Islamophobia is more American than Indian … a tool for the scared: Anand Rao

A writer and actor originally from Bengaluru will be debuting his play about 9/11 in the Big Apple on 9/12 — a day after the 15th anniversary of the most devastating terrorist attack in history. Come September, New Yorkers will see the world premiere of “A Muslim in the Midst”, a new play written by Anand Rao, in which he examines the effect of the attack on ordinary people in distant India. Rao spoke to Chidanand Rajghatta.

Q: Why is the play set in Bangalore and not shown in India…why is it making its debut in New York?
I live in NYC now so it makes sense to premiere it here in New York. The story is universally relevant. It would have been very easy for me to turn it into an American story by changing a few things around. I would have had an easier time casting actors, and selling it to an American theatre company. In doing so I would have lost out on an opportunity to paint a picture never seen before – the affects of 9/11 as felt by the ordinary people of a land distant yet closely connected.

Q: What is the story about?
A modern and westernized Hindu couple offers a ride to a religious and poor Muslim family stranded on the streets late in the night. Soon, the four characters find themselves drawn into an uncomfortable conversation about faith and perceptions. They rapidly unravel, bringing forth the numerous challenges even well meaning people face when trying to fight perceptions based on religion, outwardly appearance, financial status and other prejudices we all unwittingly acquire in the process of growing up.

Q: I can’t think of too many plays around 9/11. How did your thoughts evolve on this?
I cannot say “A Muslim in the midst” is the first ever play about 9/11. Some time back, Nick Hern Books, a London based publisher had released a collection of plays called the “Decade” by various writers. I haven’t read them all, and I am not sure if any of them were staged. But the perspective presented in my play is very unique. It looks at the global event from a point of view neither seen nor heard before. In fact, the play is not about 9/11 at all. It’s about the aftermath, and the effect it had on people, and how it changed the lives of individuals thousands of miles away, people who had absolutely nothing to do with the event. The affects on ordinary people, in a distant part of the world – a world I am very familiar with.

First, I wrote it as a short story, simply because the story was compelling enough to be told. Then reading the story a few times, I realized that it would make a very interesting piece of theatre.

Q: What is your own background in theater?
I have been performing on stage from the time I was a child, but my love for theatre took shape in the iconic National College, Basavangudi in Bangalore. That’s where my appreciation and aptitude for drama developed. I grew up on a rich diet of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Kuvempu, Kailasam, Arun Mukherjee and Vijay Tendulkar. I was fortunate to have early on worked with people who valued multi-lingual theatre, and were not fanatical about either language or structure. I was actively involved in various theatre circles, in multiple languages, which I believe channeled my thought process to be socially, linguistically, and culturally more inclusive than most others. Initially, acting was what drew me to theatre, and I got to play some great roles on stage. Once, I got deeper, I began enjoying the very act of creating something for stage. I also had the opportunity to act on Kannada Television. I got to work with popular directors like T.N. Seetaram and Sihi Kahi Chandru – experiences I cherish a lot.

Q: What about theatre in the US?
In the US, work and business school took up most of my time, and I didn’t do as much theatre as I would have liked. A memorable experience was playing the Tiger Sher Khan in the Utah Children’s Theater’s production of Jungle Book. I acted in a couple of forgettable indie movies and a few corporate videos. I have done theatre for the Indian community, whenever I could. It’s only this year that I decided to focus my attention on producing work I had put off for a long time, my two plays “A Muslim in the midst,” and another play I wrote first “The Dissent”.

Q: How is Islamaphobia in India different from in the US … or is it any different?
I am only a storyteller, and don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject. So I could be totally wrong here. Islamophobia is a new word, and I think it is more American than Indian. People in the US tend to assume a very clearly defined stance about everything in general, and islamophobia in its usage is a convenient tool for both – the fearful and the scared. In India, I don’t think there is a fear of Muslims in general. At the same time there isn’t a clear-cut position of ‘love them all’ or ‘hate them all’. And, it is important to know what exactly do we fear? If we get to know the source of our fear well, we would not be so afraid. You wouldn’t normally be afraid of someone you know well, would you? It’s the unknown that causes the fear.

