Over the past few months a synchronized cacophony had taken over The Drama School Mumbai. The noisemakers do bear a grudging resemblance to the students of the DSM however, and the source of their choral equivocations is the DSM annual student production.

This year round, the students take on The Mule’s Foal, a play adapted by Alan Becher from an award-winning novel by Fotini Epanomitis – a story about families, love and the eternal joy of gossip.

The play opened to some serious bouts of hilarity on the 4th of March and gave us the opportunity to profile the women who have been working tirelessly for weeks to make it happen – Sheena Khalid and Puja Sarup the co-directors of the work and Sonal Kharade, the designing hand behind the curious costumes the students don for the show.

Puja Sarup and Sheena Khalid

Sheena and Puja’s Mumbai-based theatre company Patchworks Ensemble is known to tackle the big issues through the funny bone. The company’s first production Ila based on a story by Devdutt Pattanaik is about a King who transforms into a female with the changing phases of the moon, while their outrageously entertaining Gentleman’s Club aka Tape explores drag kings of a fictional underground club in Mumbai. This narrative about negotiations with gender is also present in The Mule’s Foal, but Puja and Sheena don’t choose projects to make ‘statements’, it’s always the story that attracts them first. And for The Mule’s Foal, it wasn’t just the story, but the poetic spaces present in it. “These spaces are not about the profound monologues uttered, but the human moments in the play” says Puja, “and in the sheer velocity of lives that it depicts,” adds Sheena.

They believe in working with their actors as facilitators- allowing them to develop the project as much as perform it. “When one does devised work, one does not know where to attack. So we use a lot of movement and music as our basic starting point. In this way we first put it into the body before feeding on the text,” says Sheena. Despite the anecdotal nature of The Mule’s Foal, the directors initiated the DSM students into the play through the bodywork of its chorus before deconstructing its language. Even the script of the play, which has been translated into Hindi by Neha Sharma, is continuously being written and and re-written by the directors and students during rehearsals. “It is  only on the floor that the rhythm of the scene can be known, where to pump it or chop it…” says Puja before demonstrating her point by fixing an imaginary machine with loose screws with her being the technician and the tool (with a complete audio soundtrack.)  

The Mule’s Foal is the first production in which the duo have worked with actors-in-training.

When asked about this experience Sheena says, “The DSM students are very committed. When you come to a professional environment you are most probably working on multiple plays. But in drama school you are pushing yourself harder and longer for a single production. The directors feel they have learnt a lot from their students including how to squawk like a crow, and perfectionists that they are, they make multiple attempts to hit the right note while squawking for this interviewer’s benefit .  

Sheena Khalid is a graduate of the London International School of Performing Arts and Puja from the Helikos International School of Theatre, Italy find theatre rewarding in all ways. Narrating an anecdote Puja says,“The first character that I played professionally on stage was of a blonde bimbo in Atul Kumar’s “Noises Off.” If the same part was for the screen, I would not have fit in. Theatre is the only space you can play anything and everything.”

When asked about the challenges of doing theatre as women Khalid explains, “I don’t think I can ever over-emphasize on how much of a community sense there is in theatre, that does not discriminate against gender at all, as opposed to other spaces of work. We have always had help.” She bangs the wooden table in front of her thrice for good luck.

It was in 2011 that Puja and Sheena first met at a Bunraku Puppet workshop and discovered a possibility for a collaboration. When asked what keeps them ‘patched’ together Sarup answers, “Our collective madness and desire to take risks with our work.” Then after a moment of retrospection, “Also I wouldn’t have done this on my own. Its way too much work.” 

“Way too much thankless work,” adds Sheena with a laugh.  

Sonal Kharade (Image: Maneesh Verma)

For Sonal Kharade the costume designer of The Mule’s Foal, working with the directors is familiar territory, having been part of their production It’s About Time which opened at NCPA’s Centrestage last December. “I love working with them,” says Sonal, “Woh dono kuch seedha nahi karte hai!” For the “bizarre” look of The Mule’s Foal she has gathered Turkish and Tribal prints of surrealistic vibrancy, that look straight out of a bohemian boutique. “Theatre has tight budgets but I like that challenge,” she says and reveals the location of her material sourcing – the lanes and bylanes of local markets like Mangaldas and Saroj in the city.  

Sonal’s career as a costume designer had been accidental. A student of interior designing, she just loved being part of the production process in theatre. In 2009, when the costume designer of Geetanjali Kulkarni’s Ek Rikami Baju decided to quit the show mid-way, Sonal who was helping with the play was asked to fill in those shoes. The response to her work was so well appreciated that she went on to do more such projects. Today she designs costumes for several theatre companies in Mumbai and Pune including for directors like Manav Kaul and and Atul Kumar.

Sonal’s costumes come to life in The Mule’s Foal

Sonal admits that as she had not formally studied costume designing understanding different body types was initially difficult for her. “I have learnt everything on the job,”she says. It is with this learned on-ground sense of aesthetics that she creates costumes like the blood red anarkali for Sanjukta Wagh, which was worn by the Kathak dancer on an outdoor stage against the backdrop of the sea. The New York Times described it as the most “ravishing outfit” of that evening at The Battery Dance Festival in New York.  

Though Kharade works for commercials and films alongside theatre projects she finds the latter more fulfilling. “The actor spends so much time in his garment that one has to concentrate much more on its detailing and comfort,” she says while checking the stitching of a bold pink costume that  opens up to form a dull grey piece, for a character in the play who has a  dual role.  

Puja, Sheena and Sonal have made the DSM student production into a piece of theatre that demands attention and provokes laughter in the midst of misery. They have of course been supported by a stellar team and the enthusiasm of the DSM students. The Mule’s Foal goes on tour this week, so do catch a show near you through March and April.

 – Written by Payal Mohta