Auckland actor, playwright and director Ahi Karunaharan is directing the stage version of Rohinton Mistry's beloved novel A Fine Balance.
1 A Fine Balance has long been a Whitcoulls Top 50 favourite. What is it about this story that people love so much?
It's set in Mumbai in 1975 during a devastating period of history often unheard outside India when Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency and 'cleaned up the city' by driving thousands of poor from their homes. Mass forced sterilizations took place. But at the heart of this story is the overwhelming resilience of every character. That sense of hope is what draws people in.
2 Is this production ground-breaking in any way?
It's the first co-production between Auckland Theatre Company and Prayas Theatre, a South Asian company. The book was adapted for stage by two wonderful British theatre makers, Sudha Buchar and Kristine Landon-Smith. There's quite a bit of pressure when people are so attached to the source material. I first directed their script four years ago with Prayas Theatre. Then it was about showing off my directing prowess with all the bells and whistles. I've grown since; this time it's about honoring the story.
3 Your family are originally from Sri Lanka. How did the recent church bombings affect you?
I didn't find out till a day later because I was on holiday with no phone reception. Everyone had been furiously trying to contact me. We're Hindus, so fortunately my family were all fine. I got hundreds of messages from friends lamenting for my country. A lot of Kiwis didn't know there was a 28-year civil war in Sri Lanka; people are still seeking justice for human rights violations during war time. I often feel guilty that I'm not taking action. The best way I can help is through my art; sharing my story to build awareness.
4 Why should people in New Zealand care about what's happening in Sri Lanka?
Often the roots of conflict come from a lack of understanding. We're so driven by our own immediate needs, we don't stop and listen to other people. Once we open up to the world beyond ourselves, we develop a sense of empathy and that humanity can really start to drive our decision-making.
5 What would you like to see happen in Sri Lanka?
Justice is a difficult and complex process but there needs to be some form of acknowledgement of what happened. That's the first step in healing. Take Cambodia; members of the Khymer regime are finally facing the court decades later as old men, yet there is this need to hold them accountable so people can move forward. Otherwise the next generation will be having the same conversations.
What's the hardest thing about growing old? 'Losing all your friends'
6 When did your parents leave Sri Lanka?
They left for the United Kingdom, where Dad studied law, just before I was born. We moved back to Sri Lanka in 1983, a week before the riots broke out so we joined the mass exodus of Tamils. We had an uncle in New Zealand who sponsored us to move here. He told us it was far more chilled out than Thatcher's England. I still remember arriving at Wellington airport. We thought the country was in curfew. The streets were silent; everything shut at 5pm - a real shock. Dad got a job editing law text books. Mum works at Countdown as a checkout operator.
7 A third of Sri Lankan Tamils live overseas. What's it like growing up in a diaspora?
No matter how much I contribute to this country, people still don't see me as a New Zealander. I just need to step outside and have someone yell at me from a car to remind me, "Oh yeah, that's right." There's a sense of being nomadic. An ongoing search for home; "Where is my whenua? Where do I stand?" That longing is a tune I carry even in the most joyous of moments. It permeates my work. I think I've just made more peace with that uncertainty.
8 Have you ever been back?
We went home for the first time four years ago for a family wedding. I wasn't sure how I'd cope being gone so long. Our ancestral home in Jaffa is a decrepid ruin, with vines growing through it. The entire village was abandoned in the war. But at my uncle's house in Colombo, I was surprised to find that the sense and taste of the place felt so much like home. I ended up staying for three months and going to a tea estate to research my play Tea.
9 Your play Tea was a hit at last year's Auckland Arts Festival. What story did you want to tell?
When people think of Sri Lanka they think of Dilmah tea, cricket and the Tamil Tigers. Tea was a way for me to tell a part of history a lot of people don't know about. Even my brother didn't know that Sri Lanka used to be ruled by independent Kingdoms. They were abolished by the British, but the imperial system left behind isn't working.
10 You trained as an actor. Why did you become a writer and director?
I got frustrated that all the parts I was getting were dairy owners, taxi drivers, terrorists and thugs. My mentor told me the only way to change it was to write the stories. Then I couldn't find anyone to direct them, so I had to learn that too. Theatre has a fast turnaround, so I can write and stage multiple works in a year and keep more South Asian actors in the game, so when they start casting actors of difference in the mainstream, they're ready to go.
11 What was your Auckland Theatre Award-winning play Swabhoomi about?
When I worked for the Māori Theatre Company, Taweta, I learnt the guiding principles; "What do you want to say? Who do you want to say it to? and What do you want them to feel?" For this story I tracked the documented first arrival of an Indian migrant to New Zealand - a gentleman who jumped off a ship in the Bay of Islands in the early 1800s and swam to meet a beautiful Māori wāhine and start a whānau - to see how the South Asian experience weaves into New Zealand history.
12 You've just directed Kollywood Extra with Satellites. What's next?
I am working on a commission with Silo called My Heart goes Thadak Thadak . Like Kollywood Extra, it's a playful and interactive homage to India's movie industry. I grew up watching 1970s Spaghetti Westerns with my uncles; Sholay was a game changer. I'm also doing a children's puppet show for Diwali with Auckland Live.
• A Fine Balance, 14 June to 6 July, Q Theatre www.atc.co.nz