An Analysis on Off Centre
Reviewed by Ruby Thiagarajan
Written by Ng Wan Xin
I first watched Haresh Sharma’s Off Centre when I was 16, as part of a learning journey with my Literature class. Though more than two years had passed since I last saw the play, the memory of it is just as vivid. One of The Necessary Stage’s most prominent works, Off Centre, is a play that revolves around two characters, Vinod and Saloma. Both of these characters are suffering from mental illness, and we follow their story as they navigate society.
From the first moment I walked into the theatre with my classmates, I saw Vinod sitting alone on the stage. He stared at all of us, one by one. Even though he had yet to speak, I felt uncomfortable. I did not know where to look, so I pretended not to see him. I thought I had gotten away with it, that no one had noticed. But then he said his first line.
“You know, I said ‘hi’ to eighty seven people and only twelve said ‘hi’ back to me. I guess it’s true. People can tell when someone is mentally ill.”
I felt a tinge of guilt, because I was part of the majority that looked away.
This introduction set the stage for how the characters would break the fourth wall throughout the play. They used second person pronouns and gesticulated directly at us. When Vinod pointed and yelled “You don’t want us to bring down your productivity level so you conveniently put a label on us”, I was stunned.
I heard those words before, from an old teacher of mine who once brushed off those with mental illness as a ‘hindrance’ to others. Back then, I only knew it sounded like a particularly malicious insult, and never noticed the deep-rooted stigma behind those words. But hearing it from Vinod forced me into the perspective of someone actually going through this discrimination, and I felt so bitter in the face of it alongside him.
What drove this point home was the exchange between Vinod’s ex-JC classmates, Denise and Charlie, when they met again on the university campus. We were never explicitly told how they knew Vinod’s mental illness, but as the conversation went on, we find out that they heard about his attempted suicide in the army through rumours.
I could feel the quiet tension brewing behind their polite conversation as they awkwardly tried to avoid the topic of his mental health. There was a point when Charlie accidentally let his desire to leave the conversation slip. He gave flimsy excuses (‘Have to register for this and that...go to the admin...a lot of things’), but Vinod saw right through it and called him out, leading to a stream of patronising apologies from Charlie. At that moment, even though I could sympathise with Vinod, I realised how similarly I would have responded, and found myself unable to fully blame Charlie.
Just like in that conversation, we were constantly placed in Vinod’s shoes and experienced society alongside him. Another scene where I felt particularly immersed was the flashback of Vinod when he was in the army. His Platoon Commander (PC) was violently berating him for his suicide attempt, which cost them the ‘Best Unit’ award.
“Just die. Do it for the country.”
When the PC uttered those words, the room went entirely silent. Tears started streaming down my face. I could not tell if it was because I felt pity for Vinod from his raw performance, or if it was because the way the PC spoke was just a little too familiar. Either way, I hated it.
The ending scene remains the most poignant one to me. Vinod was dancing maniacally to music only he could hear, in a blue spotlight alone on stage. Neon lights changed to soft blue, and the deafening music quieted into utter silence. In just a moment, the lively atmosphere of a party changed into a solemn one. In all my life, that was the first time I ever felt emotions that intense.
I find it so intriguing how this one play could connect with so many people, regardless of age and background. When we walked out of the theatre, eyes still red, an introspective mood befell us, and we went home in silence.
How many people were like Vinod, that we were not seeing? Could the people around him have saved him with just a word they could have held back, or by reaching out more? Have we been treating mental disorders the same way the characters in the play did?
The thoughts in my head grew louder, but that was exactly the point of the whole play. Off Centre boldly made the audience swallow a bitter truth about a community we may have been neglecting. After that performance, I found myself being more conscious of the way the people around me, myself included, thought about mental illnesses.
What does it take to create something as powerful as Off Centre? As an aspiring filmmaker, there was still a long, long way to go in my journey of searching for the story I want to tell people.
What made Off Centre especially powerful was how The Necessary Stage actually interacted with people suffering from mental illnesses in the development of it. This made the play so much more authentic and meaningful, because it was a story woven together from real experiences. As Haresh Sharma once said, ‘The theatre is a place where issues that don’t get enough airplay in the public sphere can be discussed.” And he did just that with Off Centre.
I came to film school on a whim. I was not passionate about cameras, or the glory, or the Hollywood dream. All I knew, as a confused 16 year old, was that I liked stories, and wanted to share my own. But that goal was so...vague. Everyone had stories to tell, and the more I learnt about creating stories that meant something, the less I knew. Right now, as I am, I have yet to reach their level of maturity.
But with every video project I work on and assignments I hand in, I hope I can get closer to capturing the emotions Off Centre evoked. And maybe one day I too, can recreate that experience for my own audience.