REVIEWS, INTERVIEWS & THE EXPERIENCE OF DIRECTING
CAST & DIRECTOR
Parminder Nagra, Rahul Bose, TNM, Nitin Ganatra, Harvey
Virdi, Vinny Dhilon
A swift and shocking rape is at the heart of this play, written
and directed at the Haymarket Studio by the author of the original
screenplay, Timeri N Murari. Sita, a young village girl kidnapped
for prostitution on her wedding eve, escapes only to be violated
as she tries to journey home. She is befriended by a travelling
actor dressed as a woman, who coaches her in dressing and behaving
like a man to get her revenge.
Shakespearean elements of cross-dressing and the exploration of
sexual identity sit easily in an Indian context where love has
nothing to do with marriage and sex has little to do with love.
And despite the centrality of the rape, it is a funny and tender
play in parts.
Bollywood actor Rahul Bose gives a wry, beautifully arch performance
as Laksmi, the would-be great artist, and Parminder Nagra movingly
portrays the abject terror of a child, the growing sensuality
of a woman and the absurd posturing of a man.
Sometimes, as dusty day changes to ominous night, you could be
watching a timeless Indian folk tale on Kamini Gupta's spare and
evocative set. But 20th century reality is ever-present in the
revving of motorbikes and headlights of passing cars, and in the
jeans-clad rapist (all the more chilling for the circling, silent
hand-springs he performs before the assault).
The supporting cast of Vinny Dhillon, Nitin Ganatra and Harvey
Virdi create a colourful microcosm of Indian society, further
authenticated by Paul Jacob's original score. The Square Circle;
Theatre review Leicester.by Pat
Ashworth for The Stage.
Timeri Murari’s tale of gender
roles and preconceptions which won acclaim on the big screen is
now making its world stage premiere at the Haymarket. It follows
the story of Sita, an illiterate Indian villager, who is kidnapped
on the eve of her marriage, escapes but is raped trying to find
her way home. She is befriended by a transvestite who earns his
living as a travelling entertainer and together they make the
journey back to Sita’s home – he dressed as a woman, she as the
man for her own safety. What is entertaining for British theatre
is undoubtedly a challenging and controversial one for Indian
culture, as cross-dressing men, a harsh questioning of gender
roles within Indian society and the appalling treatment of woman
as submissive objects are not subjects to be dealt with lightly.
Murari manages to create a pacy story which is full of humour
and pathos without treating his issues irreverently.
Indian film star Rahul Bose excels as the cross-dressing Lakshmi/Lakshman,
womanly without being effeminate yet always maintaining a hint
of maleness, and Parminder Nagra’s Sita blossoms with increasing
maturity as she struggles to encompass the masculinity she despises
in her quest for revenge on her attacker and a way home. - Lizz
Brain, LEICESTER MERCURY.
THE GUARDIAN interview
by Chris Arnot.
Timeri N. Murari’s theatrical
version of his controversial film, THE SQUARE CIRCLE, which might
shatter a few illusions about the ‘homeland’, opens this week.
Gang rape and transvestism are featured. ‘This is the real India,
not the version put out by Bollywood,’ Murari says. ‘This is the
India where women are casually molested and most men are male
Murari has flown in from Madras, grateful to Vayu Naidu for giving
him the chance to direct his work in the way that he intended,
rather than the way it was treated in Bollywood. ‘She’s obviously
a kindred spirit and we both know that in the theatre the writer
has control,’ he says over a drink in the Haymarket bar. He’s
a former journalist – a Guardian man full of entertaining stories
of old Fleet Street. But he’s a serious writer too, with 10 novels
to his name and a burning desire to erase the memory of director
Amol Palekar’s treatment of the film.
The Script examines the relationship between an itinerant actor
who dresses up as a woman and a young village girl persuaded to
dress up as a man for her own protection after she had been abducted
and raped. Eventually, they become lovers. Not a typical Bollywood
movie, then. The miracle is that Murari managed to get it produced
at all by a film industry where screen sex is usually confined
to a gyrating navel in a see-through saree. ‘My script is about
sexual identity,’ he says. ‘How we define ourselves as men or
women and how that identity governs the way we live our lives’.
