By Vithya Subramaniam, in conversation with Karthikeyan Somasundaram
Why stage a piece about, and play your own father? What is Tamil Theatre in Singapore? And did Karthik really need to put on a full face of paint just for that one 12-minute scene? Vithya Subramaniam and Karthikeyan Somasundaram chat about Re Somma—a ‘bioplay’ on Singaporean Tamil media veteran, Re. Sommasundram—following its sold-out run at the Esplanade Theatre Studios, 17–19 September 2021. Re Somma was presented by AGAM Theatre Lab, co-directed by Karthik and Ganesh Subramaniam, with the playscript written by Karthik and supported by research by J. S. Sasikumar.
Vithya: Why a piece about your own father? Isn’t that a lot to take on?
Karthik: This started as Ganesh’s idea. He spoke to my father, and initially Appa was like, ‘Will the tickets sell? Who is going to watch?’. They had several sit-down sessions, Ganesh and Sasi with my father, without me. They felt Appa wouldn’t open up as much to his son.
Vithya: That makes for an even more fascinating dynamic because, not only are you playing a person you’ve known, literally all your life, but you’re playing a part that’s been, till now, largely kept from you.
Karthik: There’s more of my father’s secrets in Sasi’s notebooks. We left out a lot of things because of time. Sasi’s initial story was something else, it was going to be more verbatim. But we thought it needed to be more colourful, because Appa’s a very colourful person.
Vithya: Mhmm, I’ve seen his batik shirts.
Karthik: That’s where I came in. Our conversations became ‘how much of a bioplay are we going to do? How many years?’. We came to the decision to end it when he got his job on radio—that’s where he got popular, but people don’t know the story before.
Vithya: He started in 1979 as a producer-presenter with Radio Singapore, and… well became the voice of Tamil radio. He also did and still does quite a lot on TV too. Given all that, this is an easy sell isn’t it? People will come watch a piece about a landmark figure of Singaporean Tamil popular culture. His voice makes people nostalgic, it certainly makes my mother start up about her younger days. Were you also trying to create a new audience, to expand their palate?
Karthik: We want to create new audiences… when it comes to Tamil theatre, this isn’t a focus because there is that ready pool who’ve been watching plays for decades. But this isn’t sustainable. Younger folk fear that it’d be boring or the language too ‘cheem’ (complicated), so we tried particularly to excite this group with social media trailers. For our regular audience, we wanted to show them something different. At the same time, it’s for the people who know my father, and yet not quite know him.
Vithya: You know what I really appreciate about Re Somma? That there was a realistic acceptance of the Tamil theatre audience. We hear it so often, how they get flak for their lack of ‘theatre etiquette’ (itself a bourgeois construct). But it looked to me like you made space for this audience to be itself. That soft opening where those onstage prepare for a Therukoothu performance, allowed the production to start punctually while buying time for latecomers. The participatory nature of the Therukoothu form itself meant that when the Tamil theatre audience did what they wanted to do—cheer when their favourite actors enter—they were doing exactly as they should. I thought this was all very astute to embrace and encourage your audiences’ true nature.
Karthik: Yea I wanted that. I’ve always felt that as an audience member, if you came in early there’s nothing to do. So I thought there should be a warm-up act for the audience, to ease them into the play—because it gets heavy.
Vithya: Therukoothu is a whole form in itself. How would you describe it? ‘Street theatre’?
Karthik: There’s another form that’s actually done on the streets, Veethi Naadagam. Therukoothu is theatre that incorporates bits from dance and music, including their rigour. It’s practised by travelling groups of performers, so the stage set-up is simple, but the make-up and costumes are vivid and conventional to character archetypes.
Vithya: On the surface, it looks deceptively simple. Yet to do that one scene, you and (cast member and assistant director) Udaya Soundari actually trained with Bhaskar Arts, and you’d spent some two hours getting into full makeup and costume for that one 12-minute scene, then wash it all off for the next act.
