Madhuri Shekar's Audio Play 'Evil Eye' Is No Curse, Just A Blessing
When award-winning playwright Madhuri Shekar decided to create something in a new medium, she ended up writing an audio play that pulls you into one wholly engrossing drama.
July 1, 2019
It's always so exciting to hear a unique story come to life in audio and Madhuri Shekar's audio play Evil Eye is an experiences that had us completely enraptured this year. Shekar, one of the playwrights from the Audible Emerging Playwright Fund, wrote this twisty drama about a mother back home in India simply trying to look out for her daughter who's living in the U.S., but it goes so much further.
Listen in as Shekar and editor Kat Johnson discuss how the playwright created this story with a unique setup, infused it with her own relationship with her mother, and used supernatural and thriller elements to explore universal themes.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
KJ: Hi, there. This is Kat Johnson. I'm an editor here at Audible, and I'm so thrilled to have Madhuri Shekar here in the studio with me today for a chat. Madhuri is one of the talented young writers selected for Audible's Emerging Playwright Fund. She is the award-winning playwright of In Love and Warcraft and Queen, and a graduate of Julliard. Recently, she joined the writing staff of Joss Whedon's upcoming show for HBO, The Nevers, and we're definitely going to get into that a little bit later.
Her exclusive audio play for Audible is out. It's called Evil Eye, and it's structured as a series of phone calls between an Indian mother, Usha, who lives in Delhi, and her American daughter, Pallavi... Did I say that right?
MS: Yes, perfectly.
KJ: My husband's Indian also, so I have to try. Her American daughter, Pallavi, who lives in Los Angeles, and who Usha very desperately wants to get married. There are a few other characters we get to meet via phone, including a Hindu astrologer and a mysterious tech entrepreneur. The play has both supernatural and thriller elements, as well as being a captivating, emotional family drama, and it's narrated by an acclaimed multicast of talent. I'm so excited to talk to you about it, Madhuri. This listen has everything. Welcome.
MS: Thank you.
KJ: Let's start off with the fact that you came to us as a playwright, which, I assume, means you were primarily writing for the stage, and now you've produced this amazing piece of audio. What was it like to write for audio specifically, and how did that affect your creative process?
MS: When I heard about the commission, it was really exciting, obviously, and it was very different than anything I had attempted before, because now I was going to have a chance to write a play in a completely different medium. So, a lot of things came through my head immediately, like "What can I do in audio that I cannot do on stage? What is a thing I've always wanted to try doing on stage that I could never really do, and now I can do it in audio?"
I was thinking animals, children... Rain, whatever. What are the things you just can't do on stage that you can do in audio? And one of the things I was thinking about was, How do you write a scary play? In film, you use the techniques of film to limit what you're seeing and what you're hearing, and you curate a certain atmosphere that lends itself to the feelings you want the audience to feel. How do you do that on stage? I've always wanted to write a scary play. That was something I had been thinking about.
Then I thought, "Oh, the audio medium could actually let me create that sense of suspense, that sense of mystery, and fear. That would be really cool to try." So, that was one of the first things I thought about. The other thing I was thinking--I love, love, love listening to podcasts, but have a very hard time listening to fictional narrative audiobooks--What could I write that I would actually want to listen to? That I would feel compelled to listen to. That I would keep coming back to. That I wouldn't listen for five minutes and then my mind would drift off.
And I was thinking, I really love listening to phone calls between people, because I love eavesdropping on conversations. So, what if this is a play entirely told through phone calls? That is something I don't think you could do very effectively on stage, because it would be hard to pull off. Whereas in audio, it just seems like the right fit to have a whole story where the characters are far away from each other.
As I was thinking through this process, it led me to my daily phone calls with my mom. I live in the States--I lived in LA for several years--and my mother lives in India in Chennai. There's a 12-hour time difference, depending on where you are in the States. So, I talk to my mom every day, and it's great. And it's also painful, because she's so far away from me.
So, all of these different things were swirling through my head, and then the final piece of the puzzle really came from my husband. Because I was trying to figure out, "What's the scary story? I don't know. What can I do?" And he said, "Well, do you have something in Indian culture that is uniquely scary, or uniquely monstrous, or uniquely terrifying? The Irish have banshees. What do Indians have?"
And I was like, "I don't know if we have any monsters, but we do have some messed up ideas in some of our religious ideology and practices, and we do have some very interesting ideas on how life works. And so maybe I can go there." All these things kind of came together, and that's how I started to write Evil Eye.