Having gone so far with it, he was appalled when Palekar changed
the ending and had the transvestite hero bumped off by the same
men who had raped the girl. ‘We rowed about it, but once a director
gets the bit between his teeth there’s no stopping him. There
was no reason for it. I can only think Palekar was disturbed by
the character and wanted to take revenge on him.’
The ending that Murari envisaged will finally be revealed in the
Studio at the Leicester Haymarket. You have been warned.
(For Further Interviews, scroll further down)
LEICESTER MERCURY interview
by Lizz Brain.
Square Circle was chosen by Time
Magazine as one of the best films of 1996.
Now it has been adapted for the stage by its author, Tim Murari,
and makes its world premiere at the Haymarket.
‘It all started when I was visiting India from my home, which
was in New York at the time, and wanted to take a photograph of
a girl herding some goats,’ he recalls. ‘But she ran off screaming
to her village, and the next thing the villagers came screaming
out at me. Luckily, I was with my wife and sister, so everyone
calmed down but I discovered she was frightened because a lot
of girls had gone missing, been kidnapped and sold to brothels.
I started to think about her, and what would happen if that happened
to an illiterate girl who had been kidnapped but escaped and tried
to make her journey back to safety. I thought she would disguise
herself as a man and the idea for the story was born. It’s partly
about her wanting vengeance for being attacked and raped, and
partly about her journey and the way she develops and grows in
confidence. The Haymarket asked me to adapt the story, which was
quite a challenge, as the film is essentially a road movie, and
in a theatre you can’t change location in a second, but I’m really
looking forward to seeing how it turns out.’
A cast of five will be coming to Leicester in October to begin
rehearsals for the show, and several will be playing multi-roles.
‘I really am looking forward to working here. I’ve done theatre
before but the Haymarket has such a great reputation, especially
in London, and it will be a joy to bring my work here.’
THE BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM
I was looking for a good, young
actress to play the lead role in my play ‘The
Square Circle’ which was to be staged at the Leicester
Haymarket Theatre. Where does one find the right actress or actor?
In the UK, they have Spotlight. It comes in four thick volumes,
heavier than a telephone directory, and on every page are four
black and white headshots of actors (Male- two directories) and
actresses (Female – two directories). I spent a few days in the
library going blind looking for an Asian actress. There are, surprisingly,
quite a few of them working in the profession. (I also needed
two other actresses for minor roles but without the lead, I wouldn’t
have a play at all). The lead role was very demanding – she would
be on stage from lights up to the final curtain. Apart from being
able to emote – shyness, anger, fear, love, the whole gamut of
emotions in two acts- she would also have to be very physically
fit. She would have to run fast, ‘swim’ and play a very demanding
rape scene too.
My producer, Vayu Naidu, had suggested one name – Parminder Nagra.
‘if you can get her, you’ll have a terrific play. She’s great’.
We arranged a casting call down in London, in a hall just off
Tottenham Court Road. Word had got out and more faces than I’d
expected turned up for the auditions. They were asked to do an
improv and act out a page of the script. Some of the actresses
were older than their touched-up photographs, while the younger
ones didn’t quite have what I was looking for. Vayu and I began
to worry that Parminder wouldn’t come, as by late afternoon we
were getting a bit dispirited. I did cast two of the minor roles
and a male role. And then a tiny dishevelled girl wandered in
– she was in baggy jeans and a baggy coat that reached her ears.
She had a pretty oval face and bright eyes peering out from the
shadows of her collar. Parminder improvised and read, it came
so easily to her, even casually, and then she vanished, not waiting
to hear my decision.
I sent her my play and called her a couple of days later and we
met at the Soho house for a coffee. This time, she dressed up,
only a bit, and she said she liked the play a lot and would love
to do it. But…! I discovered that Parminder was making a reputation
for herself in the small circle of theatre and television and
she wasn’t sure she’d be available on my dates. The second ‘But’
was that she didn’t like Leicester – although it was her hometown.
