway, it’s such a tiny country – four million people is the size of Melbourne – especially in theatre, it’s really hard…and the TV industry is small. It’s always going to be hard, regardless of your ethnicity,” Rajan says. “But if you are Indian, yeah you could be flavour of the month on Shortland St, for about a month, but after that, what do you do? And it’s more about the writers really. There’s not many people writing for ethnic-specific roles. Even though when I was at drama school, they were saying, ‘oh the world’s moving towards colour-blind casting, it’s not going to matter what race you are’, that’s never been my experience.”

Rajan was the first Indian actor to graduate from Toi Whakaari in 1993. After graduating, he started his own theatre company with business partner Justin Lewis. In 1997, they wrote Krishnan’s Dairy which won New Zealand Production of the Year and the Fringe First Award in Edinburgh two years later.

“If you are a writer writing a contemporary European family, you’re not going to stick an Indian in there and not justify it in some way. People aren’t just going to go, ‘oh well – there’s an Indian in that family, that’s cool’. No they’re not, they’re going to want to know why. Unless you’ve got people writing with that kind of sensibility, of including lots of different diversity in their writing, then it’s not going to happen. At the same time, I don’t want people just willy nilly writing roles for Indians without any sensitivity to that culture. It’s actually about having people who can write, who are Indian writers, writing from that perspective – of which I am one.”

But Rajan says while the performing arts are important, so is financial success, especially to an immigrant family.

“When you’re an immigrant, being the son of immigrants – I was supposed to be a doctor,” he says.

“My parents moved 10,000 miles away from their home and you have to justify that in terms of success, and success for my parents is money, and money is not the arts. That’s why you still don’t see that many Indian graduates streaming out of Toi Whakaari. I think a community needs a while to establish before it has the luxury of reflecting back on themselves. Most of the time, it’s just head down trying to make a living. That’s what you are consumed by and that’s what you want for your children, for them to be financially successful.”

Rajan’s parents came from Kerala in southern India, known for its palm-lined beaches and backwaters, as well as a massive amount of highly-qualified exports – doctors, accountants, scientists.

“It’s a very literate part of India and education has a huge emphasis.”

His father was working as a psychiatrist in Malaysia but, following a political uprising, he was keen to move to a place known for its stability and peace – New Zealand.

Here, he and his wife brought up three boys. One is a scientist, the other works in quarantine at Sydney Airport – while Jacob, who gained a science degree in microbiology, would sneak out at nights to film and drama clubs, became a postie and then signed up for drama school.

Celebrating their 20 year anniversary, Indian Ink has remade its 2002 The Pickle King, their most-awarded play and one of three Indian Ink plays published by Victoria University and taught as part of the NZ Secondary Schools Drama curriculum and at universities.

Despite the play being 15 years old, themes of the injustices of immigration and the plight of natural environments and people at the hands of big business are still highly relevant to today’s society.

But a change in The Pickle King’s love story between two female characters reflects how far New Zealand society has come (something that ironically came about due to the lack of Indian male actors).

“We didn’t have any male Indian actors that we thought could do the part that I had originally done,” he says.

“We did some market research, especially within my Indian community. I thought it would be a big deal, but they said ‘absolutely not’.

“[They said] ‘It’s something we are dealing with in the Indian community’. That’s the function of theatre – to actually put these things out there.

“What was lovely when I saw the first rehearsal, was it was really moving. The love story actually snuck up on me. I didn’t see it coming because it wasn’t written as a heterosexual guy trying to write a lesbian love story, it was just a heterosexual guy that changed the hes to shes and found out that, actually, two people falling in love is the same as two people falling in love.”