KJ: Wow. That's fascinating. And I love that you came to it as a listener yourself, and thought about things that you like about the audio medium versus things you don't necessarily like. This is infinitely listenable. So, I really appreciate that. And as you said, conversations with your mom also inspired this. What does your mom think about the play? I assume she's heard it, or read it.
MS: Yes. This play is dedicated to my mom. My mom's spirit, really, is in this play. And my dad's spirit is really in this play. And she read a draft a few months ago, a year after I had written the first draft of the play. And I was very nervous about sharing it with her, but then she sent me the sweetest email. She called it feminist. She had all these lovely little things in the email that made me very happy. I was just on vacation in India, and we were working on the post-production of the play. I made my mom listen to at least a scene or two, and she adored it.
And at one point, she was like, "Oh, please, turn it off. It's too scary." Which was great. Such good feedback. I was like, "Oh, good, I'm scaring my mother. That's hard to do." I wanted to write a play that honored my mother, and I hope this does. She's been a great supporter my whole career.
KJ: That's amazing. And so, obviously, the character of Usha might have some similarities with your mom. I really want to talk about her, because she's such an interesting character. I have an Indian mother-in-law, just to throw that out there, and I feel like I saw some of her in this character, too. In the beginning, she comes off a little bit unsympathetic. You're like, "She's a little obsessed with her daughter's love life, and what she's eating for breakfast, and she's obsessed with her career."
But as the play goes on, we get to know her so much better, and we see her so differently. Did you do that consciously? And what were you trying to say about her?
MS: The very first scene of the play is almost a direct transcript of an actual conversation I had with my mother in my mid-20s. It was one of those phone calls that was so funny to me that, once I hung up, I just wrote down everything we said.
I guess I have never seen this character in any way but wonderful. But I know it's hard, sometimes, to talk to your mother. I feel like that's kind of a universal feeling, even if you have a very good relationship with your mother, which I'm lucky enough to do. It's still very, very hard to talk to your mother sometimes on subjects in which you don't see eye to eye.
So, that's really the point of the play. You start from that place where a lot of people experience their mother, but then you take your mother very seriously, and you take her point of view very seriously. You take her life experiences very seriously. And the more seriously you take your mother as a human being, who has lived a full and interesting and complex life... where does that take you in the story? And that's what I really wanted to do.
So, that's hopefully what people get from it, too. This character has a lot of my mother in it, for sure, but it also has a lot of me in it. I guess I can talk about this. When I started writing this play, I was going through a period of intense anxiety in my life, and I was in therapy for it. And the thing about anxiety is that you start worrying about things that are not really under your control.
And that is a lot of what Usha in the play goes through. Her daughter is so far away from her. The anxiety that you can feel when you really want to protect your child, but you don't have the power to protect your child, because they're an adult and they're so far away from you, is very real. But then, how do you handle that anxiety?
This is also a play about what it's like to have anxiety and take that seriously. When do you listen to your gut, and when do you listen to your intuition, which society often dismisses when it comes to women? Women's intuition is almost always dismissed, or not treated with much respect. What happens when you take your gut feelings seriously, and then follow through on that and be brave?
So, Usha has a bunch of things from my life, from my mom's life, from my friends and their parents and everything that I've kind of seen.
KJ: Yes. It's interesting. I'm a big true crime fan, and women, I think, are learning it is good to trust your intuition in those situations, especially when you might meet a charismatic psychopath. You know, it's good to know.
MS: There's a subreddit called r/relationships, that's all just people writing on Reddit, "So, I'm having this problem in my relationship, what should I do? How do I fix this?" And 90% of the time, when it's a woman writing, it's like, "Oh my God, get away from him."
MS: And I'm just so obsessed with that phenomenon of women writing and being like, "How do I help my partner? How do I change?" And it's like, "Get away from that. How do you not see all the warning signs?" So that was something I was very curious about as well. How does somebody get in that situation, and how do you get out of it?
KJ: Right. I want to talk about the notion of the evil eye for a minute. In the beginning, Usha thinks that the evil eye is her daughter being cursed to not be able to find a husband, and clearly, it's about something else. Do you think their family is cursed, and is it something that they can escape? Can any of us escape this type of fate?
MS:I don't think their family is cursed. I am very much an agnostic. But gosh, that's a good question. I don't think their family is cursed, I don't think anyone is cursed. I think this play is just about the reality of how women have to live our lives, in that the odds are kind of stacked against us, and that we move through life in a very different way than cis men get to move through their lives. Just the precautions that we take, and the alertness that we have to have, and the emotional labor that we have to do--it's so much. That's just something women have always had to live with, and perhaps always will.