She was vague as to where her father came from in India – somewhere
in the Punjab she said, not too interested, and she spoke with
a Leicester accent. She’d let me know, she said.
I pursued her and won her over. She agreed to play the lead with
a tiny reluctance – the role was very demanding and she would
have to perform it five days a week for two and a half weeks.
We began our rehearsals in Leicester – 6 days a week from 10-5-
and I discovered the delight of working with a talented actress.
She had a wonderful sense of innocence (my village girl) which
could switch to maturity. She could laugh and subtly turn that
into tears. As a director, what I appreciated most was that she
had an excellent memory – not so much for the lines but if we
experimented with a scene and I changed my mind, she could immediately
return to playing it the original way. Even if we experimented
a dozen times, I just had to say ‘let’s try it again the way we
did it day before yesterday’ and Parminder would re-create that
performance exactly the way I remembered it.
Unlike my other cast, she’d not formally trained as an actor.
They’d been to Bristol, RADA and other acting schools and were
very good. Parminder was totally instinctive. She’d grown up in
Leicester and her parents had split. When we started rehearsals
she stayed a couple of days with her grandmother but as that didn’t
work out – constant rows about her being an actress- she moved
in with a cousin. I don’t believe she visited her mother at all,
‘arguments’ was her excuse. I left the hardest part of her role
– the rape scene – for the second week. Luckily, for Parminder,
her ‘rapist’ was a good friend of hers, Nitin Ganatra, a marvellous
actor. The scene was very physically demanding and I had Renny
Krupinski, a fight director, choreograph the rape. Parminder was
physically assaulted, touched, stroked, hit by her ‘rapist’ and
she played it bravely as a professional actress. In the actual
performance on stage, (5 times a week) with the brooding and dramatic
lighting, it was a scary scene, yet very moving. Every night the
Over the weeks, you do get close to the people you’re working
with. But once the final curtain falls, the ‘family’ splits into
many pieces – everyone moving onto other work. But Parminder and
I remained friends. My wife and I had dinner with her and her
boy friend, a singer-actor, where she cooked a typical Punjabi
dinner – roti, dhal, sag, chicken – and that did surprise me.
With a family life in shambles and having never been to India,
I thought she would have totally disconnected from her roots.
The last time I saw her in London, she was excited about being
cast in the main role of a feature film. She was going to play
a girl who wanted to play football like Beckham. And when you
do see ‘Bend it like Beckham’, you’ll understand what a really
good actress Parminder Nagra is.
STAGING A PLAY IN ENGLAND
( in The Hindu)
I wouldn’t call Leicester a city;
it’s a county town with few pretensions. Except it must have more
bars than shops. On Friday and Saturdays nights, Leicester’s white
youth pack them to the rafters, competing to be drunk and bedded
first. The girls are skimpily dressed Barbie dolls and the Barbie
men are in their Gap uniforms – jeans, shirts hanging out, and
ugly shoes. For a town with a sixty- percent Asian population,
on those nights, there’s not a brown face to be seen among the
sea of white kids.
Surprisingly, Leicester has a major theatre - The Haymarket, a
1970s red brick building perched on top of a shopping mall in
the town centre. It is, along with Manchester, Birmingham and
others, one of the Big Eight regional theatres. More surprisingly,
the Haymarket had commissioned me to write and direct a play with
an Indian setting for it’s Asian Theatre initiative, Natak. The
play will be a rare original production for The Haymarket and
it’s meant to draw the Asian population into the theatre’s fold.
I’m not so optimistic; expat Indians are very conservative and
the India they want are the masala films, not a controversial
play about women. I now believe a play about Friday night drunks
would be more socially relevant.
