Sindhura Kalidas is one of the brightest voices in the Singapore theatre scene today. Fresh off her run in Wild Rice’s Psychobitch where she delivered a powerhouse one-woman performance that made waves, she is back in the rehearsal room—this time as the playwright and co-director behind The Necessary Stage’s Happy Indian Women. As a verbatim production (a form of documentary theatre where the script is based on the spoken words of real people), the play questions the assumptions made about the diverse South Asian diaspora in Singapore.
“Last year, we did a devising lab at The Necessary Stage, during which we used the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE)’s What We Inherit: Growing Up Indian anthology as our basis for exploration. A group of South Asian female-identifying artists and collaborators got together and explored the texts, and what quickly became very clear to me was how strongly these stories resonated with the people in the room. Everybody had so much more to share,” recalls Kalidas.
That session would eventually become the starting point for Happy Indian Women, inspiring Kalidas to develop a work where South Asian women and non-binary people can tell their stories on their own terms. Honest and heartfelt, the play is based on interviews with 20 women and non-binary people from various backgrounds.
Her co-director for the production is none other than Haresh Sharma, one of Singapore’s most celebrated playwrights. When they dial in to chat about Happy Indian Women, it is exactly a week from opening night. “As with most productions, things only really start falling into place at this time,” shares Kalidas with a laugh. “Now’s when all the dots start connecting, so I feel a bit more excited than I did last week—when things were still more stressful. Everything’s settling into place, and it’s full steam ahead.”
Here, the duo open up on the production’s meaningful creative process, the ways in which they connect to the script, and the evolution of representation in the Singapore theatre scene.
What was the interviewing and writing process like for you?
Sindhura Kalidas: The first question we asked ourselves when Haresh and I got together with our small research team was who we wanted to interview. The profiles are meant to be like a cross section of society, and we wanted them to represent as many groups as possible. I don’t just mean different South Asian groups, but also people from different socio-economic backgrounds, with different sexual orientations, who speak different languages. We just wanted to get a broad sense of their lives. The research team asked all our interviewees similar questions on topics such as childhood and school experiences, growing up in Singapore, working and dating. From there, they transcribed all of those interviews, and sent them to me. It was actually quite overwhelming at first. We had about 17 hours of material.
Why a verbatim production?
SK: When Haresh first came to me after the devising lab last year to ask if this production was something I wanted to continue exploring, I said yes, and without even thinking, the first word that left my mouth was ‘verbatim’. I knew it was something I wanted to do before I knew why. What I realised later on when I started thinking about it is that the verbatim form is a very genuine and authentic way to tell the stories of communities that are underrepresented or misrepresented, because it’s not somebody speaking on their behalf. Everything you hear are words that came directly from them, and that’s what I think is very powerful.
“We don’t get to hear these stories of Indian women often in mainstream English language theatre”
How have you personally connected with Happy Indian Women?
SK: The wonderful thing about a verbatim production is that it is a collection of the experiences that people have had in their lives. They don’t always have to be huge obstacles or struggles. They can be the smallest, most nostalgic moments of people’s childhoods. It could be a memory of something that a teacher said, or a friend that was mean—things that, even as we become adults, we can never forget. When I was reading the transcript, and sometimes even when I hear the actors say their lines now, I find myself connecting with memories that I haven’t thought about for a long time.
After the last rehearsal, for example, an unpleasant memory that I buried long ago surfaced. It was from my school days, of an interaction between me and another Indian girl. I don’t think I was very nice to her when I was growing up, and I never really took the time to process why that was. It’s only now, after I’ve had the experience of working on Happy Indian Women that I’m slowly trying to make sense of why it was that I was so mean to her in Primary One. Was there something there that I was trying to distance myself from? It’s a very unpleasant realisation to come to, especially as an adult. But I think that’s part of the beauty of working in theatre—that other people’s stories can teach you something about yourself as well.
How did the cast and the creative team respond to the script?
SK: An interesting response we had came from one of our cast members, Grace Kalaiselvi. She is a very experienced theatre practitioner, and she’s done work that deals with similar issues. A couple of years ago, she did a piece called Angry Indian Women, and that was funny when it came up in conversation. We were asking ourselves, why do we have to keep talking about these things—angry Indian women, happy Indian women, all sorts of Indian women? That ended up being a very rich discussion. We don’t get to hear stories of Indian women often in mainstream English language theatre. Because of that, I think our cast members—who are all of South Asian heritage, and all women—feel especially connected to these scripts. We also wanted to include their perspectives and opinions as an additional dimension to the text, so you’ll hear that within the play.