Karthik: We didn’t want to be cavalier about it. It’s only right that we trained. It was also really nice to reconnect with Biju Master, he was also my Kathakali teacher in LASALLE. For Therukoothu, we have to deliver lines in a particular beat pattern to coordinate with the musicians. The body has to relearn how to move with all that weight of the headpiece.
I also thought this format would be useful to introduce the ensemble before the fuller exposition, to tell the audience that these guys are going to bring you through the play and that they’re going to do multiple characters.
Vithya: You’re talking about introducing the idea of an ensemble. Is it so foreign to Tamil Theatre?
Karthik: I think so. I’m not aware of an ensemble cast with multiple characters in any Tamil play in Singapore. Vadi PVSS did that in Kalinga Trilogy, but that was in English.
Vithya: What actually is Tamil Theatre? Is it, say, about presenting the Tamil language?
Karthik: Maybe that’s how it started off. For instance, in the Silappatikaram (a 5th/6th century CE Tamil epid drama), Ilango Adigal had the whole stage design laid out, including the three wings. So when it comes to Tamil theatre, the idea of performing has always been there, but the nice part is that theatre is part of the trinity of Tamil—iyal-isai-naadagam (literature-music-drama).
Maybe what you’re saying is right about presenting the Tamil language in dramatic form. From there, various regional forms develop, including Therukoothu which primarily performs the epics. But by the mid-18th century, ‘modern theatre’ started coming up when fellows like Sankaradas Swamigal made three-hour performances, down from overnight performances, and brought in concepts like a stage curtain.
Vithya: Let’s continue unpacking what Tamil Theatre is—is it about presenting Tamil stories?
Karthik: Yes, we can break it down into 3 types: 1. purana naadagam, about mythical stories; 2. samuga naadagam, about social issues; and 3. naveena naadagam, which is modern drama, where they talked about themes like death and reincarnation, protecting nature—themes that personally affected the writer/director.
Vithya: I’m trying to understand the difference between the last two. So something like Elangovan’s plays, would that be considered naveena naadagam?
Vithya: And the plays coming out in the 1930s, the ones associated with the Tamil Reform Association and Ko. Sarangapani?
Karthik: That’s samuga naadagam. The earliest performances in Singapore were done by troupes from India coming mainly for temple festivals. It would be mythical episodes they put on, purana naadagam. Slowly, they stayed on and those groups would start working on samuga naadagam.
Vithya: So Re Somma would be?
Karthik: A mix of everything. I just went all out and wanted it to be special.
Vithya: For me, that mix worked as a sort of introduction to the other forms, like a sample platter, particularly to purana naadagam.
Even though these staging of episodes from the epics are still ubiquitous in Tamil theatre here, I’m not drawn to them and I’m still wondering why they are still so popular.
Karthik: This is more a supply-side thing than demand-side. The myths are so dense and we can really explore their layers with theatre. There’s a real pride in taking on these stories and exploring these characters. Actors want to take on these big characters.
Vithya: I’m going to suggest a third proposition to ‘What is Tamil Theatre’, but it’s not something I see as much, and that is that Tamil theatre tells the story of the Tamil people. Right now, the field in Singapore seems to be focused on the language and these canons, but it’s not telling us our stories, it’s not reflecting our lives back onto us. That can make Tamil theatre very alienating, doubly so if someone isn’t comfortable with the language.
Re Somma, though, does tell the story of us. My mother, after watching this together, said that ‘this guy’s story is actually the story of most Tamil men of that generation.’
Karthik: We had so many young people telling us that they regret not bringing their parents, uncles, aunties along.
Vithya: See, people do want to see themselves and want that for the generation before too.
I think often we forget that our individual histories are unfolding with the nation’s. We see 11-year-old Re. Somma travel on the State of Madras ship (itself of historical interest); he witnesses the first PAP electoral victory; and he chooses to do National Service in order to secure citizenship. It’s important that today’s Tamil community saw that, the times we chose and pursued a permanent place in Singapore.
You really made these scenes multi-task. Especially the way his previous Tamil theatre productions were brought in to both show part of Tamil theatre’s archive and how Re. Somma juggled theatre and his multiple other jobs before radio. What was that like, dealing with the abundance of intertextual possibilities that a performers’ life affords?