My producer, Vayu Naidu, the Artistic Associate of the Haymarket,
is a tall elegant woman. Vayu is a force in herself – a wonderful
storyteller, a playwright and an actress. We began with a grand
tour. She flung open the doors of the main house – it was magnificent,
a 725 seater with a huge proscenium stage which would be the perfect
setting for my play. The doors closed with finality. It wasn’t
my stage. The main house was reserved for the Haymarket’s major
productions; it’s huge musicals, which are their money-spinners.
I was taken up another flight into the studio theatre. It was
dark, tiny and the lighting rig pressed down like the brows of
a Cro-Magnon. The 120 seats were raked and the first row was on
the stage floor. My play, The Square Circle, was a road story
set in the huge Indian landscape. This stage had more width than
depth – diamond shaped with blunted edges- and I panicked at the
thought of compressing my play and India into such a claustrophobic
and eccentric space. All my stage directions would have to be
re-written. I’d already had done one re-write when told that the
Haymarket could afford only five actors for nine roles. Three
of them would be doubling or tripling. Now I’d have to squeeze
further. My play had over 20 locations and I would have to use
lights, sound effects, and the audience’s imagination, to transport
my players across the landscape.
I had wanted Nirmal Pandey, a fine actor, who’d played the male/female
role in the film. But he wasn’t available. My brief was to cast
that role in India. There wasn’t a vast choice of stage actors,
apart from Nasrudeen Shah and Roshan Seth, both too old for the
role. So, I sent the script to Rahul Bose, having seen him in
a film, who was also known as a stage actor. He responded in 24
hours, accepting the role.
However, the most important role was the girl – she had to look
around 17, play the male at times, evoke huge emotions and be
physically agile. I had to cast her and the three others out of
London. Where to find them? Spotlight, of course. Spotlight’s
virtually the size of an encyclopaedia Britannica of actors and
actresses. I spend days turning over the glossy photographs, looking
for the few Indian faces. I culled out 25, male and female. Their
agents sent me their photographs and their credits. All were impressively
professional actors. I called them for an audition in June and
it was held in a small room at the Drill Hall in London. I had
staggered them 15 minutes apart but they turned up at the same
I was mainly looking for my Sita. I had been told of a good actress,
Parminder Nagra, and was relieved when she did show up for the
audition. She was petite, quiet, hidden under layers of baggy
clothes and looked right of Sita. She convinced me further by
her acting a short scene. Auditions are brutal- in 10 to 15 minutes
the actor must convince the director he or she is right for the
role. It must be a depressing but necessary part of an actor’s
life. It’s equally difficult for the director, sifting through
the talented for the right one. The wrong choice can ruin the
play. After a long day of seeing actors acting short scenes from
the play, I was drained. But I had Parminder, Nitin Ganatra for
the male roles and Vinny Dhillion for two female roles. I still
needed another actress. Vayu suggested Harvey Virdi but as she
couldn’t make the London audition, I arranged to do it in Leicester.
She was good and having agreed my cast, I was then told by their
agents that none of then would commit to those dates – just yet.
June to October was an aeon away and I’d have to wait until September
to get their ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
I had to live with that but more important was my set designer.
I had my ideas for the set – a hint of landscape to be more evoked
than built. But how could I explain ‘India’ to an English designer
more familiar with a gentle English landscape. The Haymarket suggested
Kamini Gupta. Kamini was elusive. I had a dozen numbers for her
and finally tracked her down to an answering machine in a Bhuddist
retreat in Devon. I left the message and waited. She called on
the weekend as she’d taken a vow of silence! I saw problems with
a silent, retreating designer. I trekked down to Devon on the
train for a lunch meeting. A low key, gentle woman met me at the
station in an antique-ish MG and took me to her retreat. We walked
and talked and I told her what I imagined. Thankfully, she had
worked in the Haymarket’s studio before and knew the space. And,
as she was half-Indian and had lived in India, knew what I wanted
evoked. We agreed to work together – through the Internet.
I spent the time in India doing a re-write to fit into the studio,
blocked the moves, commissioning the music (Paul Jacob, a talented
composer in Madras), recording the sound effects and buying costumes
and props. This would save the Haymarket a lot of money compared
to English costs. I was grateful that both The Hindu and the British
Council in China came in with some financial support.
