A masala of characters

By Namali Premawardhana, Pic by Mangala Weerasekera

Sitting down to a chat with ‘Garam Masala’, this year’s ‘Act Before You Think’ (ABYT) winners, is like having your seat moved from the audience on to the stage at the theatre. Facial muscles distort, arms fly, players keep switching roles and once in a while, chairs and tables also move. And they laugh so much!

Benjamin Aluwihare, Nadim Akram and Brandon Paul are taking the IB Arts at the British School and Sajiv Panditha, who has already completed the course, is employed in advertising. While Brandon and Benjamin have known each other for nearly ten years now, they’ve all four been friends for two or three. “We’re closer now,” says Sajiv, turning to Brandon with the sly look of a ‘moment’ on his face. Benjamin explains that “they had a very... passionate session onstage” and everyone bursts out laughing.

The laughter hardly ends before someone else cracks a joke or throws a dish in someone else’s face and it starts all over. “My parents preferred the IB in Arts over my first choice which was Visual Arts,” shares Brandon. We’re discussing Sri Lankan attitudes towards performance.“They preferred it ‘cus it’s more... character building?” he continues hesitantly, to which Benjamin interjects “Yeah, he has a sort of weak character”, and the table erupts again.

While all four identify themselves as dramatists, Nadim is also a dancer. “We’re a bit of a Garam Masala” Sajiv says, grinning wide. True enough, they come from distinctly different backgrounds, speak with distinctly different accents and there is really no better name for them to call themselves than that. But it was “random like most other things we do” Brandon points out.

Improvised theatre just happened upon them, as did their name. “We were having breaks during theatre” Sajiv explains, “and somebody just grabbed a broom and started calling it something else and that developed into a nearly ten minute long piece!”

“The thing about ‘improv’ is you can just do what you want” he continues, “it won’t be as clear as conventional theatre, but [the structure] is there”. He and Brandon both definitely prefer improvised theatre to formal, while the other two are not so sure. “I enjoy both” Benjamin takes his turn (which rarely happens actually, the preferred method is for all to talk at the same time) “in a formal drama the actor becomes what the director wants. Here, all the actors are collaboratively also the director”. What they liked the most about ABYT though, seems to be the direct audience involvement in the performance. “You’re not afraid of the audience as such” Brandon explains, “if they shout something at you, you shout something back. But it’s terrifying how you stand there and do something, and then you realize what you’ve done!” “You literally act before you think,” Bejamin adds thoughtfully.

During the dance segment for example, Benjamin and Nadim seem to have ‘found’ themselves taking their t-shirts off. Onstage. “We finished and we’re like, ‘why did you take your shirt off?!’ says Sajiv, laughing. They were being “spontaneous” Benjamin suggests, and they’re all laughing some more. “You’re finished, and when you come back to that couch and sit down, it’s like you’re on Oprah,” Brandon says animatedly, dramatising an emotional breakdown while wailing “why would I do that!? I didn’t mean to!”

Nadim (the quieter one, yes there is a quiet one) is grinning wickedly as he describes how while being Brandon The Bartender’s helping hands, the timer went off. “He was drinking so slowly, and there was nothing left to do!” he helplessly (laughingly) explains why he spilt the contents of their very fruity mock-juice-tail-smoothie all over Brandon’s shirt.

“But we just kept going” Benjamin declares with gusto as Sajiv adds that “good competition” helped them keep their energy levels up. “It wouldn’t have been” Benjamin starts, “as much fun” Brandon continues, for Sajiv to finish “if there wasn’t that”. Yes, they share sentences.

How easily their thoughts synchronise is proof of how well they coordinate. It takes just over a second for the others to catch, understand and respond to a cue either one of them gives as they pose for the camera, obviously loving the flash.

They seemed, from the beginning, to have that special touch of something that made them winners, something that let them “just keep going” and abandon themselves on the boards.“We knew that no matter what happened, we’d always be there for one another.” Maybe that’s all it took.

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