Published on 25 April, 2015 in BLink
Kerala’s sardine serves as a powerful muse for the award-winning playwright and director Jino Joseph, as he attempts to make sense of migration and loss in his hometown, Kannur
“I have no academic background in theatre. I belong to an agricultural family in the municipality of Iritty in Kannur, Kerala, and no one in my family or neighbourhood understands, or is interested in theatre,” says Jino Joseph, the 29-year-old playwright and director of the Malayalam play Mathi, which bagged four major awards out of 11 — for Best Script, Director, Production, and Actor — at the recent 10th Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards.
Mathi (as sardine is called in Malayalam) is the story of a fish merchant named Mathi Rafeeq, and is set in Kerala in the 1970s and ’80s. Rafeeq sells only sardine; it is his way of protesting against the big fish in the market. He invites likeminded people to his house and holds debates on social issues and performs small plays of revolution. All of them are served the delightful fried mathi by Rafeeq’s younger sister Kunjami. Later in the play, people are shown moving out of Kerala to bigger cities for work, and migrants from Bengal and other states arrive and settle in. Rafeeq meets an unfortunate death in a world faced with the loss of cultural identity.
In the play, the fish serve as metaphor for several things — the unity of the working class, societal disharmony, issues of migration, convoluted politics, and even romance. Performed nearly 30 times since it premiered at the Ninth Ajayan Memorial Theatre Festival in 2013, Mathi also received the 2013 Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi Awards for Best Play, Best Script and the runner-up Best Actor. Back in Kannur after the award night, Joseph spoke to us over phone about how he used Mathi to depict the breakdown of the cultural harmony of his hometown, Kannur, and the present-day political dissonance.
How did you become interested in theatre?
I grew up watching commercial drama staged in churches and temples during festivals every year. I used to sit in front of the stage, on the floor, to watch those plays. In those days our source of movies was Doordarshan, which aired a new film every Sunday evening, and we waited for it every week. The hangover from those films and plays inspired me to write scripts for plays and direct them when I was in school. Later I joined Government Brennen College, Thalassery, which had a good artistic culture. There was no funding, but our teachers were welcoming of experimental plays. I wrote small plays for schoolchildren and directed short plays for colleges, which won several awards at youth festivals.
How did the concept for Mathi come about?
I had written and directed, for schoolchildren, a play named Parotta, which won a state-level competition. Parotta is a food item and the experimental play was about the education system. One day, when I was eating parotta and mathi curry in Wayanad, a colleague joined me and said I must have a ‘Mathi’ for my ‘Parotta’; he meant I should write a new play called ‘Mathi’ to complete the dish. That’s when I became interested in the subject, because the bond we share with mathi in Kerala is unique — the fish has a distinctive smell, it’s healthy, incredibly tasty…
Why did you use the fish as a metaphor for the socio-political condition?
One of the most important aspects of the play is that mathi is the fish of the marginalised, the working class. They can afford it, it gives them strength, and the smell of frying mathi is synonymous with the smell of the village.
Kerala sardine is now being exported to other cities and countries. And in Kerala we get to eat the mathiimported from Mangalore. Similarly, the working class of Kerala is migrating to other states and Gulf countries for executive jobs. To replace them, migrants from Bengal and Maharashtra are being employed for construction and agricultural works… the migrants are even hired for labour protests, and if there aren’t sufficient patients in hospitals during inspection, the migrants are made to pose as patients; they’re taught slogans in the local language for political parties’ protests.
What was the theatre scene in Kerala during the ’70s and ’80s?
Kerala was politically strong then. There were many cultural organisations that encouraged plays about feudalism and other socio-political issues. But times have changed and only a few such organisations remain, and they too are inactive. Our play is an extreme form of rural theatre and depicts exactly what is going on in the state right now. There are no big organisations supporting us and it’s a collective initiative by people who are not trained in theatre. The actors are not professionals — some are students, others are auto-drivers. The central character is played by Ranji Kankol (Best Actor awardee), who is a sculptor. He was selected for his body language and appearance.
You cook mathi on stage and even serve it to the audience. What was the reaction in Delhi?
The idea is to add an additional layer to the play. We fry mathi in between scenes, so the audience get to smell the fish being fried… to intensify the effect of the performance. Towards the end we serve the fried fish to the audience. Usually, in Kerala, the audience run on to the stage to taste the fish. In Delhi, after the play, one lady came asking for some fried mathi to be packed for her child. Mathi represents celebration. It connects people in a way nothing else does, and that’s why we announce at the beginning of the play that it’s not a drama; it’s a slice of life. Life is being enacted.