Somewhere at the beginning of Jino Joseph’s new play Nona, its central character Prasanth goads a group of villagers to draw a map of India on the soil in his courtyard. Convincing the people that the map was a project to prepare an “India Shining” campaign, he persuades farmers to stand inside the map to pronounce their prosperity. The project soon goes awry, as Prasanth’s map bans the daily workers and Dalits from his village entering within the boundaries. When the map excludes the villagers who created it, the lie in the plan is exposed.
Nona—the Malayalam drama by Joseph, which scooped up four prizes, including Best Play and Best Director, at the 13th Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) in New Delhi—builds its entire fabric on a façade of lies. As the contours of a country are drawn by ordinary citizens, a series of deceptions make sure their participation facilitates a success story. “The play is a critique of fascism and pseudo nationalism,” says Joseph, who won the Best Director prize at META for the second time.
Nona, which means ‘a lie’ in Malayalam, sets the stage in a village, far away from the political discourse in urban settings. “Villagers don’t usually think that the big political debates going on among city folks would have any impact on them,” says Joseph, who chose farmers, agricultural workers, shop assistants and school and college students from Koduvally, a village near Kozhikode, as actors in his two-hour play. “Symbols of nationalism are vital to our national identity, but genuine patriotism transcends these symbols,” explains the director about the politically-charged content of his play, which shared the Best Play award with Item, a Hindi drama on the suffering of women actors in B-grade movies.
Theatre & activism
As Prasanth weaves a web of lies to show the remarkable progress of the country, the first to get suspicious is his own father, a porter in the village market. “Why publicise it if the country is developing?” asks Prasanth’s father, whose doubt becomes the initial tool to expose the lies of a prosperity the villagers have never seen. “Artists have a responsibility towards the people of their country,” says Joseph, who has, so far, written over 30 plays—half of them for children’s theatre productions. “We need to question if there are things that go wrong in our society. If we are silent, we will lose everything,” he says, adding, “I believe in political activism through theatre because it is a strong medium to communicate with people.”
Nona, which also won the Best Light Design and Best State Design awards, traces its origins to a rural theatre group, formed last year by the villagers of Koduvally. Joseph, who was called in to direct the first production of Black Theatre Group, organised a three-month workshop to develop a script and discover his cast and crew. “Some days, we had to start the workshop at 5 am, as the actors had to leave for their daily jobs as agricultural workers or shop assistants by 8 am,” says Joseph. “These villagers developed into characters during the workshop instead of me handing out roles to each of them,” adds Joseph, whose previous play Matthi, about the impact of capitalism in rural Kerala, won him the Best Direction award at META 2015 and the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award for Best Drama the same year.
Joseph, who taught mass communication at a college in Wayanad for seven years, drifted into theatre when he was an under-graduate student at the famous Government Brennan College in Thalassery, one of the oldest colleges in the country. At first, he produced plays for school children, a passion that was to remain with him. He continued writing and directing plays as a college teacher before quitting his job four years ago to become a full-time playwright and director. Along with Matthi and now Nona, one of his other successful plays is Aarachar (2016), an adaptation of the critically-acclaimed Malayalam author KR Meera’s 2012 novel, published in English as Hangwoman in 2014.
Author is a freelancer