‘Sometimes the truth is messy and illogical,” says Anupama Chandrasekhar. “But theatre can display the truth in ways journalism or other nonfiction cannot. It’s not just the facts that people can struggle to understand – it is the enormity of things.”
The playwright, who is based in Chennai, India, has spent the last 15 years examining just such uncomfortable truths, from 2007’s Free Outgoing, exploring the viral consequences of a sex tape, to 2019’s When the Crows Visit, which was partly inspired by the Delhi bus gang-rape of 2012.
Her latest offering, The Father and the Assassin, tackles one of the formative moments in India’s history: the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. In true Chandrasekhar fashion, rather than focusing on the revered persona of Gandhi, she concentrates on his assassin, Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse, seeking to get to the heart of his journey from avid follower of Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violence to killer.
Although the assassination took place in 1948, Chandrasekhar decided to write about the era because its themes still felt startlingly relevant. “My job is to chronicle the changes that are happening in society,” she says, during a break from rehearsals at London’s National Theatre. “Over the last few years, Godse has entered political conversations in India.”
In fact, Hindu nationalism has surged in the country, with statues and memorials erected to the assassin. “The divisiveness is so stark – there is no middle ground. I wanted to understand where this animosity against pluralism was coming from. Sometimes to understand the present, you have to go to the past.”
Chandrasekhar paints a complex picture of Godse in the play, from his childhood raised as a girl in Pune by superstitious parents who feared another infant death, to his adulthood witnessing the brutal consequences of British rule as a journalist. Godse, played by Shubham Saraf, is on stage throughout the play – we witness this world through his eyes.
Indhu Rubasingham, artistic director at London’s Kiln theatre, will direct the play, the fourth time the pair have worked together since first collaborating on Free Outgoing. “Anu talks about the unthinkable,” Rubasingham says, sitting beside the playwright. “She gets at the tension between personal individualism and the pressures of society – to the things we don’t want to speak about.”
It feels pointed that this confrontation between the personal and political is taking place at the National – addressing the consequences of Partition in front of an audience likely made up of many of the British empire’s immigrant subjects. “It’s a fantastic opportunity, but also an opportunity to fuck up,” Rubasingham laughs.
For Chandrasekhar, putting this play on in Britain also exposes the often-hidden aspects of the country’s history. “I didn’t realise there was a gap in the British education system about the empire until I came here,” she says. “I hope this work will speak to those audience members who have south Asian history, as well as enlighten others about the legacies of colonialism.”
Just as Godse has been revived as a figurehead of Hindu nationalism, so recent years have seen a revisionism of Gandhi’s saintly status as the “father” of India. Questions have been raised around his practices of celibacy in later life, as well as his views on Black South Africans while living in the apartheid state. “I’m trying to sift through the mythology surrounding these figures to understand what goes into the brutal, dirty world of pre-independence India,” Chandrasekhar says. “I didn’t want any of the characters to be idols, since enough hagiographies have already been written. It’s 75 years since Indian independence and we should begin to treat these political figures like the human beings with flaws that they were.”
Chandrasekhar mentions Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning 1982 film Gandhi as one touchstone to avoid. “My impetus was to move away from Attenborough and his style,” she says. “We’ve had enough of Gandhi’s story, but there’s so little known about Godse. I took what facts we have and fluffed them up with my own fictions to create this character. I let him go where he wanted to take me, since it was the journey leading to the assassination I needed to follow.”
Rubasingham adds: “Anu creates this world on the cusp of change. The subject matter is so huge, you could write hundreds of plays on its themes. No one play can answer everything – this is Anu’s version of a particular moment.”
Since Chandrasekhar has previously faced calls to moderate her controversial work, does she feel there is a risk in taking a nuanced view of a moment so symbolic to Indian national consciousness? “What I take from Gandhi is that bravery is something that can be practised,” she says. “I’m not the most courageous writer but I’m learning to be brave.”
Ultimately, she sees the purpose of her work as fostering the empathic connections that were lacking in pre-independence India – and still are today. “I want the audience to learn to listen to each other,” she says. “To understand there is perhaps a kernel of truth in what the other person is saying. Without listening, we can descend into violence.”
The Father and the Assassin is at the Olivier theatre, London, until 18 June.