Annie Zaidi’s latest play, which premiered at the Prithvi Theatre Festival this year, is set in a future in which the state keeps a vigil eye on its subjects. The relevant drama tackles issues bothering the world at large today, from surveillance to majoritarian politics.
The future has mass surveillance and compulsory social media engagement
Historically, totalitarian regimes have prompted expressions of horror over surveillance and public repression in art. The most famous example is, of course, George Orwell’s 1984, a response to fascist forces in Europe during the second world war. These days, with the internet, it’s not just autocracies that are spying on their subjects, but countries of all persuasions as well as big corporations. Playwright Annie Zaidi’s Untitled-1 offers a Black Mirror-style prediction of a state of affairs under an all-seeing government. The state silences critical voices and uses social media to keep tabs on folk.
Current social, political concerns are echoed in the play
Contemporary Indian social and political concerns echo through the play: mass surveillance (Cambridge Analytica and Pegasus come to mind), cracking down on resistance, a distrust of intellectuals. The play hinges on Vishwas (Danish Husain), an author. The government, in the form of a suited lieutenant (Abhishek Saha), is convinced Vishwas knows the whereabouts of a rebel writer. It doesn’t take much more than a lack of activity on social media to make the government suspicious. People are expected to watch TV and engage on social media. In other words, they’re encouraged to not think, for the state’s great paranoia is not knowing what people are thinking and doing. Vishwas and wife Dina (Kitu Gidwani), who wear uniform-like clothes suggesting an enforced homogeneity, are suspicious precisely because they’re quiet and uninterested in social media.
A relevant but overcooked story
The narrative is interspersed with Vishwas’s monologues on historic figures. Socrates, condemned to death for questioning the state, choosing to drink hemlock when he could’ve escaped. Chandragupta Maurya being slowly poisoned by his mentor Chanakya and, later, relinquishing his throne to become a monk. These interludes, spoken in Hindi and English, are delightful to hear as Husain is a master of the rhythm and cadence of storytelling. The idea seems to be that power is a corrosive poison capable of turning people against each other and inducing madness. The state’s representative in the play is Vishwas’s old college mate. In college, he was a wallflower. Now, he’s a powerful official with a cyclops eye that he casts on people. Yet he’s unnerved by Vishwas, who would rather sacrifice his life than bend to the state.
Zaidi’s play will resonate with watchers concerned with the moral health of the country and its future. Every day brings news of new forms of state control and so-called anti-national individuals being punished. However, the play presents a scenario with which one is very familiar; these are themes that have been frequently represented in art. In terms of storytelling, it breaks no new ground. In fact, the most promising part of the play is a conversation between Vishwas and the official on the need of autocrats to be recorded, to have their actions documented. But this is a brief spark in a play that throughout gives you a sense of deja vu.