Haresh Sharma: I liked it very much, not only because it captured the diverse types of responses and stories that represented the different interviewees, but also because of the presentation style. There was some humour, some character study, but also serious moments and emotional moments. It’s a good balance.
“The verbatim form is a very genuine and authentic way to tell the stories of communities that are underrepresented”
What do you hope audiences take away from Happy Indian Women—both those who are part of the South Asian community and those who are not?
SK: I hope we listen to each other a little bit more and are more empathetic to each other’s stories. One layer of the conversation, of course, is how non-Indian people or non-minorities can do better to support those who are marginalised and misrepresented. But even within the South Asian community, there can still be a lot of judgement. There are still double standards. What can we do better as a community, then, to be more empathetic towards each other?
Even within the South Asian community, there are different layers of privilege—and that’s also something that we tried to explore. Due to government policy, for example, Tamils have been chosen in a sense to represent almost all of South Asia. But we know that South Asia is far more diverse, and there are so many other communities that exist in Singapore. Even within the South Indian community, apart from Tamils, you have the Malayalees, the Tegulus, the Kannadas—but we never get to hear their stories. As a Tamil woman myself, I think we sometimes don’t realise how privileged we are within the community. We get an official language. Other South Asian people just have to learn Tamil as their second language in school. There are a lot of power dynamics within the South Asian community, which we do get into in the play.
HS: I hope they see how important representation is. Even just staging a play with a cast of South Asian women leading the production, telling stories of South Asian women—that’s considered so revolutionary in a place like Singapore, where our arts scene sometimes lacks that kind of representation. Even when there is representation, it’s often pigeon-holed into, say, certain television channels but not others. I think this a small but important show, in terms of representation and the people that we hope that it would reach.
“Even within the South Asian community, there are different layers of privilege”
How do you think the local theatre industry has evolved in terms of representation?
HS: I think that it has evolved more in the past 10 years or so, compared to the years before. In general, I feel that the theatre scene is very quick to respond to external situations. For example, when there was the Me Too movement, we started looking at the treatment of women in the theatre industry. In terms of mental health, we responded by looking into how we can make the rehearsal room a safe space, rather than a place of stress or anxiety. Racial representation is also one of those topics. Once it became a subject of discussion, the industry as a whole just decided to say, “Hey, let’s look at creating more opportunities for brown people, or having more platforms for stories from underrepresented communities.”
SK: 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to audition for as many roles, but like what Haresh said, I think the industry is changing in the sense that they’re more willing to be open-minded in who they’re casting for different roles. There are more opportunities now, but more can always be done. When we talk about mainstream theatre companies, for me, it’s always interesting to ask whose stories we are telling. For a company like The Necessary Stage, for example, it’s always been Singaporean stories—stories about local issues that are relevant to our communities. Because of that, there are more opportunities for diverse stories and roles. Some companies do restaging adaptations, but there’s a distinctly Singaporean flavour, which is great. But otherwise, it can be quite difficult, particularly if you’re a woman of colour, to get your foot through the door.
“It’s always interesting to ask whose stories we are telling”
What has been the most meaningful part of creating and staging the show for both of you?
SK: For me, it’s hearing the stories. I didn’t manage to be there for all the interview sessions, but for those that I was present for, I was just so struck by how open and vulnerable the interviewees were willing to be. Listening to them and reading all the transcripts made me feel almost validated, that I’m not alone in the experiences I’ve had. I think a lot of the other cast members felt similarly too, based on our discussions in the rehearsal room. We have so much to learn from each other, and I hope that this is something that I will continue to do in whatever capacity I can.
HS: The most meaningful part of this whole process for me is the people that I’ve gotten to work with. It’s been a while since I’ve been part of a production where it really feels like a family working together. With this production, I feel like everybody’s supporting each other. It’s that kind of cliche thing where we all sit down and do everything together. Just the simple act of having a dinner break together or having a chat before rehearsal makes a very big difference for me. I feel like the work we’ve done is an extension of the relationships that were formed.
SK: This has been such a labour of love because of how collaborative it’s been. Everybody is so willing to offer suggestions and to try things out. Our cast members have never said no. They’re just so open to trying things together. Especially because it’s my first time writing and directing a play, I feel very grateful and moved by the love that I have received from everybody who’s a part of this.
Happy Indian Women runs from 2 to 5 November 2023.