Character – Where Imagination Comes To Life

I thought that I was meeting Kutisar for an interview, but it turned out that it was actually Shah Jahan, pretending to be Gobi, dressed up as Jake. Luckily I had some questions left over from last time we spoke, so I was able to ask him about the various characters that we’ve gotten to know over the years at Indian Ink.

Actor Jacob Rajan sits as Emperor Shah Jahan wearing a blue half face mask in front of colourful backgroundHow does the process of character creation happen? Are they based on real people or are they completely made up? Or both?

It’s a bit of both.

Obviously with Paradise, Kutisar was an existing character. And I guess the experience of Mrs. Krishnan’s Party gave us a window into how great that is. When you have a character from a previous play, you wonder what happened to them and imagine their past and future. And because I’m so familiar with Kutisar from Guru of Chai, there’s so much of who he is already embedded in me. And after that we were just playing with putting him into a different city or making up a backstory for him about his past, which I don’t think we everreally thought about before. But certainly now with Paradise that fills in a whole other section of his life. Seeing him as an older man and thinking ‘is that what happened to him after Guru’? So that gives a great kind of just existing three dimensional person that I know really well.

But it’s often the other characters, the parts around the main role which are best to bring out the conflict around the central character.  So if we’ve got Kutisar, we think ‘who’s the best kind of antagonist for this guy?’,  ‘who are the forces that he’s going to come up with that are going to test his own character?’. We could put characters in interesting situations, but they don’t really advance the story.  A good story is the kind of spiritual transformation of a character. So, they have a flaw. And then by the end of it, they’ve either overcome that flaw or they’ve succumbed to that flaw. That, in a nutshell, is what the story is.

And I say that with this amazing kind of sense of wisdom, but that’s only really come to me in this play. So now, when we go to rewrite this script, we’re actually focusing not on just how interesting the situation is, but does the situation genuinely test the character’s flaw? And it’s more than one character as well. We have a character in Kutisar’s history that we think might be the hero of the story in the past, which is really interesting. So although Kutisar presents as the hero, he’s the hero in the present, in the room right now, but when he goes into the story in the past, somebody else takes over and it’s their story and he’s a witness to it. So, you get a twofer.

Do you come up with characters then the storyline, or is it the other way round?

Well, it sounds like a cop out, but they are totally interlinked. You can’t have character without having plots. Because what is the plot but the character coming up against a situation where they are tested? I think it’s dangerous to just write a story and then throw characters into it. I think that the story design is such that the character is put into extremes so that they make choices. And those choices are what we’re interested in, ‘why did they go that way?’. And that’s to do with their character. To create something that I think is satisfying, you need to see that change. And for that change to happen, you need to have a plot that facilitates that change, and I think that’s what we enjoy.

Does the way you write characters change when you know you’re going to be the one playing them? Is it easier/harder?

I give myself all of the best lines.

I’m being silly, but at the same time I think when I’m writing for more than me on stage, but I’m going to be on stage I am probably subconsciously making my character very clear. Obviously I try to make them all have great lines, but I probably tend to favour my own natural unfortunate bias. In a solo show there’s still an element where the central character (Kutisar) is the funny guy, and the other characters are a bit more normal. But within this show, there’s also some very eccentric characters who will have moments in what we call major and minor. So within a scene, somebody will take the major role within the scene, so even though someone like Kutisar is telling the story and in every scene as a kind of witness to the show, they take a back seat. So you’re kind of changing where the spotlight is within the dynamic of the scene, so that everybody gets a chance to shine.

Sonia Ambhardi and her henchman, Benito, characters from The Elephant Thief

Do you have any favourite characters? 

They’re all sort of like children, you know, you love them all. And you love them all for different reasons. So, to actually say there’s one favourite feels a bit yucky. You can invest so much into each one. Because I’m often performing the solo shows, I can’t write a character that I don’t like to play.  In fact, one of my favorite character relationships was in a play that I didn’t perform in, which was The Elephant Thief. And it was down to the actors, Nisha and Paddy, who played the classic villain and henchmen roles, and their relationship was such a joy. I love those characters, and I didn’t even play them. But for myself, I can’t write a character that I don’t love. Especially if they’re a baddie as well. That’s it, that’s even more delicious, I love them.

Is there a character you relate to the most?

There’s a sense that, and this is going to sound very ‘zen’, but there’s a sense that I’m embedded in all of them, and that the characters are in the extremes because that’s what we’re paying to watch.  We’re not watching a reality show or something, even though that’s extreme, and there’s this sense that when I’m writing them, I’m turning the volume up on certain bits of me. If there was an overarching kind of thing that Justin brings, it’s a kind of sensibility, but for me it’s mischief. It’s in characters like Kutisar and in any character that’s outrageous or pushing the boundaries of taste. That’s my delight. So I relate to any character that does that within the play.

I love that idea of just being a little bit naughty.

Is there a character that you think the audience relates to the most?

Well you see these characters, and because we have a masked background, there’s an element of caricature to them. So they’re a bit larger than life. And so you start by laughing at them. And then the trick within the play is to build a sense of empathy from the audience. So you put them into situations where you start to kind of feel, feel for them and their plight. They seem kind of ridiculous to start with, but along the journey that you take the audience on, they really invest in these beings as real. We’re asking the audiences to imagine that this is real. And if you can do that, by the end of the story you’ll love them. Then the audience put themselves into the character, and that’s the trick. We enter as individuals into the theater, and then we leave as an audience, and we take these characters with us.

Which character would be most likely to become prime minister/take over the world?

Well, that’s the character that I talked about, which I didn’t play, Sonia Ambhardi, who in The Elephant Thief was the Prime Minister of India. She was the archetype of a politician. She’s not going to be a great Prime Minister, but she will be one because she’s ruthless, and utterly about power. So in terms of a fit, she will get there. And I’m not saying I’d vote for her, but she would definitely get there.

Jake made me promise that there were no more questions after this one, so I left him to it. But I did actually have one more. How come when you’re dreaming sometimes you view yourself in the third person? Like how do you know what the back of your own head looks like? Wait, am I the only one that does that?