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OPEN ENDING

The end, as you like it

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Many directors allow the audience to decide the ending: What happens after Hamlet dies? Who committed the murder? Did the butler do it or was it someone else?

A popular item girl has transported Bollywood glitz to the spare arena of the stage and created a sensation of sorts. Her play has been performed with a different ending each time and according to her publicists, it's going viral because of that. One wonders if it is Kashmira Shah's glamour or the novelty of the idea that has made Tere Ghar Ke Saamne a hit.

Multiple endings are not unique to European or even Indian theatre, especially in the realm of adaptations, which are the life blood of contemporary Indian theatre. Several directors have experimented with open-ended plays. Ayn Rand's 1934 classic, Night of January 16th, was based on the life of the Swedish scamster billionaire Ivar Kreuger who was found shot dead in a Paris hotel. His death could have been the result of murder or suicide. In the play, members of the audience are selected to play the jury. They rely on character testimony and vote on whether the defendant is guilty or not. The play has different endings, depending on the verdict.

The 1985 musical, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, based on an incomplete Charles Dickens' novel of the same name, has several possible endings, with the audience voting on whom they think is the murderer. Dario Fo's 1970 play, Accidental Death of An Anarchist, provides two endings. And the long-running play, Shear Madness, has multiple, audience-selected endings, wherein several characters end up as possible murderers.

Leading Indian writers and theatre directors had different points of view on the subject. Playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar says he would never allow the director to change his ending, specially if it was the first show. He may concede it in successive productions of the play to other directors if they wanted it, but only if he was convinced about their logic and intentions. Wanting to change the end was a drastic step and it could mean that the director had either misunderstood the play or was looking to impose his own world view on the text. "No, " he says firmly, "the first production has to be faithful to the writer's end, establishing the writer's intent. "

Playwright Mahesh Dattani has seen two productions of Ayn Rand's Night Of January 16th. The way the play is written, the audience ought to vote 'not guilty' and so the option is really illusory, he says. Dattani feels that the power of a play is in its ending. "Many plays carry their essence in the way they end. I cannot imagine Othello without its deeply tragic ending, " he says. "By giving the audience control over the ending, you are making them the creators of the play - the assumption being that the values that the audiences believe in are sacrosanct. "

This is really a tool of commercial cinema, he says. "They live by the axiom, 'do not poke but stroke the audience'. Theatre is meant to be more cuttingedge and as with all great plays, challenges placidity and complacence. "

However, it may prove to be a source of amusement to the audience and performers to explore different endings based on audience suggestions, for plays that have inconsequential ends, he feels.

Theatrician, the theatre group, performed an adapted (read Indianised) version of Night of January 16th, in Mumbai last year. According to its director, Tathagata Chaudhury, the play is relevant to India, because Indians are wallowing in the same "American Dream" that led to the great American economic collapse;"making the same mistake of linking ambition to absolute capitalism", he says.

In his interpretation of the Ayn Rand classic, his protagonist, Rakeeb Ahmed, is a boy from Kolkatta, who uses fair as well as foul means to reach a stage in life where he can afford his own penthouse in Nariman Towers, Mumbai. Like Ayn Rand's original protagonist, Bjorn Faulkner, he isn't disturbed by his conscience when it comes to being a successful tycoon. Though he doesn't appear in a single scene in the play, the audience has an impression of him through the descriptions of the other character, Karen Andre.

While the play is a thriller, says Chaudhury, a genre that Mumbai audiences rarely get to see, they laughed a lot. "Theatre therefore, is just another form of entertainment for them, " he says. But there were some who seriously debated the issue, post the show.

Such a play has to conclude with an open ending, says Chaudhury. Whether the defendant, Andre, is guilty or not, involves not just the murder, but also the fact that she too has lived a life devoid of a conscience.

When the play was staged, the Anna Hazare movement, match fixing scams, 3G, 2G, the Radia tapes, etc were creating endless headlines. That made the play completely relevant, he says. "Today, if we are to take a vote on Radia, I think it'll be an open-ended case. There are no rights or wrongs, just a matter of a 'point of view' or perspective, " he concludes.

