PETALING JAYA: The Malaysian Indian community has consistently vocalised frustration at feeling sidelined, their perspectives and stories often ignored. On rare occasions, however, the opportunity arises for their stories to take centre stage – literally.
“Amma Chellam”, presented by local arts company Anomalist Production, is a theatrical play that brings to the stage the authentic, heartwarming but challenging experiences of some Malaysian Indians in society.
Set in a traditional Malaysian Indian household, the original work centres around 16-year-old Ajay’s relationship with his mother, Amma.
Addressing topics such as relationships, culture, religion, parental and community expectations, “Amma Chellam” spotlights the underrepresented experience of growing up “different” in a Malaysian Indian family.
Initially set for 2020, the play faced multiple postponements owing to the pandemic. Nonetheless, it was producer Khairi Anwar’s strong faith in the script and team that finally allowed it to move from script to stage after three years.
Performed in both English and Tamil, “Amma Chellam” is inspired by the real-life events of its writer, Arjun Thanaraju.
The 26-year-old, who is also the lead actor, believes it is a long-awaited opportunity for Malaysian Indian theatre practitioners to take ownership of their own stories and share them with a wider local audience.
“We rarely see authentic Malaysian Indian stories on mainstream stages when, in fact, we have so much to say. Plays like ‘Amma Chellam’ give our community a voice to speak our truths,” Arjun told FMT Lifestyle.
Narrated from a first-person perspective, the play conveys Ajay’s coming-of-age story, shedding light on the struggles of Malaysian Indian youths in navigating the difficult path of coming out.
Along the way, he discovers how to explore and accept his own identity without alienating his mother.
“One of the most touching scenes is when Ajay helps his mother drape sarees, a moment directly drawn from my own life,” Arjun revealed. “That’s the kind of bond I share with my own mother.”
While Arjun has previously been involved in other theatre productions, the process of creating this one was unlike any other. “Witnessing a portion of my life story being performed and reenacted right before my own eyes was incredibly surreal.
“Growing up, there was no one I could connect to. I’m hoping that by sharing this story, there will be someone in the audience who will feel they’re not alone.”
Amma Chellam features an all-Malaysian Indian cast, namely Arjun, Vicky N, Naveen Raja, and Desmond, with a special appearance by “Jagat” and “Poochandi” star Tinesh Sarathi Krishnan.
Meanwhile, for 25-year-old emerging director Visshnu Varman, taking on “Amma Chellam” came with heightened pressure.
“Knowing that this is not just any story but Arjun’s own, one that he holds very close to his heart, I felt a strong sense of responsibility to do justice to it and remain faithful to the emotions he experienced,” he said.
Arjun and Visshnu, who were childhood friends, owe their shared passion for theatre to Ellina Ros Mansor, their English teacher who led the drama team at St John’s Institution Kuala Lumpur. Arjun joined at age 16 in 2013, while Visshnu joined at 17 two years later.
Since 2017, they have professionally collaborated on writing, directing, and acting in multiple plays. “There’s a special aspect of theatre which you can’t get in any other medium, and that’s the power of a live audience,” Visshnu pointed out.
“When you’re on stage performing, hearing bursts of laughter from the audience or witnessing tears streaming down their faces, it creates an entirely new experience.”
As opening night draws near, both Arjun and Visshnu are naturally looking forward with a mix of anticipation and apprehension. For Arjun, however, things are a bit more intricate.
“I’m bringing my mother to the play,” he shared. “As the entire show is about my relationship with her, I’m anxious, and excited, to see her reaction.”
Ages 15 and above – contains graphic language and themes of sexual abuse, violence and suicide
Aug 16-20 (Wednesday to Sunday) @ 8.30pm
Aug 19 & 20 (Saturday & Sunday) @ 3.30pm
Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC)
H-01, Empire Damansara,
Jalan PJU 8/8, Damansara Perdana,
47820 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
For tickets, click here.