Kamini set up a web site for me to look at and we too’d and fro’d
across seas and continents in seconds, through our computers,
discussing changes, colours, moods of her drawings. I liked what
she had done – a Banyan tree divided at the trunk with outspread
branches and roots upstage, a blue sky and terracotta ‘earth’.
It was simple yet effective enough to evoke an India and the tree
was three dimensional instead of on a flat.
England in September was cool. We had our first production meeting
on the 10th and I should’ve guessed we were in problems when the
production manager, John Page, confessed there wasn’t a budget.
We were a month away from rehearsals and no budget!! What about
the set, lighting designer, marketing? Without a budget, the Haymarket
hadn’t thought my play through. Also, Vayu, my link to the Haymarket,
wasn’t present. She was rehearsing her own play, writing another,
producing another. I was facing a table full of strangers. They
were the in-house team – stage manager, painter, lighting, sound,
set-builder, costumes. Kamini and I were the outsiders. She unveiled
her model and gave her pitch. The Banyan would have to be built
outside and as there wasn’t a budget, they couldn’t put down a
possible figure. The costume department also didn’t have its budget.
I discovered later that costume hadn’t even read the play.
The Studio was the poor cousin to the main house. All the resources,
financial and technical, were at its command. They were opening
Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ and had no
time for The Square Circle. And later, when ‘Sunday’ closed, they’d
be gearing up for ‘Oliver’. I’d be lucky for any crumbs.
The one consolation was I had my Sita, Parminder. She had finally
agreed. I had seen her in a play and she had enormous stage presence.
We meet over a lunch and she admitted her role was intimidating,
emotionally and physically. She would be on stage from start to
end – dancing, kidnapped, raped, changed to a male, kills her
rapist and is nearly killed by her own father. She told me after
her first reading she just stared blankly at the wall for two
hours worrying what she’d let herself in for.
The other male actor had to play three roles – father, kidnapper,
rapist- apart from the father; the other two were unsympathetic.
I wanted Nitin from the moment he’d walked into the audition but
again I couldn’t get the commitment before we began rehearsals.
I spent days auditioning and meeting other actors, none of them
quite right. A week before rehearsal date, Nitin agreed.
By this time, having moved to Leicester and spending days in the
Haymarket I began to meet others who fell like skeletons out of
the closet. Kathleen Hamilton, a slim, pretty woman was the Executive
Director, Kim the finance director, Paul Kerrystone the Artistic
Director. My own crew was Farlie Goodwin, my ASM who’d keep the
book, Karen on costumes and Andrea my stage manager. Through Kamini
I had found a very good lighting designer in Doug Khurt. Doug
really liked the play and we huddled together discussing how we’d
have to recreate roads, dhabbas, temples, forests, rivers, cars,
motorbikes and houses through the magic of lighting, and my sound
I had a three week rehearsal; schedule – never enough time- 10
to 6 5 days a week and a half day Saturday. The Haymarket’s rehearsal
rooms were a 5 minute walk away in Short street. We were given
the top floor, full of skylights and huge windows. Fine during
summers but in autumn with the sudden cold spells, we all nearly
froze. In the main rehearsal hall downstairs, they were rehearsing
the children for ‘Oliver’.
Rehearsals are a time of intense meditation, intense intimacy.
The world was excluded, wars, famines, floods, elections were
distant whispers from another world. From ten to six we lived
together, ate together, talked of little else but the play. Working
with such professional actors as Parminder, Nitin, Vinny and Harvey
was a challenge, a learning experience and a delight. Why do this?
How to say that? Why, who, what, where? Questions that constantly
need answering, problems that need to be solved instantly and
the right answers too. Part of the problem was also that none
of them had ever been to India.
Actions that work on paper don’t work on stage, clever lines fall
flat or the actor finds them difficult to say and had to be re-written.
It’s a complex play of sexual identities, love, revenge, humour,
seduction, and tragedy. It has to be played right, paced right.
