power play

Centuries ago, explorers like Columbus and Vasco da Gama played a real-life version of Pokémon Go

Besides being a source of joy for many, the virtual reality game is also about those who have, or don’t have, power over space.

Amidst the flood of Pokémon Go stories that have dominated the news in the last week or so (to whatever extent a single story can be said to have dominated this week's news) one recurring theme has been that of the game's straying into the real world in unfortunate ways.

This is unsurprising. The very aspect of the game that is newsworthy is the relationship between its virtual space and the tangible, material space that we all exist in. Exhorting its users to "step outside and explore the world", the game turns travelling through mundane urban landscapes (more rural areas haven't been quite as well catered for) into an adventure, making you the protagonist of your own fantastic quest.

The colonialism game

There is both joy and genuine radical potential in this sort of transformation of space – as anyone who has ever been a child ought to recognise. Children turn environments made for adults into different spaces all the time, layering fiction over fact to create a space for play. Other groups also perform versions of this re-imagining of space. Practitioners of Parkour, for example, describe the practice as a subversive way of reclaiming urban spaces by using them in unconventional and disruptive ways.

In a sense, Pokémon Go might be said to be performing the sort of “re-enchantment” of the world that Michael Saler describes in As If, his study of fantasy and virtual reality as responses to modernity.

Yet the subversive potential of re-imagining the world depends largely on who is doing this re-imagining.

Keisha E. McKenzie, an academic, technical communicator and consultant, compares Pokémon Go's overlaying of real and virtual terrain to the mapping of the world by European explorers centuries ago.

McKenzie writes:

"Wherever their maps showed the fountain of youth or the city of gold, even if those locations overlaid entire nations and peoples, they claimed the right to go, explore, discover, and capture, and people’s lives became their gamespace.”

It's hardly surprising that much of modern fantasy, and its associated virtual reality, grows directly out of the literary genre sometimes called imperial romance.

In these adventure stories, the strange terrain through which our heroes must travel in order to complete the quest is that of Asia, or Africa, or South America. They return home wiser, better (and often richer) men. Considered through this literature, the vast majority of the globe sometimes appears to exist purely so that British men will have somewhere to have adventures. This would all be very charming, but obviously it's no coincidence that the genre's heyday coincided with that of European imperialism.

Explorers were romanticised in popular culture, with accounts of their doings proving as popular as adventure novels, and there was an open understanding that the readers of these stories, both real and fictional, would grow up to participate in the protection and governance of the empire.

As the 19th century drew to a close, however, explorers were running out of “blank space[s] of delightful mystery” (as Conrad describes them in Heart of Darkness) to map, explore and claim. Again, it's no coincidence that the beginning of the 20th century saw a flowering of fantasy and science fiction, providing heroes with new worlds (and planets) to go questing in.

The colonisers had had a vested interest in ridding the land, as far as possible, of competing histories and significance, discounting existing cultural and geographical understandings of the space. The effect of this in narrative was to rid the territory of any purpose other than the protagonist's personal or material quest.

In fantasy, of course, this is literally true – the fantasy world only exists for the purposes of the quest narrative.

Questions of power

Diana Wynne Jones begins her brilliant Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a tourist's guidebook that takes on practically every cliché of the genre, with the injunction to "find the MAP… if you take this Tour, you are going to have to visit every single place on this Map, whether it is marked or not. This is a Rule.”

Local landmarks, where they appear, figure as stages of a sort of obstacle course on the protagonist's journey to collect (or destroy) the magical object. The local population is similarly mostly absent, though sometimes presents another obstacle in the form of a faceless barbarian horde.

To be able to treat a space as something inherently designed for one's own material or spiritual benefit is to be in a position of power, and these particular spatial power relations continue into the real world and into other genres of writing. At one level, King Solomon's Mines, Eat, Pray, Love and The Hobbit are all versions of the same story.

That this power, this assumption of one's own welcome within the landscape, is not available to everyone is clear. See, for example, Omari Akil's piece on the potential danger of playing Pokémon Go as a black man in America, or the conversation around the difficulties of playing the game for people with physical disabilities.

The fantasy cannot re-enchant the world without being fundamentally connected to the world, and in the past few days we've been reminded of this several times when the demands of the real and virtual spaces have collided – such as the appearance of Pokémon at Auschwitz, at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and at the 9/11 memorial in New York, spaces with too much cultural significance (and specifically, places of mourning) to be subsumed into the landscape of the quest. There have also been gruesome stories of people coming across corpses while playing the game.

