As unpredictable as life is, it has strange ways of surprising us. Theatre actor and director Yuki Ellias was a radio jockey in her early twenties, in 2002; she never thought that she would one day be directing a play on community radio jockeys. After a successful tour of Elephant In The Room, which she directed and acted in, Ellias is now ready with Hello Farmaaish, premiering on August 18 at the Royal Opera House, Mumbai.
The play was born on the sidelines of last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “One of the composers, Pruthu Parab, showed me a news article about community radio stations led by women in India. I thought that would be a great premise for a story,” she said. The idea of mixing the two worlds came from her own experience. Post the tour, she would go on a bike trip with her boyfriend, wearing a lot of safety gear. It struck her as to what astronauts have to go through when they wear so much gear. “When I got back, I got in touch with Sneh Sapru, writer of Elephant In The Room, and started developing the story,” she said.
They started researching on community radio stations in India. “The ones that we found were in Mewat, close to the Rajasthan border—Radio Mewat and Alfaz-e-Mewat,” said Ellias, sitting in the open café of a newly opened performance space, Castiko in Aaram Nagar. “We had long conversations, especially with the women radio jockeys, and we got a lot of insight.”
Hello Farmaaish unfolds with Kalpana Chawla’s 2003 voyage on space shuttle Columbia. Minaz, a young, morbid girl, and General Gita, her older irate teacher in a remote village, find the cold reportage on the local radio quite dull. So, they take over radio frequencies from Babloo, the local RJ. Thus begin the journeys from their hamlet to the unexplored night sky, as the trio find themselves in completely uncharted dimensions. “But, a lot of the history about community radio stations and a lot of the characters based on people we met, knew or read about, have come into it,” she said.
During her research, Ellias heard interesting stories from female RJs about their relationship with space, with radio, and about their voices being heard on air. In Elephant..., if Ellias had combined myth and discovering one’s identity, now, it is space and the women. Is it a conscious effort to question social norms? “It develops into that,” said Ellias. “For me, theatre is a craft. So, it mostly begins either with a form or style, or a group of people that I want to bring together in my plays. It could also be a way to divert from the previous subjects. Like after a story on a boy with a missing head, I wanted to do something led by women as a shift. I like mixing worlds.”
A student of L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, Paris, and the London International School of Performing Arts, she got her big break after studying theatre with Tim Supple’s mega-production A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which she played Hermia. On her return to India in 2007, she realised there was a huge group that had studied theatre. Besides, a lot of actors were taking up writing and direction, which she would do too.
Her first directorial work was an adaptation of Eric Kaiser’s Charge in 2014. “When I was performing in Mumbai in my twenties, there was hardly any original writing. It was American, British and very little Indian writing,” she said. “Another breakout moment is the number of performing spaces. That means many more people are able to do theatre. The feudal setup in theatre is reducing. It is a very exciting time, because so much is happening. We have to try really hard to up our game.”
In Paris, she had witnessed radical changes in the way theatre was performed and perceived. “There was a lot of physical theatre. There was less intellectual discussion, which seemed to be quite a lot in Mumbai back in the day,” she recalled. “We had to throw our bodies, which meant there was a lot of rigour on the body. I did not experience that here. A lot of classical and folk theatre forms in India are rigourous on the body. But, in urban English theatre, it seemed if you had the energy and if you spoke English well, you would get by.”
Paris was all about the craft and it exposed Ellias to many genres of theatre, from commedia dell’arte to clowning and tragedy. “I connected theatre to something deeper; a complete artistic journey began in Paris. We were encouraged to think more. You come back and you want to dig deep,” she said. Perhaps, that is why when she came back, she did not want to do those American or British plays where she wears a gown or a frock. “I am not talking about the Marathi or the Gujarati plays, but about my generation which was speaking in English,” she said. “We are kind of a lost, weird generation, which has difficulty in fitting in, and which had nothing to rebel against. No political opinions, nothing to rub against. Therefore, our voice in theatre was pretty silly. I am not going to take away the effort my directors were putting in, but at least as an actor, I used to feel silly.”
Subsequently, she was seen as Brooke in Noises Off. In the play It’s Not What You Think, she plays four characters: a sassy Marathi-speaking house help; an old and horny woman; a young apprentice to a singer, and a vulturous journalist. In Elephant In The Room, she played eight roles.
But, for now, she does not mind restricting herself to just direction. “Hello Farmaaish is a very complex play,” she said. “I love acting, but that does not mean that I always have to act.... Acting, sometimes, can become a solo experience, even when you are working with a team. It just about narrows down to me, my character, my part. Direction has much more sharing. I will be performing through my team.”