I have a fear of boring my audience, even as I have been often
bored in the theatre.
As there are two violent scenes in the play – a rape and a revenge-
I used a fight choreographer. Rennie is a tall, calm English actor
specialising in theatre fights and he choreographs, step by step,
in slow motion at first, a quite graphic and horrific rape scene.
I have to admire Parminder; she does it but twice breaks down
in tears after the emotional trauma of the make-believe rape.
Nitin the rapist is also disturbed and upset by it. Thankfully,
Parminder and Nitin are close, almost brother and sister, and
she accepts his brutal mauling.
I get a budget finally, two weeks before opening night. There’s
not enough for the full Banyan tree so Kamini has to lope off
the branches and make do with hanging vines. Doug is having problems
getting all our lights. Rahul is having problems with his Indian
wig and costume can’t afford a new one. I’d like ‘blood’ for the
revenge scene, but as that’s not in the budget either, Doug and
I plan to use lighting effects to evoke that. Despite these minor
setbacks, the experience of staging the play is exhilarating.
On Monday of the last week rehearsal is ‘tech week’. The Banyan
is moved onto the stage, the floor painted and Doug and I focus
the lights. We begin our tech rehearsals with my actors and work
for three gruelling days. We start at ten and finish at ten. Doug
has fed a hundred lighting cues into the computer, along with
my music and sound effects. A full dress with tech takes place
Wednesday evening and another one on Thursday morning and again
at two in the afternoon. In costumes, with all the effects and
on the stage, the play comes to vibrant life. I couldn’t have
asked for a better, hard working talented cast.
The play opened on Thursday November 11th at 7.45 in the evening.
The audience is sparse but important – the Haymarket staff who’ve
witnessed a hundred plays. I’m especially pleased when Kathleen
and Paul say they love it -–and they’re not being polite.
Press night, five days after we open, is the night and we all
dress up, the cast is excited. But it turns into a damp squib.
Apart from the local press, the Haymarket can’t entice the national
critics up to Leicester. The critics are notorious for never leaving
London, if they can help it. All the regional theatres complain
about their indifference. The Leicester Mercury does give the
play a good review. But even without the review the box office,
through word of mouth, is picking up. It rises to 60 a night and
on the last two days we have full houses. As I expected, 85 per
cent of my audience was English. The Leicester Asians weren’t
about to embrace theatre.
The play closed on Saturday 27th November, the performances gone
forever, as theatre is so ephemeral. It could be transferred but
that exciting experience will never be the same again for me.
THE HINDU interview
by Gautam Bhaskaran.
‘The Square Circle’ was neither
a square nor a circle. Timeri N. Murari’s baby that it was, this
original screenplay struck disaster when Amol Palekar directed
it. The film had meandered away from the original and all that
Murari could do was gnash his teeth in anguish rather than anger.
During a chat with Murari just before he flew to London, I was
curious to know why he had, at all, thought of making a movie
out of it, rather than staging it as a play first. Which is the
usual practice. Murari agrees that there have been instances of
a motion picture being adapted into a theatrical production. ‘Sunset
Boulevard’ is a classic case of the screen slipping onto the stage.
‘They had seen the movie and were certain that it would make good
theatre,’ he says. ‘The company is eager to have on its repertoire
works written by Indians, of course about Indians. Seventy per
cent of the picture remains intact. I changed the climax. I also
changed bits and pieces within which I knew wouldn’t work on the
stage. Besides my original script was about a girl and what happened
to her, but Palekar shifted the emphasis to the transvestite.
My ending was very different from what you saw on the screen.
The play will stick to the original intent.’
But why did he not direct the movie itself?
‘I was desperate to do that but could not find a financier. Ultimately,
I found somebody who was willing to fund the project if Palekar
were to direct. It was a trade-off that I have lived to regret.’
Not for long though, and the play comes as a challenge to one
who is working with a largely British talent. ‘I have restricted
the cast. The girl in the play is a wonderful British Asian actress,
Parminder Nagra, and so is the rest of the cast.’