fFor much of the 20th century, the gray, vast Dunlop factory in Bandel, West Bengal was the main source of employment for local families. But from the 1990s, the factory was closed more often than it was open. “People showed up every day hoping to get a shift,” says playwright Sonali Bhattacharyya. “It felt like a throwback to what I had read about dockers in Victorian times.” Her mother’s family also relied on the shifts at the imposing tire factory. Unreliable work caused extreme financial worries at home.
One of the workers affected was Bhattacharyya’s madhya māmāe, her maternal middle uncle. As a factory worker and union leader, he was also a storyteller. “It’s a bit of a cliché in South Asia that Bengalis are all dreamers, thinkers and poets,” says Bhattacharyya via Zoom. “But there is also a radical history in West Bengal. I love the fact that my uncle has these two spirits of Bengali culture.”
Bhattacharyya’s new piece takes inspiration from her blue-collar dreamer uncle. Chasing Hares, soon to take over the main stage at London’s Young Vic Theatre, examines the growing precariousness of work, the dangerous impact of protests against poor working conditions and the power of stories to encourage collective action. “It’s about the idea of imagination as a haven and storytelling as a vehicle for social and political change,” says director Milli Bhatia, who joins Bhattacharyya from a midweek rehearsal. “I felt so incredibly lucky to get my hands on it.” Bhattacharyya shines.
In Chasing Hares it is not a rubber factory that the drama revolves around, but a clothing factory. “I felt like that would appeal to people. We know so much about the garment sector after things like Rana Plaza,” says Bhattacharyya, referring to the catastrophic collapse of a building in Bangladesh that contained five garment factories that killed more than 1,100 people. When she started writing the play in 2018, the work culture around her changed. Since then, the piece has felt even more relevant given months of peasant protests in India and UK university and railway staff currently fighting casualization. “The precariousness of the workplace that my mother’s family had become so accustomed to was becoming the norm here.”
At the factory, Chasing follows Hares Prab, a worker who used to be an outspoken union member fighting for better workers’ rights. “But he’s a new father now,” says Bhattacharyya, “and has decided to shake off his reputation as a troublemaker in order to remain employable and support his family.” When his boss’s son holds a jatra, a performance show, Prab becomes enmeshed in the creation of stories that, as Bhattacharyya says, are “permeated with the radicalism of the utopian politics that he has had to repress profoundly”.
With the Jatra, Chasing Hares takes on a game-within-a-game form. A jatra is a type of Bengali folk theater that is traditionally performed outdoors and in groups, often at large exhibitions. “When we were growing up and visiting our homeland, we went to exhibitions,” Bhattacharyya recalls. “I was never allowed to go to the Jatra, it was always too late. But there would be hours and hours of entertainment. They would take snacks and spend the whole night listening to music, poetry and plays.” She and Bhatia wanted to reflect the mood of these events in their production. “The language of Jatra was a big influence on how we conceived this production,” says Bhatia. “The design, the way we think about space, where the audience is in it. Because they were on tour, they used one set piece to represent an entire epic world, so one thing in a room has a lot of meaning. That really inspired us for our production.”
The team has examined the history of the art form and its development in detail, from its origins in the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata to its more political evolution during the independence movement and resistance to British occupation. “That’s what we’re exploring here,” says Bhattacharyya, “how to reignite the democratic nature of form and the potential for a subversive nature of form. That’s what Prab is trying to do in the play, to pull that medium back into the medium of a people speaking out on this injustice they’re facing.”
Bhattacharyya and Bhatia had wanted to work together for some time before Bhatia, best known for directing Jasmine Lee-Jones’ Olivier-nominated Kylie Jenner film Seven Ways to Kill Kylie Jenner, directed one of the other’s rehearsed readings piece led by Bhattacharyya. That was King Troll – The Fawn. “We were a little shy before we met,” she recalls, while Bhatia puts her head in her hands and laughs. “It was a bit like a date. I said, ‘I think you’re really cool,’ and I was hoping that she thought I was really cool too.”
Politics is the key to her work. “I’ve been politically active since I was young,” says Bhattacharyya, “but it’s only more recently that I’ve seen a really tangible connection between my work as a writer and my activism. I think that’s because things have gotten more difficult and keeping them separate feels rampant.”
Bhatia feels a similar sense of urgency: “The first thing I ever directed was to raise money for a women’s shelter I was working for, so the origin of my work as a director was to fight an injustice. ” Over time, she has become aware of the similarities between the two forms of community address; facilitating the process as a director is similar to organizing a protest or a movement. “You consider who your audience is,” she says, “how you want to keep them in a room, what voices you want to prioritize, and what you want them to consider or do when they leave the room.”
“Milli is one of those directors that really walks the path,” says Bhattacharyya. “She has fostered a truly collaborative and democratic space. It’s not just about the context of the work, it’s about how we create the work and how we create a more inclusive and accessible theater industry.” Both the writer and director felt it was important to have a cast and crew with ties to the to have a world to explore. “It’s an extraordinary feeling to be in a room with a cast and creative team made up entirely of artists from the world’s majority,” says Bhatia. “There is a shortcut, an understanding of why this is important to us. I hope more rooms will look like this.” Outside the rehearsal space, she enjoys seeing a flood of work by South Asian artists. “We’ve always been here, but the work I see coming out now and the space we’re taking up — it’s our time.”
Shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic, the play won the Sonia Friedman Production Award and shortly thereafter the Theater Uncut Political Playwriting Award. Throughout the process of the play, Bhattachharyya kept her uncle in Kolkata informed. When Irfan Shamji, who loosely plays the character after her uncle, had specific questions about the character, Bhattachharyya suggested asking the man himself. She sent them to her cousin, who gave them to her uncle, who then wrote replies in Bengali and got someone to translate before sending them back. “It was tremendously moving to read these and share them with Irfan,” she says, “reading his thoughts on his position as a father, as a union leader, as a writer, as a dreamer.”
Bhattacharyya argues that passing knowledge and stories down the generations is key to how culture shapes what we think is possible. “Stories are about remembering. What were people doing before? What worked? How did people get up? That can be an inspiration, but also a model for how we can move forward and how we can build a better world.” To make a real difference, Bhatia agrees, progressives need to better understand the power of stories. During rehearsals they talked about activists in India being arrested for their tweets and authors being put on CIA watch lists. “We know that words and stories can be dangerous,” she says. “That’s because they have the power to effect change.”
Chasing Hares is taking place at the Young Vic, London until August 13th.