Free Outgoing: A review and an interview

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Anusree Roy as Malini and Asha Vijayasingham as Usha in Free Outgoing. The play ran at Factory Theatre recently and exposes the sexual hypocrisy of society.

Anusree Roy as Malini and Asha Vijayasingham as Usha in Free Outgoing. The play ran at Factory Theatre recently and exposes the sexual hypocrisy of society.

The intimacy of a theatrical experience is doubly enhanced when the stage upon which the set is mounted is a mere whisper away from your eye. It’s as if you are a voyeur watching the domestic squabbles of your neighbour.

In Free Outgoing, the set felt familiar and authentic. My childhood memories of growing-up in a conservative South Indian family are replete with rituals and customs. Every South Indian home had this calendar marked with religious festivals, which the priest would give us at the start of the year. So, when I sighted the old familiar calendar stuck on one side of the wall of Factory Theatre’s set, I knew the ambience couldn’t get more South Indian than that.  Anna Treusch, set designer, deserves kudos for pulling that feat.

All the action transpires within the four walls of Malini Haridas’ (Anusree Roy) home. Haridas, a single-mom to two teenagers, Deepa, a 15-year-old prodigal daughter and Sharan (Andrew Lawrie) an aspiring engineer, is a typical middle-class amma (mom), chugging along as a bookkeeper running a home business as well.

At first, Malini’s overly critical nature‑directed at her son seems harsh. It becomes evident early on in the story that it’s her accomplished daughter that holds the strings to her Mom’s heart. Malini’s love for Deepa shines on her face as she shows-off her daughter’s trophies to her somewhat slimy colleague (Ash Knight). The daughter’s fall from the pedestal upon which she was perched is particularly telling.

When shown a video clip of her daughter’s sex tape, Malini’s incredulous face is a mix of helplessness, anger and betrayal. Roy with her kohl-lined eyes, bright bindi (the dot worn on the forehead by Hindu women) and cotton salwar-kameez, drew us into her world and we watched it slowly collapse around her.

Roy, co-artistic director of Theatre Jones Roy and a well-known playwright herself, competently carried the 90-minute storyline on her shoulders with aplomb.

I was impressed by Kelly Thornton, the director’s ability to get under the skin of the issue. My familiarity with the South Indian culture and the understanding of the multimedia service (MMS) Scandal, as it became known in India gave me the perspective needed to enjoy Free Outgoing, but to others, unschooled in the rigid sociocultural climate of Chennai or the era in which the sex-tape surfaced, portions of the play may have been incomprehensible, confusing even.

Let me give another example of this disconnect. The sveltering and humid climate in Chennai means ones thirst is never fully quenched. Compound this with the fact that the city has a perennial water shortage and tap water is unfit for consumption. So, understandably, drinking water is a precious commodity. I doubt any other non-Indian audience member would have connected the recurring role the bottled water has in the play. I felt some of these ideas should have been North Americanized to give clarity to the plot.

I enjoyed the understated, yet brilliant performance of Ellora Patnaik who plays both the school principal and a member of the building’s tenant association. Her mannerisms were spot on. The playwright’s decision to not show us the daughter added a bit of intrigue.

To sum up, the play’s message and execution, stirred something in my heart. I couldn’t but help imagine the plight of the actual 15-year-old girl on whose life the play was based on. Was she able to move on or would one act of innocent curiosity follow her for life?

In conversation with Anusree Roy

Born and raised in India, Roy imbibed theatre. Her grandmother produced socially relevant plays to fundraise for Mahtma Gandhi’s non-violence movement. Roy says through art comes change and as an artist it behooves her to be responsible for work that brings about social change in society. The Toronto artist is the recipient of the K.M.Hunter Award, RBC Emerging Artist Award and The Carol Bolt Award.

TDD: Did Anupama’s script speak to you and help you understand Malini?

AR: Yes. Anupama’s script really spoke to me. I loved how fearless and
flawed Malini is and I was so drawn to her life story.

TDD: Why is Free Outgoing relevant to the times we live?

AR: It’s relevant because of how intensely technology surrounds our life.
The play is set in 2007, when the “birth” to the viral video began. It’s
such a cautionary tale of how things can spin out of control so fast.

TDD: What was the rationale behind the title (I am hoping Anupama shared
some insights)

AR: Anupama said that it meant two things to her: the idea of outgoing
call being free and how “free” and “outgoing” Deepa used to be before her
sex video went viral.

