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December 30, 2019

Exclusive: Behind The Indian Adaptation Of Agatha Christie’s Iconic Murder Mystery

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographs by Joshua Navalkar

In conversation with director Melly Still and three of the actors (Shernaz Patel,
Sonali Kulkarni and Denzil Smith) about the highs and challenges of ‘recontextualising’ the popular Agatha Christie murder mystery into an Indian setting

Ardent theatregoer that I am, a visit to the precincts of any auditorium is always accompanied by frissons of excitement. My anticipation was further heightened when I – along with our photographer – walked into the National Centre for the Performing Arts’ (NCPA) compound a few days ago. Our date with the new production – one that is, as I write, a work in progress – came about when I learnt that Agatha Christie’s famous work The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side was scheduled to be performed in early 2020 at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. Having read almost of all Christie’s works – and having followed both Hercule Poirot’s and Jane Marple’s adventures with more than a degree of literary interest – my curiosity naturally went into overdrive. 

Walking into the compound, we find ourselves facing a specially constructed rehearsal area near the sunken garden. Inside, we catch sight of an empty set – the cast has taken a break to partake of their lunch – and I soak in the feeling of being in a space where a masterpiece is in the making. 

For the uninitiated, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side is one of Christie’s most popular works and it had been adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff. Melly Still who had directed the British production is now helming the version for Indian audiences. Interestingly, it has been transposed to India, reimagined for the Indian audience by writer Ayeesha Menon and promises to be a fantastic collaboration of theatrical talents who are working to present the much-read classic, with an utterly original flavour. 

Looking forward to sitting in on an early rehearsal of the play – which at this stage is still at the reading of the script by different characters – we clamber up flights of stairs to a rehearsal room and walk into what is once again an empty room. A wheelchair, a few chairs and a table keep us company for the few minutes before director Still and actors Shernaz Patel, Sonali Kulkarni and Denzil Smith walk in. Their arrival is the cue for the afternoon’s work to start. After the introductions are done, we turn into metaphorical flies on the wall, and watch, and listen, as the momentum visibly intensifies. For even though all four are seated, their rendition of just a part of one scene gains added depths of emotion before our eyes as the actors and director go through different ‘takes’ of the same lines…. 

Post this afternoon session – from which we make our exit quietly so as not to disturb the mood and the atmosphere – I engage the quartet separately in a dialogue about the highs and challenges of being part of a new production inspired by a much-loved, much-read thriller and the magic of bringing Christie’s charm onto the Indian stage…. 

Excerpts from our interactions… 

MELLY STILL, DIRECTOR 

What was your first takeaway from The Mirror Crack’d…?
I had read all of Christie’s books ardently in my teens and loved them. I don’t remember the details of each, but I can recall a sense of satisfaction that came with the turning of every page. My first impression of The Mirror Crack’d… 40 odd years later though was, ‘Good lord, the characters are so bigoted’. I watched every film and TV version of the book and was discouraged by the slightness of character and the lack of tension. But I thought the premise unusual and I was struck by the carefully crafted lens – and this is typical of Agatha Christie – through which she tells her story. 

Christie draws on the perspective of her female characters who, trapped or in trouble, are trying to make sense of their lives. And it takes another marginalised but complex female character to subvert the patriarchy that ensnares them and try to bring balance. I found myself savouring the nuance and the chutzpah. 

Also, the backcloth of the story is cunningly sociopolitical and sets up the themes underlying it, one that creates tension between looking forward and looking backward. There was more than enough to think about making this into an exciting theatre event.

What was the impact of the British production?
I was very buoyed by the responses. Both loyal fans and newcomers to Christie seemed equally intrigued by both the story and the staging. And I loved the fact that there was a lot to laugh about despite the darkness, as in life. 

But…are we ever really creatively satisfied? We (Rachel Wagstaff, the original adaptor, Agatha Christie’s grandson, the producers and I) all felt there was a need to develop the writing. Luckily we’ve had almost a year to do this one.

What were the challenges of reimagining it for an Indian audience and in an Indian set-up?
I think once a suitable setting had been established, the fact of it being reimagined didn’t invite any challenges, but the devil is in the details. I asked everyone I met when I was over here for auditions, ‘If you were to imagine this set in India, when and where should it take place?’ Ayeesha Menon, the writer who adapted it, had a lot of ideas as well and the story landed in Goa, in 1976. 

Lively discussions to this day animate the rehearsal room. Everyone has a robust opinion about plot, character, clothes, accent, language, time, place, circumstance or – and this seems to arouse the liveliest discussions – the kind of food a character might eat. No stone is left unturned.

Apart from renaming the characters, have you Indianised the plot in other ways?
Renaming the characters has been a lengthy process and has continued into the rehearsal process. The nuance of background, heritage and faith is codified in a name. It’s fair to say that the characters’ identities have been in flux.

I’m not sure I’d use the term ‘Indianise’, the connotations are sticky, aren’t they?  We’ve recontextualised the story, not so much for an Indian audience – the audience would be perfectly at home with the original version – but to immerse ourselves in a particular time and place that allows us, in its minutiae, to explore human experience. The particulars cast a light on the universal and it’s this that we wanted to explore and ultimately share with as diverse an audience as possible. 

Having created the British production, what are the new factors that you are noticing as you shape the Indian one?
Well, we’re not remounting the production. We’re starting from scratch as it were. 

The design of the set remains the same – a space that allows for the playing out of memory. There’s an empty space and some characters talking to one another and trying to reconstruct a particular event from memory and we go from there. 

