"Soon every child down the street will have it: one child catches a cold, then in an instant every child in the country is sneezing." So speaks a sympathetic friend when he hears that Deepa, the anti-heroine of the play Free Outgoing, is supposedly locked away in quarantine while she recovers from measles.
In fact, Deepa is suffering from an altogether different and very modern virus. Having been caught in flagrante with her boyfriend, Jeevan in the English room at school, Deepa has already brought shame enough on herself and her Hindu family.
But when it emerges that Jeevan has filmed the act on his mobile phone and forwarded it to his best friend, it is only a matter of time before the entire community of Chennai – and the country – has heard about and has an opinion on her dishonour.
This is the latest play in the Royal Court's successful international season. As Rhinoceros and The Arsonists, the work of more established playwrights, continue in rep in the main theatre downstairs, upstairs has already hosted Marius von Mayenburg's Freudian satire on the modern obsession with youth and beauty, The Ugly One, and Kebab, a play by the Romanian playwright Gianina Carbunariu, about Eastern European immigrants who are lured into the sex trade in Dublin.
Free Outgoing is directed by Indhu Rubasingham, who directed Sugar Mummies, Lift Off and Clubland at the Royal Court, and was associate director of Bombay Dreams. "What really interested me was that this is a contemporary play coming out of India, a new voice," she says. "In my time in theatre, I don't think I've ever heard that contemporary Indian voice. It's always the immigrant voice. To hear a voice talking about what's going on in India now, with confidence and authenticity, made me realise that we often look at the problems of immigration or the British Asian experience or the black experience in this country – we're always looking at what it means to be British."
Free Outgoing is Anupama Chandrasekhar's third play – and her first to be performed outside India. "It's brilliant, I feel like I'm Alice in Wonderland", enthuses the 34-year-old, whose previous plays include Acid, the tale of a woman whose face is destroyed in an acid attack, and Closer Apart, about the relationship between a father and his daughter.
Born in the southern India city of Chennai, Chandrasekhar studied English at university before becoming a journalist on The Hindu Business Line. In 2000 she attended a playwriting workshop hosted by the Royal Court, and has been nurtured by the international department of the theatre ever since.
She was inspired to write the play by a real-life story which caused a media frenzy three years ago, when a schoolboy recorded himself having sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend, on his mobile phone. Thanks to the clip, which lasted a mere two minutes and 37 seconds, both were expelled from their well-respected school in Delhi. The girl was banished to Canada by her parents, while the boy was forced to appear before a juvenile court where the prosecution suggested that he be put in psychiatric care for displaying "animal instincts".
Also caught up in the scandal – and arrested – was one of India's leading businessmen, Avnish Bajaj, the chief executive of Baazee.com, an internet site owned by eBay, on which the offending clip was offered for sale.
Chandrasekhar decided to transfer these events to Chennai, where she has lived for all of her life. "It's a far more conservative and repressed city than Delhi," she explains. The voice of this society is represented in the play by Nirmala, the principal of the school at which Deepa, a bright, obedient 15-year-old with dreams of becoming a doctor, is the star pupil. Nirmala first suspends Deepa, then, when the video clip begins to spread, expels her, and her brother, Sharan, from the school.
"It's straight out of Ibsen," says Shelley King, who plays Nirmala. "You've got this woman protecting her values even though she knows them to be fractured and hypocritical. Chennai is a very uptight city – it's straight down the line, by the book, very proper. Although we all know that various films are watched and things are done that don't conform to the norm, they have to be done without anybody knowing about them. The crime is that somebody finds out about it, not that it is done."
It's familiar territory for the Anglo-Indian actress who is the chair of Kali, a theatre company that develops and presents new theatre by Asian women. Among the writers on its books is Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, the playwright of the notorious Bezhti ("Dishonour"), which was closed down at Birmingham Rep in 2004 as a result of protests by the local Sikh community about its scenes of sexual abuse and murder within the grounds of a temple.
"Bezhti was a play about prejudice like this one," says King, who appeared in that play too. "The idea is that it's alright if it happens, but you mustn't talk about it. Challenge anybody and they'll repress you. We don't like to look at ourselves and theatre has always been about that."
In the Free Outgoing, Nirmala is pitted against Deepa's mother, Malini. When confronted with the news of her daughter's behaviour, she passes rapidly through emotions from disbelief ("It is possible the two were just exchanging CDs – you know how things get blown out of proportion here," she says with grim, prophetic, irony), to flat denial and then tyrannical anger. Deepa is locked away in her room and the family is cut off from anything that might be an outside corrupting influence: "no TV, no movies, no games, no entertainment, no distraction, no nothing!".
By cutting the plug off the television, throwing away her children's books and mobile phones and smashing up the games console, Malini desperately tries to remove the Western values that have encroached upon her family. Even the change in Indian teenagers' diet from thayir saadam (curd rice) to pizza is blamed.
Lolita Chakrabarti, who was last seen playing the racy divorcee who seduced Rafe Spall's younger Erhart in John Gabriel Borkman at the Donmar Warehouse, sees the rather more restrained Malini as a sympathetic character who finds herself caught up in the hysteria of a community.
"She's a single mum trying to protect her brood," says the actress. "Chennai is very conservative, traditional, moralistic and upstanding. It has all these values and yet you have the internet and mobile phones giving absolutely every other version of Western culture. It's a huge clash of those two cultures in the one piece."
The lack of a father figure only adds to the family's woes. Malini considers exiling Deepa to live with Malini's brother in America, but it emerges that he cut his sister off years ago when she married outside of the Tamil community. Nor can neighbours and friends (including the self-appointed pillar of the community, Kokila, played by the Britz actress Manjinder Virk) be relied on for help, terrified as they are of being tainted by "soiled goods". In scenes reminiscent of the furore caused when Richard Gere dared to embrace the Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty during the launch of an Aids awareness programme in New Delhi, the community is rocked as puritanical protesters burn effigies of Deepa outside the house and journalists clamour for a glimpse of the "fallen woman" and her family.
"I see myself as an observer," says Chandrasekhar. "It's a reflection of the status of women in my society, where a girl's life is decided by her family and by society."
To this end, Deepa never appears on stage – she is merely the silent catalyst for the mounting moral outrage of a family, a town and a country.
"The reason that we don't see Deepa on stage is because she's been de-voiced. She hasn't got a voice. Everyone is making judgements about her and during the play the audience's image of her will change and be called into question," says Rubasingham.
"Deepa is just a normal schoolgirl who has been under a lot of pressure and who does this one mad, impulsive act. She could be any young 15-year-old who's trying to explore adulthood."
To 24 November, Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London SW7 (www.royalcourttheatre.com, 020-7565 500)Reuse content