His most daunting task was to figure out a way to show a jury system in India and to get audience participation. The play did not get many positive reviews, he says, perhaps because it was too experimental. Delhi's leading directors Kusum Haidar and Feisal Alkazi agree with playwrights Elkunchwar and Dattani. The ending is the playwright's and not the director's privilege, feels Haidar. She saw an alternative ending in Peter Brook's Hamlet, in which, instead of the Prince of Norway taking over the reigns of the country after Hamlet's death, Brook questioned it by passing a shaft of light across the stage and asking, "Who is it?" Perhaps it was Brook's political statement against military dictatorships, she says. It takes a lot of gumption to change an original script, especially a canonical one by Shakespeare. "It's an interesting idea. " she says, "but I would do it only if it is required. Not for the sake of being different, because there is the question of ethics here. " Feisal Alkazi saw a production of Night of January 16th and felt the ending there seemed fine because the play was about a court case and the solution was a simple either/or situation. But trying something different on the spur of the moment, especially when the audience was following a story line, was problematic, even though it may seem interesting. "It doesn't grab me as an idea, " he concludes. For director Arvind Gaur, who works a lot with community and street theatre, an open ending is a common practice in people's theatre, which he also calls "participatory" or 'discussion' theatre. Utpal Dutt's group invariably repeated scenes with different endings, after getting the audience consensus, he says. They do the same. "For instance, when we do something about the plight of domestic servants, we generally ask the audience, 'Aap ko kaisa lagega, if you are the character?' and then bow to their verdict, changing the ending accordingly. I have also done this in proscenium theatre productions like Dario Fo's Accidental Death of An Anarchist and Brecht's The Good Person of Szechwan, adapted as Ramkali. "

Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Szechwan, is about a young prostitute, Shen Te, who struggles to lead a life that is 'good', without allowing herself to be abused. But her neighbours and friends prove so brutally greedy, that Shen Te is forced to invent an alter ego to protect herself: a male cousin named Shui Ta, who becomes a cold and stern protector of Shen Te's interests. The message here is that economic systems determine a society's morality.

Asmita Gupta's adaptation Ramkali, starring Mallika Sarabhai, is about the pressures on people to keep up with expectations and the exploitation of goodness by an aspiring society. It ends with the heroine asking the audience for their views on the story's conclusion. The publicity blurb reads, 'Maybe we all have been Ramkali, doing 'the right thing' in the wrong place or vice versa, the truth in this play is yet to be discovered...'

According to director Arvind Gaur, an ever changing ending is wonderful for enhancing the skills of actors as well as the director, though he concedes that it is a tough practice to follow in commercial theatre. "One should admire Kashmira for taking the risk. " he says.

Arun Kuckreja believes in alternative endings and has courted trouble for this. He gives an example of his production of Vijay Tendulkar's Sakharam Binder, for which he got a ticking off from the playwright, for not remaining loyal to the script. Undeterred, he changed the ending of Gyandev Agnihotri's Shuturmurgh, too, by introducing a narrator in the end who speculates on the situation. Writers, he feels, should allow a certain amount of poetic license to directors, "otherwise there would be no creative growth".

Kuckreja also showed two separate endings in a play called Virajpeeth Se Ayi Aurat, based on a short story by M Mukundan. One was the original romantic ending, where the dying politician holds the hand of his beloved and the alternate one, in which they were shown as militant comrades. A narrator came up at the end and said, "Now that you have seen the end, we would like to re-play the scene, with a fresh ending. " Kuckreja says the writer was happy with the end, because it gave a different dimension to the script, which was required, since the original ending was not dramatic enough. "I think it is a great idea and more people should experiment with it, " he says.

Playwright-director Deepak Dhamija, festival director of the Australian Short & Sweet Theatre Festival in India in 2010, experimented with an open ending in his play, Confessions of A Poet. He wrote different endings for Delhi and Mumbai because "Delhi audiences react more to emotional endings, whereas Mumbai audiences are more objective".

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