So, this is a kind of a reckoning with that. I don't think women are cursed; I just think we live very different lives.
But the ending of the play is very meaningful to me. I think the reality of our lives can change if we actually decide to start listening to ourselves, to start taking ourselves seriously, to be kind and to listen to each other. The character of the father is very important in this play. What he does, and how he listens, and how he changes is very important to the way the relationship between the mother and the daughter changes in this play.
So, I do feel like there's hope, and I do feel like there's optimism. The play is not so much about, "Is this one family cursed?" It's just that women have to live lives differently than men do. That's just kind of a reality, where we are right now.
KJ: Right. I guess I was thinking of it more in terms of this inherited trauma, almost, and can a mother spare her daughter from pain that she went through at that age, or does the daughter have to learn on her own?
MS: That's a great question. I feel like that would be spoiler territory.
KJ: Yes, that's right. That is spoiler territory. And speaking of which, I'm trying not to spoil, but I loved this. One of the characters said, "You brought her up to believe that love is impossible, you taught her how to settle." And I was thinking about the notion that Pallavi's parents had an arranged marriage, and it's kind of insinuated that perhaps that set her up in a different way. I got married for love, but I've been married for a long time now, and it changes, and you realize you kind of have to make things work in a less-than-ideal situation.
Again, no spoilers, but when someone falls in love with someone who may not necessarily be who they say they are... Is that a bigger risk than an arranged marriage? I don't know. Were you thinking of these things, what kind of risks people take when they fall in love, and put their lives together with someone else? Is that part of what you were saying here?
MS: I think about that all the time. I'm a relative newlywed, almost two years. My husband and I fell in love, and it completely took me by surprise, because I was not expecting it. I was almost fully prepared to do the thing my parents were trying to make happen for me--which is, I would meet one of these eligible Indian bachelors that my parents were introducing me to, and we would have a meeting of the minds if not a meeting of the hearts, and we would decide to get married.
It was something that always felt deeply, emotionally painful for me to even contemplate, but my parents had such legitimate arguments on their side. I couldn't present a logical argument against what they were hoping for me, especially since they were never going to force me to get married to anybody. They just wanted me to give this a shot.
A lot of the arguments that Pallavi and her mom have early in the play are very much based on what I was going through in my 20s. And so, when I fell in love, it was shocking to me, and completely marvelous and incredible, because I had also grown up with the assumption that okay, you could fall in love, but you could fall in love with the wrong person, and then you're helpless. Then what happens?
The whole first year my husband and I were dating, I kept watching for red flags. I'm obsessed with that Reddit community, so I knew all the red flags. I'd just be watching, and he would pass everything with flying colors. He would just be great in every situation. I'd be like, "Okay..." Slowly, I started letting my guard down. That's how I entered my relationship.
The relationship my husband and I have is very different from the relationship that my parents have. It doesn't mean either of our coupledoms are more or less valid; they're just different. They're products of different cultures and different generations and different expectations.
Marriage is hard. That's such a huge, huge risk that you're taking. It's such a huge leap of faith that you're just saying to this other person, "I believe in you enough that I believe we will be good to each other as time goes on and as we change and as the world changes." It's a huge leap of faith, so I don't think any one way of getting married is the right way. But I do so enjoy being in love. It's great. It's wonderful, and I'm really lucky. I feel very grateful that not only did it happen to me, but when it happened, my parents then gave me the space to do things my way, and then fell in love with my husband themselves.
KJ: Ah, that's amazing. I love that. What did it mean for you to challenge some of Pallavi's more stereotypically Western beliefs about love and reincarnation and marriage? Do you think she was mistaken in thinking that she needed to shed her family's traditional beliefs to be a modern American woman?
MS: Oh, what do you mean?
KJ: There are moments when you're like, "Pallavi's obviously quite independent, she's got her own mind," but then she's the one who's kind of like, "Oh, sure, you can pay for my apartment, and I'll quit my job." And her mother's the one who's like, "That's actually not a great idea." So, I'm just curious if you feel like those beliefs are things she didn't need to reject quite so much.
MS: I'm trying to answer this without spoiling it. Okay, so from the very, very beginning as I was working on the play, I took Usha completely seriously. This was Usha's play, a mother's play. And I understood her. I knew what the ending was going to be; I knew what the point of view of the play was.
