When the second wave of the pandemic struck the country last year, Lakshay Chawla, then a student at Drama School Mumbai (DSM), was pursuing an internship at Adishakti, Auroville (a theatre research lab and performance group). He could not complete the internship and had to return to his home in Delhi.
Chawla, who workers as a freelance actor in Mumbai, like many others, watched the crises unfold at close quarters. The month of April 2021 got etched in our memories as a time of turmoil and loss. Chawla was looking for a means of expression for the emotional build up. Shortly after the second wave had passed, he began collaborating with other theatre practitioners and started writing. Five months later, a play titled Beds emerged, set in a covid-19 ward.
On a phone call, he is quick to correct us that the pandemic serves only as a backdrop and isn’t the subject of his play. “While we did want to talk about the collective experience of crisis, the story is a classic drama,” says the 28-year-old, who has made his debut as a writer and director.
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A fashion designer from South Mumbai is infected with covid-19 and is admitted to a hospital. There, she crosses paths with a young food delivery executive, who has also contracted the virus. They develop an unlikely friendship, with death and suffering looming in the backdrop. In such a scenario, they confront the subjects of mortality, identity and relationships.
Choosing two protagonists whose lives wouldn’t intersect like this under normal circumstances allowed Chawla to question class and privilege in times of crisis. “While we were all facing hardships, the pandemic was harder on the poor,” he says, while adding that he also draws from the migrant displacement crisis in a thematic manner.
He investigates the ethical questions that people had to face during the second wave. Whose life is more important when resources are dwindling—is it the young man who has decades ahead of him or the senior woman, who has a few years, albeit of a fulfilling life, left. “Last year, these questions came to us in the form of oxygen cylinders and hospital beds. How does one choose who lives and who doesn’t? And what does this say about the morality of our society?” asks Chawla. It is these questions that informed the writing of Beds.
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The play, which was first staged at Studio Safdar in Delhi in the month of January, has now made its way to Mumbai. Chawla has also directed the play and tells us that the form is realistic and doesn’t rely on any stylisation. “It’s as if the story is unfolding in front of you in real-time,” he says.
Chawla’s Delhi show featured a senior actor, Anumita Sen, who brought her own experience and interpretation to the role. The Mumbai show will see Sharmila Velaskar Kadne essay the role.
For actor and stage manager Rishab Kanti this was an interesting aspect to the play. “Having worked with youth theatre groups and others who were full of youngsters, we had a senior actor play a senior character. I haven’t worked with one before. Youth theatre groups tend to cast a younger actor for the role,” he says.
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One asks Chawla about the morality of pandemic art. He admits he’s put a lot of thought into it. “I wanted to be sure I wasn’t ‘using’ covid-19 to tell a story. The story is about two people who meet under extraordinary circumstances, which in this case is covid-19,” he explains.
Kanti, who plays a ward boy in Beds and came on board shortly before the Mumbai show, says he was wary for an instant and wanted to read the script to ensure the credibility of the play. “I asked myself if we were taking people back to the traumatic time. But I found that the script dealt with these triggers with tenderness. It focused on hope and that’s something we could all do with right now,” he says.
Beds will play at Studio Tamaasha, Mumbai, on 19 February at 7 pm and 8.30 pm