Q: Inasmuch as Islam had been part of India for almost a millennia, why is there such residual anti-Muslim toxicity? Is this a constant or is there an ebb and flow in this? Can we imagine a time when religion will become irrelevant?
I don’t like the idea of generalizing people’s intentions, and painting an entire group in one broad stroke. The reality is that we place too much faith in the saying that “history repeats itself”. People everywhere have existentialist fears, and it’s fed by stories of invasions, replacement, occupation, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and the like. Any time you see a specific group of minorities growing in numbers, the majority begins to feel restless. India has the highest Muslim population for a non-Islamic nation and is rapidly growing, which is a topic of discussion in many Hindu living rooms. Though Hindus are a majority in India, the existentialist threat is strongly embedded in their mindset. Yes we can “Imagine” that religion will one day become irrelevant, like how we can “Imagine” a world without borders. Unfortunately that’s all we can do at this point in time. “Imagine.”

Q: Today is the death anniversary of OBL and I just hear President Obama talk about how he hoped OBL realized in his death that Americans had not forgotten the attack. Has anger against OBL dissipated over time with the rise of groups such as ISIS or is the growing instances of Islamophobia a continuation of that?
Osama Bin Laden was the face of Al-Qaeda, and killing him was more of a moral victory than anything else. Bakr-Al-Baghdadi is the face of ISIS, and eliminating him would be a moral victory too. Then it would be the turn of another group to rear its head. You will have one or the other all the time, evoking all kinds of responses including fear and hate. I think that is the new paradigm. The world is not going to change any time soon. What can and should change however is the overall culture of acceptance. Multiculturalism is here to stay, and people everywhere need to know how to manage those relationships. We need to know how to be friends with those culturally different from us. Economic equality and social equity would be the key. A society built on inclusion and friendship will do much better than one built on fear and discrimination.

Q: Walk us through the production and cost aspects of the play in NYC? How is producing, who are the actors, what are the economics involved.
So far, writing the script has been the easiest part. How I wish I can just churn out the scripts, and somebody else can take care of the rest. Though I have lived in the US for almost 10 years now, I have spent most of those years living in Salt Lake City, Utah. By that measure, I am still a newcomer to New York City. I finished the first draft of “A Muslim in the midst,” in November 2015, and pitched it with some groups. Artistic New Directions, an established theatre group in New York City, provided the initial support by organizing readings and workshops to develop the script further. The group sponsored a well-attended first public reading in March this year, which gave some very encouraging feedback. Things have moved fast since then. The play will be shown in the Thespis Theater Festival, at the Hudson Guild Theatre in September this year.

There are a lot of challenges for a new playwright, especially for someone who is not from here, and is not backed by a large studio or a production house. I had to start by attending plays, introducing myself to people, reaching out via emails, and hoping that they would respond. For every hundred unreturned emails, there were always those special ones that would respond. Those are the ones, who give people like us a reason to cheer. The Indian theatre community is much smaller than what I had originally imagined but they are generally quite helpful.

Every big city is expensive but New York City is in a different league. The expenses start with booking a rehearsal space, and they just keep mounting. Then add transportation, artist expenses, technical fees, technicians, sets, props and costumes, marketing…you get a fair idea why so many people eventually give up. Had I been in Bangalore, both my plays would have seen a few performances already.

Q: What do you hope will come out of the play, besides ensuring it is a commercial success? Is there a movie that could come out of it?
As of now, I am focusing on getting a strong world premiere in New York, and going on to show the play in more venues. I think the script lends itself very well for a movie. A lot of people who have read the script or attended the reading have commented that this play has the potential to become a very engrossing movie. I definitely want to take it to Bangalore, and stage it there in English and Kannada too. I am working on a Kannada translation tentatively titled “Nammolagobba Mussalmana.”

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

— Besttopic

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