And in doing so, I shortchanged Pallavi a little bit in the early drafts. So, in the final rewrites that I did, I had to be like, Let's take Pallavi really seriously. If Pallavi is really based on me, what would I do in these situations, and what would it take to get me into a situation where my mother would be genuinely scared for me? What would happen to me? I pride myself on being pretty levelheaded and pretty together and taking care of myself, successfully adulting for the most part. What would it take for my mother to actually be terrified for me?
And then I had to work backwards and create a situation where these things would have to happen. These are the vulnerabilities that I have in myself, because of the way I was brought up, that the right person could exploit if they knew about those vulnerabilities--which a regular guy might not, but somebody could. Somebody who knew about my mother, about the way I was brought up, about the values I was brought up with, could then figure out how to exploit them.
So that's kind of how I entered Pallavi's mind in the rewrite, and that just made everything so much more interesting, because that then made Pallavi's ambivalence about everything much more interesting, and that also made her relationship with Usha more interesting. And the climax of the play is really about the two of them. It's really about, Can mother and daughter connect in time to stop whatever is going to happen?
I don't know if that's necessarily the answer to your question, but that's kind of the way I got into her head and was just like, "Okay. If I were going to do something as crazy as let somebody pay half my rent, what would've happened?"
KJ: Right, right. Well, and it's a tempting offer, if you're like, "I'm trying to be a writer, but I've got to grade all these papers." All of a sudden, the papers go away. It's quite tempting.
KJ: I want to just ask a little bit about your gig writing for Joss Whedon's show The Nevers. I was always a huge Buffy fan, and I love Evil Eye, so I'm really excited to see this sort of intersection of feminism and supernatural elements. How did this come about, and what can you share about it?
MS: I grew up with Buffy. Speaking of my husband, our first date was just us debating Buffy versus Angel, and I was team Buffy and he was team Angel. It was great. This was my first TV job; it's one of the best things that's ever happened to me. And so, basically, I started looking for TV jobs last year, and my representative sent a play of mine called House of Joy to HBO.
House of Joy is a period play. It's set in the 17th century in India, and it's set in a harem. It's all about women, and it's about female bodyguards. Lots of fighting, lots of intrigue, lots of genre, lots of pulpy fun.
The Nevers is set in Victorian England, and it has a lot of those same things. Women fighting, women fighting evil, lots of enemies, over-the-top wonderful, amazing Whedon-esque characters and just really fun one-liners. And the supernatural and sci-fi--it's wonderful. It was such an amazing marriage of what I really, truly love to do. And then, a creator whose work I've been following my whole life and who really shaped me as a writer, as well.
So, it's fantastic. We wrapped the writers' room for season one, and they're in pre-production, I believe. One day, it will come out, and I will get to see what happens.
KJ: Do you think you'll write for audio again?
MS: I would love to, I would love to. Actually, the Evil Eye creative team, we were just having lunch and I was hearing about all the other commissions that are in progress from the emerging playwright fund, which all sound so great, and each one seems to be experimenting structurally with the format of audio in very, very fascinating ways. I feel like the opportunities are limitless. Once the next idea comes along that seems right for this particular medium, I would love to try again.
KJ: Awesome. I'm so excited! I think people are really going to love it the way I did. Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?
MS: I just really want to give a shout out to our cast and crew, and our director, Megan Sandberg-Zakian. The Audible Theater team. This project was produced by Emelia Lapenta, and she has been such an amazing guide and mentor throughout this whole process, and a wonderful dramaturge as well. This whole journey was really great.
I wrote the very first draft in the fall of 2017, so it's almost two years since I wrote the very first draft. And there have been lots of revisions. There has been lots of thinking and talking about the play, and we did a wonderful workshop last year. When we got into the studio, it was so intense, and so much hard work where the actors had to throw themselves into this heightened, crazy, nuanced, culturally specific world, and they did it with such courage and such bravery--I was really amazed. It was thrilling to sit in the booth and hear the play come to life.
And then, the post-production process was a whole other journey, which, you know, if you're a theater person, you don't have much experience with post. And you don't understand how much of storytelling actually happens in post. Our audio engineer, Alex Trajano, and Megan were just such a brilliant dream team, sorting through our takes and our edits, and putting together the best version of the story. I just really want people to know how much work goes into creating a cohesive storytelling experience, and how many talented people were on board. And it's been really great.
KJ: Good. It sounds like an amazing experience. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.
MS: Thank you.