The title of Zee5’s new Marathi web series Sex Drugs & Theatre is misleading. The focus is neither on coitus nor cannabis, but on something far more contentious: caste politics.

The series is set in a Pune college and follows a theatre group’s attempts to pick up the pieces after its director, a Dalit student and activist, commits suicide. The students also try to figure out what drove Rohit Kolekar to take his life, uncovering discrimination by the college management. There are strong parallels with the suicide of Hyderabad University PhD student Rohith Vemula, and the show was partly inspired by the Dalit scholar’s story, series director Sujay S Dahake told Scroll.in.

The title was a ploy to get youngsters to watch the show, Dahake admitted. “I wanted to make a political series. My inclination has always been towards how politics and cinema can merge,” he said. “But how do I attract the youngsters to this premise? The idea was to bring in the youth showing something chivalrous and then hit them with something serious.”

Sex Drugs & Theatre, starring Shalva Kinjawadekar, Mitali Mayekar, Aadish Vaidya and Suyassh Zunjurke along with Dahake as Rohit, was released on Zee5 on March 5. The series can be streamed in Marathi with subtitles and in a Hindi dubbed version.

Play
Sex Drugs & Theatre (2019).

Dahake’s credits include the National Film Award-winning Shala (2012), a story of young love set against the backdrop of the Emergency, Ajoba (2014), which explores wildlife conservation through a leopard’s journey, and Phuntroo (2016), about a science student who invents a girlfriend through artificial intelligence.

Dahake conceptualised the web series in 2014, but reworked the idea to include caste-based discrimination after reading about Vemula’s suicide. The Dalit scholar, a member of the Ambedkar Students’ Association, killed himself on January 17, 2016, shortly after he was expelled from his hostel following an altercation with members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. The case received widespread media attention, sparked protests in universities across the country and drew attention to systemic discrimination in educational institutes. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party countered these allegations with a combination of stonewalling and obfuscation, claiming that Vemula was not a Dalit.

The series tries to imagine what the student must have gone through in his last days, Dahake said. “There have been cases even before, even during the Congress regime, so we tried to bring out all these cases to make a single thread of what our Rohit can be,” Dahake said.

Sex Drugs & Theatre. Courtesy Zee5.
Sex Drugs & Theatre. Courtesy Zee5.

Sex Drugs & Theatre transports the premise to Pune, and interprets how caste dynamics would play out in a college theatre setting. “When I saw all my friends from various college staging plays, I noticed that the directors, actors and actresses are mainly from the Brahminical society,” Dahake said. “A Dalit would get a role of a passerby or something. In Pune particular, the Brahmin-Dalit disparity is a lot.”

Dahake added that he had no apprehensions about tackling a theme that has been a political hot potato. “I started it with Shala, followed by Nagraj Manjule [the director of Fandry and Sairat],” he said. “I’m a Dalit myself, we have gone through this. We want to say all this, we want to put this out.”

The series was also a way for Dahake to showcase Pune’s vibrant experimental theatre culture. “My entire schooling has been in filmmaking and I always kind of felt left out when my friends would do theatre,” he said. “When I thought of these characters and their stories – of a group setting out to stage a play – I thought the dynamics were both dramatic and cinematic.”

Dahake tried to reference elements of experimental theatre in the show’s visual language. “I didn’t want to follow the typical grammar of films – of having an establishing shot showing the outdoors before a scene,” he said. “I wanted to mimic how it would be in a play. We also used a lot of mise-en-scene and long takes, as well as stage lighting instead of film lights.”