Every actor works in a unique way and although Joseph Alford, movement director, and I try to find a shared language through the process, I find myself reacting to what each performer offers in thought and action in relation to the events, and shaping the story around that. So the new factors are to do with the characters they embody and the world this creates. The world is new to me but the humanity underpinning it remains familiar. 

Indians are highly expressive emotionally compared to the British. How does that translate into the context of this play?
Hmm, good question. It’s a play about secrets, so all of the characters are harbouring shame which manifests in all manner of ways and I imagine this will translate in the production. I’m not sure I can say yet as we’re only two weeks into the process. The British can be highly expressive, though it’s certainly true that the characters from the novel (published in 1962, I think) fit into stereotypes and regard one another with suspicion, which inevitably engenders the kind of bigotry you’d associate with a stiff Brit upper lip. We haven’t withheld this predilection to bigotry since it’s universally true to human behaviour, but unlike Agatha Christie (for whom it was an acceptable shortcut), we try to spotlight it, albeit in the context of Goa in 1976. 

So far, what has been your experience working with Indian artistes who tend to be extremely expressive and sometimes excitable?
Certainly, the actors are very garrulous and, as you say, expressive. I enjoy it. They all care a great deal, are curious, industrious and super bright. Joseph and I are kept on our toes.

SHERNAZ PATEL
(Her memorable stage role: Melissa Gardner in Love Letters)
Cast as Miss Jilloo Mistry. Original character: Miss Jane Marple 

What is it about a murder mystery that excites you?
I think it’s the unravelling (as one of the characters says about Miss Mistry) that’s the most exciting part; trying to second-guess the author and solve the crime.

Which was your favourite Agatha Christie work – and a Christie character whom you dreamed of playing?
I was fond of and have read a lot of Agatha Christie when I was much younger. But there is no particular character from her books that I ever dreamed of playing. So how lucky am I that I get to play one of the most iconic ones!

Did you ever imagine The Mirror Crack’d… or any other Christie creation  in an Indian setting?
They are so British that it’s hard to imagine them being in any other setting. But now with this adaptation and seeing how effortlessly it sits in our world I can only hope that we can make it into a series!

You are playing an iconic character. What is the challenge you are facing stepping into her shoes?
I want to make Miss Mistry (Miss Marple) my own, using the essence of the character, but without trying in any way to ape any other interpretation. The challenge is to get the audience to enjoy the play and Melly’s fabulous staging for what it is, with no bias or baggage of how they imagine the characters to be. That will be tough, but that is what I am hoping. We all aspire to be truthful to the text. 

Every character has an individual quirk/characteristic. What about yours in this version of The Mirror Crack’d…?
She is so delightful and complex in this version of the play. The human side of her character has been so beautifully written. But her premise itself is so fantastic. A little old lady who no one really looks at, who knits and sips tea and solves crimes while she does that. 

DENZIL SMITH
(His memorable stage role: Lucky in Waiting for Godot)
Cast as Daniel D’Mello. Original character: Dermot Craddock 

What is it about a murder mystery that excites you?
It’s a genre that is gripping, and when well executed, it keeps an audience totally engaged and at the edge of their seats. 

Which was your favourite Agatha Christie work?
Murder on the Orient Express is a timeless classic. 

You are playing a well-known character. What is the challenge of stepping into his shoes?
The challenge in this case, since it is an adaptation, is creating a relatable Indian version of the character that lives, thinks and breathes in the ’70s in India.

What gives you a greater high – playing a character for the first time, or taking an established character to a new/different height?
Both are immensely satisfying. In this particular case, these lines are a bit blurred as it involves both. It’s about creating a reimagined “established” character for the first time. 

Every character has an individual quirk. What about yours have in this version of The Mirror Crack’d…?
We are still in the early stages of rehearsals…I’m hoping this discovery will happen soon.

SONALI KULKARNI
(Her memorable stage roles: White Lily in White Lily and Night Rider and Laxmi in Sakharam Binder)
Cast as Mamta. Original character: Marina Gregg

What is it about a murder mystery that excites you?
Probably the fear – that is what drives me, because I am not a suspense story fan myself. I get very scared. 

Did you ever dream you would be acting in one?
I had never imagined that any Christie set-up would be adapted in an Indian scenario. I feel extremely thrilled that I am a part of this wonderful production. It’s not just a production but a rigorous theatre workshop for us. We are immersed in it. And I have got the chance of working with a director who is willing to work with the actors by giving us space. She is courageous enough to explore new layers of the script with us. 

You are playing a well-known character. What is the challenge of stepping into her shoes?
There are a variety of challenges. I play Marina – we call her Mamta – a superstar, a woman who has a mind of her own. She has had a very interesting past. She is extremely vulnerable. And yet, Mamta is very mysterious. You cannot say that you know her. I really don’t know if she is putting up a performance or if she is genuine. I quite like the various nuances of her personality. 

What gives you a greater high – playing a character for the first time, or taking an established character to a new height?
This is a very tricky question. I enjoy both. I like playing the characters I have played earlier. I still keep doing shows of White Lily and Night Rider and Gardish Mein Taare. Those two are very close to me. At the same time, playing a new character is like meeting a new friend. A new play gives me a different high and I enjoy that. The best part of playing a new character is that you can come back to level zero. You cannot be sure; you cannot have any kind of experience, ego or self-assurance. I like that risk. I like walking on the edge. 

The Mirror Crack’d will be showing at Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, NCPA from 30th January 2020 to 9th February 2020 at 7:30 PM inclusive (except 3rd February)

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