Melbourne Talam is a play for three performers that dramatises the stories of an Indian immigrant, an international student and a migrant worker. In an era of global capitalism and new heights of international mobility, the work sets about to reveal the personal idiosyncrasies and psychological quandaries behind what, from the outside, can seem like the statistical machinations of an enormous socio-economic engine. Fittingly, the set is Flagstaff station, though (with the help of the imagination and some novel stage devices) the space itself transforms to serve the drama as workplaces, apartments, Indian buses and hospitals. The train station platform works as the visual centre, because this is where we experience big machines and the mass movements of people on a daily basis. Public transport is also just that: public – it’s where we can glimpse the lives of others and imagine life outside of the bubbles we all inhabit. There is a gentle echo of Alex Buzo’s 1968 play Norm and Ahmed, where a bus stop becomes the stage for a broader discourse about racial conflicts and misunderstandings in Australian society. Melbourne Talam, refreshingly, doesn’t bother to reflect ignorant white perspectives on the mere existence of its central characters; it’s much more interested in the pressures Indians in Australia receive from their families, bosses, boyfriends and landlords, and the different ways they cope with these challenges.
The work centres around three characters, all of them born in India and living in Melbourne. Jasminder is a sensitive young Punjabi Sikh from a farming family studying software engineering. Having been misinformed about the cost of living in Melbourne, he struggles to cut costs after burning through the money from the sale of his parents’ farm, mortified at the idea that he might have to go home to Punjab without a degree in hand. Sonali is a fierce, independent middle class girl from Delhi, keen on finding an attractive white husband to impress her family back home. But after some dismal relationships and witnessing a traumatic event, she finds herself feeling culturally and socially isolated. Lastly, Poornachandra is a charismatic Hyderabadi young professional working in IT. Though he pines for life back home, a cruel competition by his boss pits him against a co-worker for the right to stay in Melbourne rather than being sent back to the company’s Hyderabad offices; this results in him fielding ruthless and stressful behaviour from his co-workers who care more about money than humanity. When he falls in front of a train, he acquires a disability that sets in stone his determination to stay in Melbourne; in India, disability means relying on his family just to survive.
The dilemmas the play presents are poignant, funny and heartbreaking. The stories weave together, with actors switching characters to play Poornachandra’s boss or Sonali’s Italian Nona neighbour, sometimes with impressive jumps in accent and playful makeshift costumes. The form initially seems a little clichéd, before you remember that Melbourne Talam is presented as part of MTC’s Education Program, and the work is intended as an accessible entry point to theatre for students (and in this case particularly, young people from diverse backgrounds, to use the language of arts administrators). The tone is light, the focus demanded is minimised, and the genre is established and familiar. With this audience in mind, the form makes sense, and Rashma N. Kalsie’s play uses this structure with deftness, heart and maturity.
Visually the work was impressive, though sometimes it seemed a little incongruent. The set by Andrew Bailey – with a flashy hidden treadmill built in for interesting dynamic movement onstage – seemed like it would be magical in a proscenium arch theatre with a little distance from the audience, but in the black box Lawler Theatre and seated in the front row, it wasn’t fooling anyone and just looked like a slightly embarrassing splash of money (in what felt like a context that should be more down to earth and community driven). I have a similar comment for the lighting and perhaps the direction as well, though both brought many beautiful moments. The play starts and ends on a fun note – dancing to loud Indian pop music with flashing colourful lights. But the spectacle of these moments and others throughout the show feels overwrought and again, just a slightly awkward reminder that we are in the moneyed and perhaps even racially coded space of Melbourne Theatre Company (given the lack of diversity in this year’s main program). I really appreciated the subtlety of the sound design.
The performances seemed a little bit uncomfortable at first, but settled in quickly. Each gave a moment where I was genuinely touched; I had a particular affinity with Rohan Mirchandaney, whose portrayal of desperation and later, quiet self-assurance was very beautiful. Sonya Suares, in the moment where she struggles to articulate and is forced to internalise her trauma and isolation, sent shivers up my spine. Petra Kalive’s direction was strong (the form makes the direction very visible) but also very caring, leaving space to the performers. I suspect the dance at the end was her addition, and (my above comments aside) I was grateful for a moment of joy after an emotionally expensive end to the play.
Melbourne Talam came from a passionate need to share marginalised stories. Kalsie’s play tells them with integrity. I look forward to her next work.