Play about home and heart

V.K. SANTOSH KUMAR

Noted stand-up comic Sharul Channa's latest play is about an expat Indian who is not sure if he can call Singapore home.

Unmasked reveals the dilemma faced by Nakul Chandrakant Dalvi (played by Amit Arun Joshi), who has not visited his hometown Pune in the past two years since Covid-19 affected air travel.

Should he go back home to see his parents, risking his employment status and his child's education? Or should he continue to slog on in Singapore in the belief that he has adapted to the culture and norms here?

"This is basically the story of almost 90 per cent of the expats in Singapore who are trying to get their PR (permanent residency) and not being successful," said Sharul, who has devised and directed the play, which is in English.

"They are in that transition phase where they are not sure which is home. It is important to be in Singapore because of their career. But, if their PR applications are getting rejected all the time, can they call it home?

"The feeling of being lost has especially been heightened during the Covid-19 pandemic because they are not able to visit home. The frustration that an expat goes through is narrated through the monologue."

Sharul and her team members interviewed at least 15 employment pass holders, PRs and Indians who have become Singapore citizens over three months to come up with the storyline.

"The research work was intense," she said.

"We talked to people from different walks of life. So the story is not about one person but a culmination of a lot of stories. People who watch the play will be able to relate to each sentence because they would have gone through this phase at some point in their life in Singapore."

Sharul, 34, who came to Singapore from India when she was three months old with her family, pointed out that a lot of Indians felt displaced especially after the Delta variant, which was detected in India, became rampant in Singapore.

"They felt targeted and isolated, not considered tied to Singapore and unable to go to India because of fears over travel," she said.

"Indian-Singaporeans also felt displaced because, even though they came here 35 years ago like my father did, they still have connections with India."

Amit, who came to Singapore in 2007 from Pune and has since been working in the financial industry here, explained that the feeling of not belonging in Singapore has always been there among Indian expats. It was accentuated by the pandemic.

"Before that, being in Singapore was the best of both worlds," said the PR, who dabbled in theatre in Pune and Mumbai and has acted in Marathi, Hindi and English plays in Singapore.

"People could get the comforts of the West in a place which is very close to home - only five hours flying time away. They could maybe go home five times in a year.

"But when the pandemic struck, most expats felt being stuck here - especially those who have not got their PR. The frustration of not being able to go home and come back and the feeling that Singapore is not their home has made many miserable.

"They are left wondering what more they have to do to make Singapore home. That is why Unmasked is a story which is relevant to anybody, not just Indians - anybody from any part of the world who feels he is stranded in Singapore."

Amit's monologue is supported by Veena Bangera and Priyashree Deorukhkar, who appear as different characters to enhance the drama.

"It is very important to bring out the different stories because otherwise it can get a bit jarring if one person talks all the time," said Sharul.

"So Veena and Priya enact different characters - such as a local or a parent."

Sharul also chose the actors carefully - Priya is a Singaporean, Veena an EP holder and Amit a PR.

"I'm a Singaporean and my choreographer Ponnamma Devaiah is on EP. They are all from different parts of India," said Sharul.

"I wanted to make sure that it is not biased and they are all feeling the same whether they are Singaporean or not."

The play also asks the pertinent question: What does home mean? "If I go to India for two weeks, I miss my friends, my lifestyle, the safety in Singapore," said Sharul.

"But, when I'm in Singapore, I feel like I miss the culture, the wedding celebrations and the family atmosphere in India. So, you never really know what home means. Home is always in transition.

"There is this line in the play where the character says that when I go back home to India, they call me a foreign return. And when I return to Singapore, they say you're not really Singaporean. So, he then asks, 'what am I?' That's the crux of the play."

Sharul makes it clear that Unmasked is not a political play. "There is no agenda to it," she said.

"It's just to show Singaporeans that maybe we can be more patient with our expat friends and tell the expats that 'you're not alone'.

"The message is that, whether you are Singaporean, Indian, Australian or New Zealander, we are all in this together. All of us are in the same journey of trying to find our footing and a home for ourselves."

santosh@sph.com.sg

Show dates and timings: Oct 20 to 22, 8pm; Oct 23, 3pm and 8pm; Oct 24, 3pm. Venue: Drama Centre Black Box (National Library Building Level 5. Ticket price: $40 standard. Ticketing details: Unmaskedtheplay.peatix.com

"There is this line in the play where the character says that when I go back home to India, they call me a foreign return. And when I return to Singapore, they say you're not really Singaporean. So, he then asks, 'what am I?' That's the crux of the play." - Director Sharul Channa

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