The possibility of stumbling across a (real) dead body is remote, but there are plenty of good reasons to be wary of Pokémon Go, and other people have already articulated them. It is unlikely that it will make much of a difference (and sources of joy are few enough at the moment that it's hard to judge anyone who chooses to ignore the dire warnings). But many of those who play the game will find themselves inevitably negotiating the obstacles that are part of the real world – constant reminders of who does, or does not, have power over the space, and for whom fantasy quests are really for.

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In a first, some of the finest Indian theatre can now be seen on your screen

A new cinematic production brings to life thought-provoking plays as digital video.

Though we are a country besotted with cinema, theatre remains an original source of provocative stories, great actors, and the many deeply rooted traditions of the dramatic arts across India. CinePlay is a new, ambitious experiment to bring the two forms together.

These plays, ‘filmed’ as digital video, span classic drama genre as well as more experimental dark comedy and are available on Hotstar premium, as part of Hotstar’s Originals bouquet. “We love breaking norms. And CinePlay is an example of us serving our consumer’s multi-dimensional personality and trusting them to enjoy better stories, those that not only entertain but also tease the mind”, says Ajit Mohan, CEO, Hotstar.

The first collection of CinePlays feature stories from leading playwrights, like Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Dattani, Badal Sircar amongst others and directed by film directors like Santosh Sivan and Nagesh Kukunoor. They also star some of the most prolific names of the film and theatre world like Nandita Das, Shreyas Talpade, Saurabh Shukla, Mohan Agashe and Lillete Dubey.

The idea was conceptualised by Subodh Maskara and Nandita Das, the actor and director who had early experience with street theatre. “The conversation began with Subodh and me thinking how can we make theatre accessible to a lot more people” says Nandita Das. The philosophy is that ‘filmed’ theatre is a new form, not a replacement, and has the potential to reach millions instead of thousands of people. Hotstar takes the reach of these plays to theatre lovers across the country and also to newer audiences who may never have had access to quality theatre.

“CinePlay is merging the language of theatre and the language of cinema to create a third unique language” says Subodh. The technique for ‘filming’ plays has evolved after many iterations. Each play is shot over several days in a studio with multiple takes, and many angles just like cinema. Cinematic techniques such as light and sound effects are also used to enhance the drama. Since it combines the intimacy of theatre with the format of cinema, actors and directors have also had to adapt. “It was quite intimidating. Suddenly you have to take something that already exists, put some more creativity into it, some more of your own style, your own vision and not lose the essence” says Ritesh Menon who directed ‘Between the Lines’. Written by Nandita Das, the play is set in contemporary urban India with a lawyer couple as its protagonists. The couple ends up arguing on opposite sides of a criminal trial and the play delves into the tension it brings to their personal and professional lives.

Play

The actors too adapted their performance from the demands of the theatre to the requirements of a studio. While in the theatre, performers have to project their voice to reach a thousand odd members in the live audience, they now had the flexibility of being more understated. Namit Das, a popular television actor, who acts in the CinePlay ‘Bombay Talkies’ says, “It’s actually a film but yet we keep the characteristics of the play alive. For the camera, I can say, I need to tone down a lot.” Vickram Kapadia’s ‘Bombay Talkies’ takes the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotions as seven personal stories unravel through powerful monologues, touching poignant themes such as child abuse, ridicule from a spouse, sacrifice, disillusionment and regret.

The new format also brought many new opportunities. In the play “Sometimes”, a dark comedy about three stressful days in a young urban professional’s life, the entire stage was designed to resemble a clock. The director Akarsh Khurana, was able to effectively recreate the same effect with light and sound design, and enhance it for on-screen viewers. In another comedy “The Job”, presented earlier in theatre as “The Interview”, viewers get to intimately observe, as the camera zooms in, the sinister expressions of the interviewers of a young man interviewing for a coveted job.

Besides the advantages of cinematic techniques, many of the artists also believe it will add to the longevity of plays and breathe new life into theatre as a medium. Adhir Bhat, the writer of ‘Sometimes’ says, “You make something and do a certain amount of shows and after that it phases out, but with this it can remain there.”

This should be welcome news, even for traditionalists, because unlike mainstream media, theatre speaks in and for alternative voices. Many of the plays in the collection are by Vijay Tendulkar, the man whose ability to speak truth to power and society is something a whole generation of Indians have not had a chance to experience. That alone should be reason enough to cheer for the whole project.

Play

Hotstar, India’s largest premium streaming platform, stands out with its Originals bouquet bringing completely new formats and stories, such as these plays, to its viewers. Twenty timeless stories from theatre will be available to its subscribers. Five CinePlays, “Between the lines”, “The Job”, “Sometimes”, “Bombay Talkies” and “Typecast”, are already available and a new one will release every week starting March. To watch these on Hotstar Premium, click here.

This article was produced on behalf of Hotstar by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.