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LIMBO – A theatre screening by Manish Gandhi

LIMBO – A theatre screening by Manish Gandhi

Review by Helen Cusack O’Keeffe

Filming a play is no simple exercise: the performance necessarily targets the physical audience in the theatre space and though they may be aware of the camera’s presence, it is very much a secondary point of their focus, a fly on the wall.

Here, the stage is almost exclusively shot via a wide-angle point of view, thus though the subject distance is largely unvaried, the sense of theatrical performance is preserved due to the beauty of the lighting and colour choices, plus the powerful quality of the text in its complete, live form. The addition of titles and scene descriptors help to clarify the narrative, as inevitably some parts have had to be cut.

8That said, Limbo the cinematic experience manages to absorb the viewer both visually and thematically. The original project was begun in response to the suicide of a teenager whom Gandhi had known from his schooldays, while he happened to be acting in a television movie based on an incident involving another teenager in Mumbai. That year, among India’s 15-29 age group, the World Health Organization projected India to have the highest international suicide rate, and Gandhi was struck by a recurring sense of ‘not being prepared for the world’, a feeling he himself experienced as a teenager. He became involved with a group of acting aspirants from Mumbai, all under 25, exploring themes from Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening. They began to study German expressionism, where performers were encouraged to respond to an artwork of their choice, in any medium of their choice. Limbo was conceived collaboratively with these performers (most of whom were stepping onto a stage for the first time) and Gandhi during the course of a month long theatre residency in Kamshet; playwright Vikram Phukan responded to the rehearsals and created a script, adding his own experiences in Delhi during the early 90s when the Babri Masjid mosque was demolished by the forces that now rule the country. Thus, completely cut off from the rest of the world, the performers gave not only their time, but stories from their childhoods in order to make the play happen. Many of them had tackled abuse, prejudice and injustice from their parents, teachers and relatives, experiences that were included as montages in the play and which is evidenced by their personal investment on stage.

A major challenge with the project was lack of finances. An online crowd funding campaign was set up to produce the play and a large share of the funding came from abroad. The performers from the play went on to become established writers and actors. This project has been selected by the American theatre company Teatro Vida to devise “Limbo Latino” using the same process.

10The play’s cultural impact in India has been at the vanguard of protest against the Saffronization of the Indian education system by the right-wing Hindu nationalists (Hindutva), many premier institutions have seen their students adopt strike tactics (the most recent one ending just last month at the Film and Television Institute of India – Gandhi’s alma mater).

Saffronization (referencing the saffron robes worn by Hindu sannyasis) is a term adopted by critics of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s policies that seek to recall and glorify ancient Hindu cultural history. These have entailed altering the national curriculum and even rewriting history books with the intention of reviving the holy traditions of India and the dharmic regligions. This may appear to be a bold revolt against western cultural hegemony, cleansing away the vestiges of the old colonial powers, but as Limbo’s Saffronist teachers show, the oppressive elements in Hindutva ideology manifest yet another hegemony: a saffron-coloured one that seeks to exclude foreign influences or non-Hindu points of view.


7Against this context, Limbo kicks and writhes – often literally, with large doses of movement, dance and expressive dynamism on stage. Created in 2012 and set in the playground, classrooms, sick room, and hostel of a leading co-ed school in Delhi in the 1990s, the school-uniformed performers waltz, circle, parade like wind-up dolls, interact in Hindi and in English. Chastised by their elders for largely trivial transgressions – the wrong skirt length, inferior blood lineage, the darkness of their skin, propagating the use of the word “Fuck” – they struggle to make sense of their universe and to surmount the limits imposed on them. Critique of the caste system is implicit and handled with powerful irony when a literature teacher urges sympathy for the suffering of a fictional character, before he proceeds to torment a girl in regard to the darkness of her skin. In this universe, birth circumstances define your fate to the narrowest degree. Choices are made for you: “Here, everything is pre-decided,” announces a stentorian loudspeaker in Hindi. At times, the limits of existence – temporal, geographical and social – materialize via a long white cloth that becomes a mountain range, water around the poetic shipwrecks of people as rocks, and later, the skin of the Ravana tyrant – a living pyramid of performers fronted by a terrifyingly greedy mask – when he catches a boy in the wrong place: “You have entered the girls’ hostel!” bellows Ravana’s gleeful voice in Hindi, lassoing the rebel and hauling him in to be eaten.

In India, white is the colour of mourning, of death, and resistance to its authority appears futile. Hope is exemplified by the blood-red balloons carried by the students, like thought bubbles quietly accompanying them.

“Life requires a certain kind of patience” when you are cast into a mould and you cannot get rid of the trivial things that alter your understanding, shape your beliefs. Escape may come via immigration or mental illness – a sort of freedom but a terrible one.

4Still, these students are normal adolescents with typical preoccupations pertaining to self-discovery and awareness of sexuality in particular; their cultural landscape includes Tom Cruise, Narula burgers and Baba Sehgal’s music; their bickering arises over the myriad factors that divide them – social status, ethnicity, religion – and not all of them know what sulphuric acid is. The three main protagonists are young men: Aseem, Zubair and Neale, and their desultory faux adult conversations portray not only their personal stories, but offer commentaries on the institutional process with its post-Colonial, pan-Indian values. Zubair is Kashmiri, a Muslim, and he attracts a mild mocking envy from Aseem: “See, I don’t have a gang. I’m not in the jaat gang, or the north-east clique. No one touches their boys. You’re Kashmiri, so you are a protected species anyway…everybody leaves you alone. I wish I was in some minority group. Then I wouldn’t be copying Chemistry notebooks.” At one point, Zubair wistfully praises the hijab, in what seems like an attempt to highlight his own cultural difference under the uniform; perhaps a female character’s views on veil-wearing would not have gone amiss in regard to this topic, as elsewhere we get the authoritarian strictures on female dress within the institution, but no verbal response from the girl whose skirt defies the prescribed length – mirroring the lack of female voices in misogynist societies.

Regarding the play’s cultural influences, which to European eyes may seem very mixed, Gandhi explained: “The montages with students acting like adults were staged in a street theatre format. A lot of movement work was drawn from the Indian traditional martial art form of Kalari. Some movement was also derived from postures and movements of animals and birds extracted from Chhau dance. The mask work was inspired from Kathakali.”

Music was used to dramatic effect, at times reminiscent of Emir Kusturica’s frenzied crowd scenes where a strong sense of collective emotion comes through.

6A last word from Gandhi, justifying the theatre to film process: “While one may never replace the unique experience of being in an actual theatre, watching a performance recorded in the presence of a live audience can be regarded as an experience of its own. Audience is one of the creators for any theatre performance; our intention was to preserve the sense of what it was like to watch the play when it was being staged, so that the collective experience of all audiences remained consistent.”

LIMBO was screened numerous times at Club Rayé in Paris this November, in partnership with Grace Teshima; a few more screenings are scheduled in Germany and Switzerland this December.

Post Script

The attacks on Paris of Friday November 13th occurred shortly after this article was written. The importance of challenging fundamentalist mindsets and their destructive impacts seems to grow increasingly vital with each new atrocity and with the increasing desperation amongst populations under ultra-extremist oppression such as the Syrians, Kurds, North Koreans, Palestinians and Saudi Arabian peoples face today.

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