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Of Shared Universes (Week 3): Dropping Into Moments

Note: Documenting Tamaasha Studio Foundation’s residential playwriting workshop in February made us realise it was fun to talk about writing, share stories of playwriting trials and triumphs, and tips and tricks that were discussed in the room. We wanted to do more of it! So when Bangalore-based performer, playwright, director and dramaturg Nisha Abdulla announced her writing workshop ‘Of Shared Universes’ for 16 participants, we jumped at the opportunity to be in another writing room.

And so here we are, inviting you to observe and participate in this three-week-journey, as actor-writer Ashmita Arjun - who will be in the room with a front row seat - shares her reflections and observations on pursuing writing as a practice.

A story is essentially made up of moments – moments which are strung together to weave a compelling narrative. The choices a writer makes of which moments follow the last builds the world and graph of that tale. One can stay true to the mundanities of their context or mix the everyday with the strange and shocking to grow the story. In our last weekend of the workshop with Nisha, we looked at how we can make these choices, and moments to explore and emphasise, to make our story richer.

We began by deconstructing a scene from the brilliant play Angels in America by Tony Kushner. We examined the overarching themes of loneliness and loss, the relationships between characters, the significance of their locations; how a sense of liminality is present in the play in these in-between spaces. The setting also stood as a visual metaphor for the protagonist Prior Walter, who is dealing with the transient space of having contracted a terminal illness such as AIDS. This interwoven meaning making is an essential part of the writer's life of “throwing words around”. After the “what” moments to include to build a story comes the “when” to drop into them.

We can make these choices through understanding the storytelling structure: the order in which things happen. As time is commonly experienced in a linear fashion (although there is plenty of debate around this), this chronological linearity follows a classic ‘beginning, middle and end’ mechanism. Though it may not be the most potent exploration of the emotional voyage that characters undergo, this gives the writer a clear throughline. Playing with the timeline provides the writer space to increase impact and engagement and use additional devices such as narrations, flashbacks, plot twists, and time jumps. These give fiction the liberty to deepen the way an audience can relate to a tale.

Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” is a framework that Hollywood has overused and turned into a hapless cliche. The rules derived from studying multiple mythological story structures are mainstays within the cinematic worlds, from Bollywood blockbusters to Marvelian odysseys. Most characters are turned into archetypes with a linear journey or quest where a singular hero is transformed through the events encountered. Although we have witnessed a subversion within the chronological manner of narration in films such as Pulp Fiction, the group was looking for examples where the linearity within each scene and overarching dramatic structure were questioned. A few examples that broke some of the rules were brought up but we are still waiting on an example that broke the structure completely. This inquiry also begged the question, was it possible?

Slowly but surely, reassured Nisha, storytellers are moving away from these hyper individualistic/singular heroes narratives and dipping their toes into storytelling that involves multiple characters or examines a character's impact on larger structures of society. People and the systems they inhabit are interwoven into narrative to speak to larger concerns. The intersectional nature of co-existence becomes integral to our storytelling. “There is a renewed focus on inner worlds and how they are impacted by the intricate web of social dynamics a character occupies. This forms the basis of sociological storytelling, where the wants of a group or community are placed right alongside the wants of a protagonist, in a delicate acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of our lives,” explained Nisha. One can see themes of mental health and the pressures of wealth accumulation on Hrithik Roshan’s character in the movie Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara, while Pa Ranjit’s films provide multiple narratives to explore nuances within Dalit resistance. How the thread of the community runs through the individual or how an individual represents the truth of one's positions becomes the central takeaway.

Most of our earliest myths and oral story traditions held duality within them. Within the context of mainstream media, we are finally moving away from labelling characters as black and white to a wondrous grey, with a nuanced look into their contexts. The impact of their environments, past experiences, relations to one another, internal struggles and a deep emphasis on their emotional realities are opening space for stories that use the ‘personal narrative’ entry-point to actively engage with current realities and participate in discourse around topical concerns, political and philosophical. Personally, I am most excited by mainstream narratives normalising the prioritisation of one's subjective emotional truths over objective fact and tales that reimagine mechanisms of unpacking relationality and power.

After the ’what’ and ‘when’ of a story comes the inevitable ‘why’ – it compels us to have a deeper engagement with meaning and purpose beyond the end-of-the-day entertainment. We, as a generation, are living in unprecedented times – in the middle of the collapse of the banking sector, hush-hush rumours of another pandemic, fighting battles just to be acknowledged and housed within arbitrary geographic boundaries, endless murders in the name of intolerance towards any sort of difference – the ‘why do anything at all’ let alone tell pretty tale tales becomes a daunting question. But paradoxically, I think it is also the answer. The nature of our storytelling and myth-making is resistance. And the work is just getting started, as the last three weeks have left me with renewed hope in the writers and creators of tomorrow – that our perspectives, our expansive abilities to understand the failings of our current systems and an honest and compassionate attempt to question and resist will set examples for newer, more equitable world orders.

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