When the second wave of the pandemic hit the country last year, Lakshay Chawla, then a student at Drama School Mumbai (DSM), was doing an internship at Adishakti, Auroville (a theater research lab and performance group). He was unable to complete the course and had to return home to Delhi.
Chawla, who works as a freelance actor in Mumbai, like many others, has watched the crises unfold up close. April 2021 is etched in our memories as a time of turmoil and loss. Chawla was looking for a medium for emotional buildup. Shortly after the second wave passed, he began collaborating with other theater practitioners and began writing. Five months later, a play entitled Beds emerged, located in a covid-19 room.
On the phone, he hastens to correct us by saying that the pandemic only serves as a backdrop and is not the subject of his play. “While we wanted to talk about the collective experience of crisis, the story is classic drama,” says the 28-year-old, who made his debut as a writer and director.
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A fashion designer in south Mumbai is infected with covid-19 and admitted to 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 as a backdrop. In such a scenario, they confront the subjects of mortality, identity and relationships.
Choosing two protagonists whose lives would not intersect like this under normal circumstances allowed Chawla to question class and privilege in times of crisis. “While we all faced hardship, the pandemic has been harder on the poor,” he says, while adding that he also draws inspiration from the migrant displacement crisis thematically.
It investigates the ethical issues people faced during the second wave. What is the most important life when resources run out? Is it the young man who has decades ahead of him or the older woman who still has a few years left, albeit a fulfilling life. “Last year, these questions came to us in the form of oxygen cylinders and hospital beds. How to choose who lives and who does not live? And what does that say about the morality of our society? Shawla asks. These are the questions that guided the writing of Beds.
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The play, which was first staged at Studio Safdar in Delhi in January, has now made its way to Mumbai. Chawla also staged the piece and tells us that the form is realistic and does not rely on any stylization. “It’s like the story is unfolding in front of you in real time,” he says.
Chawla’s show in Delhi featured a lead actress, Anumita Sen, who brought her own experience and interpretation to the role. The Mumbai show will see Sharmila Velaskar Kadne try out for the role.
For actor and manager Rishab Kanti, this was an interesting aspect of the play. “After working with youth theater groups and others that were full of young people, we had a senior actor to play a senior character. I’ve never worked with one before. Youth theater groups tend to to choose a younger actor for the role,” he says.
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Chawla is asked about the morality of pandemic art. He admits to having thought about it a lot. “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, in this case covid-19,” he explains.
Kanti, who plays a waiter in Beds and came on board shortly before the Mumbai show, says he was suspicious for a moment and wanted to read the script to ensure the play’s credibility. “I wondered if we were taking people back to the traumatic times. But I found the script treated those triggers with fondness. It was all about hope and that’s something we could all do right now,” he says.
Beds will perform at Studio Tamaasha, Mumbai on February 19 at 7pm and 8.30pm