Remembering Krishen Jit


This month marks the 10th anniversary of the death of theatre director and critic Krishen Jit. He died on April 28, 2005, and left behind a legacy that is still remembered and cherished. Having worked with him as an actor on a few plays, our columnist remembers and cherishes the things they did together.

Krishen Jit was a history academic at Universiti Malaya and he sustained his “Talking Drama” column in New Sunday Times for many years. Thus, people tend to think of him as an intellectual. But for all his intellectuality, when it came to rehearsals, he, unlike some directors, seldom spent time analysing the play and its characters with the actors.

He believed in getting them to relate directly to the text by speaking it on the rehearsal floor and moving about appropriately. He wanted the actor to find a visceral connection to the character. He emphasised the use of the body as much as the voice. In any case, analysis is mainly intellectual, and what the actor grasps intellectually from the exercise doesn’t liberate him when he starts to work on the rehearsal floor. In fact, it constitutes a burden; the actor ends up thinking too much when he should instead be doing.

Other actors may have different experiences to tell of Krishen’s modus operandi, but when I worked with him, he usually let the actor find his own way in rehearsal. He didn’t meddle much, except to give one or two pointers when necessary. He allowed the actor to make his own artistic choices. He understood This month marks the 10th anniversary of the death of theatre director and critic Krishen Jit. He died on April 28, 2005, and left behind a legacy that is still remembered and cherished. Having worked with him as an actor on a few plays, our columnist remembers and cherishes the things they did together. Remembering Krishen Jit that the actor would create character through his relationship with the text, his instincts, his imagination and whatever he brings of himself to the role. Which probably explains why whenever he cast actors, he looked for their innate characteristics first to see whether they correlated to the intrinsic nature of the character they were being considered for.

So when he cast me for the role of Muthiah, the nasty antagonist in The Cord, it didn’t matter to him that I wasn’t Indian. He saw similarities between me and Muthiah – he saw what a bastard I was! That was more important to him.

I told him he was mad to cast me as an Indian. I said no way I was going to do it, but he persuaded me and I eventually became mad too. I guess he also wanted to challenge conventional notions, which is something I wholeheartedly supported.

Muthiah was the overseer of workers in an estate. He was strict, tough – a growler. He was a disciplinarian who walked around with a cane, which he often used on the worker, Ratnam, who, unbeknownst to everyone, was actually his son – the product of a sexual liaison that came about when Muthiah forcibly seduced a woman married to the protagonist, Muniandy. Well, what can I say? I’m sure Krishen also saw in me my habitual need to forcibly seduce women – married ones at that.

This approach Krishen used of letting actors explore their characters with their own instincts and draw upon their inner selves allows, I think, for the portrayal of the characters to be organic – and natural. The outcome is not predetermined by the director. He doesn’t say it should be a certain way from the beginning. He doesn’t stop the actor in the middle of rehearsals to tell him to do it the way he, the director, wants it. He lets it develop.

This is the same way Krishen approached the staging of a play – not with a set vision of how it is going to turn out as a final product, like some directors have and strive to preserve throughout the rehearsal process all the way to the performance. What they end up doing is manipulating the actors to fit that vision. I’ve worked with a couple of such directors and hated it. They interfered even right down to technical aspects like the timing of a line or the pacing of a sequence. I thought that must have been what Alfred Hitchcock meant when he said actors were cattle.

Krishen, however, never predetermined from the start how the play would turn out. He explored possibilities. From whatever arose out of the possibilities, from what his actors gave him in rehearsal, he shaped the play into an organic whole.

Krishen was also a director who showed great respect for the text, which of course means respect for the playwright. He was not one of those who changed the text to suit his own vision. I appreciated this when he directed my play, 1984 Here and Now. He didn’t change a thing of what I had written. The production turned out as I had conceived how it would turn out, how I had imagined it would be staged.

He had the role of the male antagonist played by a woman, which was fine by me, because in productions I had myself directed, I had practised cross-gender casting too. But he did something else that I didn’t expect: I had written for three interrogators to interrogate the hero when the latter was held under detention, and they were to interrogate him one after another in succession. Krishen cast me to play all three of them!

It was part of his trademark to make life difficult for me. First, make me play an Indian, even make me dance in The Cord, and now this! And he left me to my own devices as to how to create three different characters, switching from one to the other with only a change of lights in between. During rehearsals, he didn’t say anything to me about what I was doing, except that he liked the subtlety in the different characterisations. At the time, I didn’t even understand what he meant by that!

But that was Krishen – it was his way of challenging actors and getting them to stretch. Through doing, not talking. I believe it was also for the purpose of helping me develop my craft that he got me to do the one-man play, The Coffin Is Too Big for the Hole. That was to be our last collaboration.

I learned a lot from doing it. In all likelihood, it prepared me to take on shortly afterwards, in 1989, the greatest and most challenging role in my acting life – as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. My performance in the latter won me plaudits beyond my expectations, including from Krishen himself. He wrote in his “Talking Drama” column that my performance as Loman “was the story of an actor who reached an epiphany after some 15 years of toil and trouble” and that with it, I won my “spurs as a leading actor of the country”.

That meant a lot to me. But I had come this far partly because of my collaboration with Krishen. Looking back, I still cherish what he tried to do with me, and for me. I also fondly recall the wonderful camaraderie we had, and the fun times of drinking and revelry after rehearsals and on other occasions. With me, he was not the intellectual or the academic. He was a chhin-chhai guy who hated all that formal stuff, like me. He was really a playful fella. He used to tell me, “We’re all conmen from time to time.” And he’s right. He conned me into playing an Indian, and into believing that I could act. So, Krishen, wherever you are, you great conman, cheers for the memories.

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