Thursday, March 17, 2011

Broken Images

Broken Images, a one-woman play, ran a single night at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center yesterday, attracting a full house, despite its middle of the week showing.

Dubbed a psychological thriller, it’s the story of an Indian author who writes short stories in Hindi but doesn’t achieve widespread fame until she publishes her first novel in English, leaving her to deal with issues of identity and guilt. The story is about so much more—not just language, but various layers of identity, awareness, interpretation, perception, perspective, love, and betrayal. There were also messages about the alienation we feel from ubiquitous technology and media and a modern take on an age-old folklore. And while those themes may sound overdone, the play felt fresh and powerful.

A few things about this show caught my attention from the get-go. Not only the rave reviews, but the high-caliber names associated with the play. One of India’s premier actresses, Shabana Azmi, plays the title role, as the author who banters almost exclusively in English with what appears to be her alter ego—common sense, conscience, or maybe devil’s advocate—shown on a large, plasma-screen monitor. Azmi has always been on the cutting edge. One of her most stunning and gutsy roles came in 1996, when already a well-regarded celebrity, Azmi played a lesbian in Deepa Mehta’s landmark film, Fire, a role that included a love scene.

In Broken Images, she spends an hour alone on stage, holding the audience spellbound with her incredible stage presence combined with a powerful script written by one of India’s leading playwrights, Girish Karnad (also a noted director and actor). The performance was directed by renowned theatre actor and producer Alyque Padamsee, who’s also known for his supporting role as Pakistan’s founding father in the film Gandhi.

The story of Broken Images starts with the author, Manjula Sharma, giving a short presentation introducing the movie version of her now-bestselling book. In the talk, she explains how she's been criticized for writing it in English instead of her native language, why she chose that language (because, she explains, that's how it came to her), and how much her family supported her through its writing. At the end of her presentation, she prepares to leave the set but her image on the monitor televising her presentation keeps talking. Only this time, her image on screen is addressing herself on the stage. The audience doesn't know exactly who the character on the screen is supposed to represent—Manjula’s inner self or her outer one, her conscience or her ego—but regardless, the TV Manjula begins probing her on-stage self about the same issues she’d discussed in the presentation, slowly unraveling the real story of how and why the book came about and the role her family played in it.

It's just one actor whose splintered character interacts with herself  on screen and on set, using well-coordinated dialogue and body language. There's no other set change, no costume change, and few props other than that large monitor. Nothing really happens in the physical sense. And yet the audience knows something important, something big is happening on stage. The storyline moves quickly, changing and twisting, making you think a lot and feel a lot. I hadn't realized I was holding my breath through most of it until the end when I finally exhaled.

The complex layers of the language and identity themes in Broken Images are fascinating. The character discusses the criticism she receives as an author writing in a colonial language, yet the title of the play comes from the English poem, The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot: “….for you know only/A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,/And the dead tree gives no shelter….” Playwright Girish Karnad wrote the original script as the protagonist having written her earlier stories in her native South Indian language, Kannada. Somewhere along the way, Karnad adapted the show to larger audiences, changing his character from a Kannada author to a Hindi one. And while the play has been performed in Kannada, Hindi, and now in English, Karnad himself, it’s worth noting, is Konkani. So the duality of languages and identity layers the real-life drama of the performance as well.

Director Padamsee somewhat addresses these ironies on the play’s official site ( We live today in a double world. Who we project ourselves to be … and who we really are…. In our discussions at rehearsals, we found out more about ourselves than the characters in Girish’s play. Broken [i]mages sometimes re-create themselves in new and unexpected avatars.”

It’s incredible how much punch could be packed into a one-woman, 60-minute show, but by the end, the flawless acting and script transcend what you think a play can do.


  1. This sounds like an amazing show, Supriya. So lucky you got a chance to see it!

  2. Its a beautiful expression of crisis of identity as well as the author's dilemma.