In a Western society accustomed to news of Paris Hilton’s latest sex tape, mobile photos of happy slapping and bullying by text message, we are sadly all too aware of how modern technology can swiftly disseminate images and words that should have stayed under wraps.
But in the conservative city of Chennai, India, though the use of mobiles and the internet is as widespread as anywhere else, society is not equipped to deal with its effects, says playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar in Free Outgoing, which shows the devastating consequences of viral technology on one family.
The controversy surrounds a teenage girl, Deepa, who is unseen throughout the play but whose indiscretion – to be spotted by a teacher having sex with her older brother’s friend Jeevan in a classroom – is blown out of all reasonable proportion when a mobile phone video taken by her lover finds its way onto the internet and spreads throughout a shocked India.
In centring the play on Deepa’s mother Malini and brother Sharan, Chandrasekhar depicts the moving breakdown of this family as friends, colleagues and the residents of the apartment block where they live turn against them, and national hysteria rises. Deepa’s act, commonplace in the West, is obviously unacceptable in conservative Chennai, but the point made so clearly by the playwright is that this society, still traditional in its values, is not yet ready to deal with the Western-created technology that it so embraces. Malini may use a mobile to check up on her son and daughter’s whereabouts, but her naivety is such that she believes Deepa must have been “exchanging CDs” with Jeevan rather than having sex with him. Likewise, when Malini is hounded into giving a humiliating television interview to explain the actions of her daughter, her interviewer asks viewers, without irony, to text in their views on Deepa’s conduct to win a holiday to Japan.
Lolita Chakrabarti plays Malini as a woman struggling to give her kids the chance of a good future. Alone after the death of her husband, yet still shunned by the family who objected to her marriage, Malini has no resources to fight against the consequences of her daughter’s actions and resorts to desperate measures to try and extract them all from their situation. Amit Shah is an ungainly, awkward 16-year-old Sharan, who at first despises his sister for ruining his future, and then protects her against Malini’s attempts to pass Deepa into the relative safety of her wimpish, fawning colleague Ramesh.
Saddest of all is young Deepa. Though she remains in her bedroom throughout the play, Malini describes her towards the end as unrecognisable from the ‘MMS girl’ she was – hair brutally shorn by her mother, stripped of all makeup, thin and ghostly. The tragedy of her impulsive teenage act, which in the West would not have batted an eyelid, is all too clear.