Free Outgoing

Anupama Chandrasekhar
International Playwrights: A Genesis Project
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs
(2008)

Production photo

Back in November 2004, a schoolboy at the Delhi Public School (an elite public school) used his mobile phone to film him & his girlfriend having oral sex. The clip was circulated among students until one enterprising IT student tried to sell it on an Indian online site, Baazee.com - a subsidiary of the US company eBay. This led to the arrest of the student and the CEO of the site - who was later released on bail. The culprits were expelled from school and thus began a huge public debate on teenage sex and technology.

Three years later, enterprising writer Anupama Chandrasekhar has relocated this story into a middle-class Tamil family in Chennai, and Free Outgoing is the result.

The play was first performed in November last year as part of the Autumn International Playwrights season and has moved downstairs before going to Edinburgh.

It's a powerful piece of work: Malini, a 38 year old widow, ably played by Lolita Chakrabarti, struggles to bring up her two teenage children, Deepa and Sharan (Amit Shah), by holding down two jobs - one in an accountant's office and the other selling Super Sparkler jewellery cleaner.

We first meet Malini trying to sell this to her work colleague, Ramesh, a bumbling and oily accountant, who clearly fancies her. A really fine performance by Raj Ghatak who has had to "age up" at least two decades in order to achieve the subtle nuances of an Indian bureaucrat.

The story is set in a space of one week and we learn how the family's life changes as a consequence of Deepa's indiscretion in the English room. It unfolds in one short scene after another in this 85 minute drama; where Malini rushes around like a caged animal: first, she refuses to accept that her daughter was not in cycle shop; then she cannot believe that "they did everything" and finally she tries to destroy the cell phone evidence, when the boy's father, Santhosh (Ravi Aujla) presents it to her - she is only convinced it's her daughter, after being told, she mentioned during the course of the act, that she got 24 marks in the botany test.

The writing is punctuated with many such moments of gentle humour in the R. K. Narayan mould. At another point, Ramesh tells Malini that the reasons why Indian teenagers were "getting active" at an early age was "because they are switching over from curd rice to pizza."

While everybody talks about Deepa, her brother is upset because his life too has been altered by her actions; the mother is trying desperately to protect the family; the community outside is outraged; but we never see Deepa - she seems to have shut herself in her bedroom - one of the two doors on stage right. I know that this may seem a great theatrical device, but I want to see and hear her.

In the end it's the media that comes to the rescue of the family when all else fails - even though, it's really painful to see the mother read out her rehearsed statement and recant on behalf of her daughter, while the bubbly presenter, Usha Singh (a charming cameo by Shaheen Khan, who also doubles up as irate neighbour Kokila), poses the question to the nation, "Is she a femme fatale or the next icon of feminism?"

Of course, the answer is clear, if she was in the UK it probably would be the latter, but would the play be as hard hitting if the situation was transposed into a western setting?

Until July 19th, then Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh 31 July - 24 August @ various times

Reviewer: Suman Bhuchar