Karthik: Actually… I don’t know if there was an abundance. Sometimes, I had to remind him about certain people, or he would forget that he had recounted an event a certain way. I realised that memory falters, and that’s interesting to work with. So when he didn’t remember all the plays he’d been in, I had to make those up and I chose plays and characters that the (very popular Indian) actor Sivaji Ganesan played… also because I’m a fan.
Vithya: Of course the character everyone remembers is his Duryodhana (from the Mahabharata). Was the evocation of that obvious from the start?
Karthik: The idea of using Duryodhana to push the story throughout was something that only came about halfway through the process. The question was why Duryodhana? Why start with that? He was Appa’s favourite character. Appa did the Mahabharatam radio play and got so popular, winning many accolades. He always felt that Duryodhana was misunderstood. I saw a lot of similarities, and thought to draw that parallel, with Duryodhana appearing on screen at major junctures, travelling with Re. Somma.
Vithya: There was a lot going on with the multimedia and ensemble, but it wasn’t overwhelming. Re Somma was over two hours long but it did not feel like it. None of the scenes overstayed their welcome. Honestly, I came into this expecting to see yourself and Udaya dominate the piece, but I am happily surprised that that was not the case. The ensemble was so evenly utilised, shining or supporting at the right moment.
Karthik: Most of them were new, or returning to theatre after a decade away. But they really rose to the challenge.
Vithya: We experience the character Re. Somma in multiple ways. There’s the screened interviews with you in character, and that one time the actual Re. Somma is on screen speaking to you, the character Re. Somma on stage. There was also a nice moment of dramatic irony when the real Somma on screen is warning the character about his last child, you.
Karthik: With having Appa on screen, it was a useful way to satisfy those who wanted to see him, but theatrically it was nice to lean into the surrealism of that scene, where he, the real Re. Somma, is his own ‘mind voice’ talking himself off the ledge.
Vithya: The secondary characters in Re Somma were really well fleshed out, particularly the women—Re. Somma’s mother and wife, and even the ex-girlfriend. Their concerns had space in a piece that wasn’t about them.
Karthik: I can’t tell the story of my dad without telling the story of my mum. Sasi said that whenever my dad talks about the women in his life, he quickly gets emotional. Act Three was all about her.
Vithya: In the e-programme, alongside photos of your father’s extended family, there were also photos of your mum’s family. That not only makes her very real, but signals that she’s just as important.
Karthik: That character resonated with a lot of people. I wished more people downloaded the e-programme though.
Vithya: Those photos and documents, I found grounded the story in a material reality—that these are real people.
Karthik: They were meant to work like those photos at the end of films based on real people.
Vithya: The honesty about the drinking, the ex-girlfriend, the suicide attempt… wasn’t it risky to do that? Not just in the ‘what would people say’ way, but also in playing into stereotypes of Indian men and alcohol?
Karthik: I think it’s only fair to be real about their life. This was how men dealt with their issues. It was their coping mechanism. Just because it taints them a certain way today, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show that part of their reality.
Vithya: There’s another dynamic in Re Somma that reaffirms how we need Tamil theatre to echo Tamil lives. His best friend, Aziz, tells Re. Somma that he should not let the lack of confidence with English stop him from speaking up, he then makes the comparison, ‘look at the Chinese guys, they don’t speak English well, but that doesn’t stop them.’ This is a precise observation of how Tamil families talk, and also a great lesson in how language acquisition works—so Tamil speakers too should be kinder with those trying to speak the language.
Karthik: Mages (cast member Mageswaran) should get the credit for that line, because he added that comment that Indians have this complex that they cannot make a mark if they don’t speak English well. The rest of the cast raised concerns initially, but we decided to go for it.
Vithya: I’m glad you did. I’m definitely going to revisit that line for a long time.
Re Somma by AGAM Theatre Lab ran from 17 to 19 Sep 2021 at Esplanade Theatre Studio.