TDD: Share with us your experience interacting with Anupama?

AR: It was great. The cast and creative team had such a good time with her.
She toured Toronto a bit and we bonded over meals.

TDD: How has your social media experience been? Do you enjoy it?

AR: Yes, I am active on Facebook and twitter. It’s been a good experience
because I am very careful about what I put online and how much I choose to
share. Privacy is really important to me, so I am very particular.

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The dilemma of protecting our daughters and sons in the digital age

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Anusree Roy as Malini and Andrew Lawrie as Sharan in Anupama Chandrasekhar's Free Outgoing, which played at Toronto's Factory Theatre. Photo by John Lauener.

Anusree Roy as Malini and Andrew Lawrie as Sharan in Anupama Chandrasekhar’s Free Outgoing, which played at Toronto’s Factory Theatre recently. Photo by John Lauener.

On a recent Sunday, as I watched the plot of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s play Free Outgoing unfold in front of my eyes, I couldn’t but help shudder at the “what ifs”.

As a super cautious user of social media, all my actions are governed by the sobering thought that this seemingly innocuous technology has wrecked lives, ruined careers and even helped usher in a revolution or two in some parts of the world.

Free Outgoing is a wake-up call to parents of all teenagers. The 90-minute saga aptly exposed the double standards of a society that has no qualms whatsoever about verbally and psychologically lynching a young girl for her naive curiosity, while the boy, who I felt was equally culpable, went scot-free.

Here’s a bit of a background on the play’s genesis. In 2004, two students from a public school in New Delhi, India, filmed themselves having sex. The video of their act went viral. It wasn’t long before all major newspapers and television networks decided to cash in. The (multimedia messaging system) MMS scandal as it came to be known, fed the baser instincts of an entire nation and kept them riveted. At every opportunity, the so-called moral gatekeepers of Indian society chimed in with their viciousness. They ostracized and condemned the young girl and her family. For weeks, the girl’s family sat trapped in their apartment because an angry mob and a ruthless media stalked them.

A year later, Indian society’s blatant hypocrisy came to the surface yet again, when a well-known Indian actress (Khushboo) penned a newspaper column in which she urged all folks, including unmarried women, to practice safe sex. In Chennai, a city in India, steeped in so-called traditional values, Khushboo’s words caused a moral tsunami.

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Anusree Roy and Ash Knight in Anupama Chandrasekhar’s Free Outgoing. The play exposed the sexual hypocrisy of Indian society. Photo by John Lauener.

Chandrasekhar, a business reporter from Chennai channelized her indignation into crafting a compelling play that exposes the sexual hypocrisy of Indian society.

“Free Outgoing was very loosely inspired by the two much reported incidents in India that outraged me,” explains Chandrasekhar, in the playwright’s notes. “It became quite evident that in cases where a girl/women’s sexuality is under social scrutiny, the penalty she and her family have to pay is quite out of proportion to the act committed.”

Kelly Thornton, artistic director, Nightwood Theatre—who directed the play here in Toronto — said she heard of Free Outgoing in 2007 when it premiered in London’s Royal Court Theatre. The theme connected with her on many levels.

“The world of the play sits on the precipice of technological blast off where now Twitter, Instagram, smart phones and sexting are much more than just part of our vernacular,” said Thornton. “We have created a world where lives can be changed overnight. Indeed technology is the great colonizer of our time, changing societies so rapidly that its effects are still relatively unknown. In many ways, it’s still a wild frontier…”

What disturbs me as a media professional and a mother is that success of any social media endeavor these days is gauged on an odd barometer—whether the image or idea went viral or not. The danger of this is, some important messages get diluted or are not heard because they did not feature a cat playing a piano.

Free Outgoing’s relevance, I realized is not limited to India, its central theme will eerily resonate with Canadians as well. Remember, Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old who took her life after being raped, then bullied on the Internet? What about Amanda Todd? Amanda, 15, committed suicide in her Port Coquitlam home because of the bullying she endured online after a topless picture of her was shared via social media.

I believe Free Outgoing should be shown in schools and other educational institutions as a public service message, because god knows, our children are oblivious to the danger of social media.

In my next blog, I will feature an interview with Anusree Roy, who played the lead role of the mother (Malini Haridas) in Free Outgoing. Stay tuned.