An ambitious play tries to analyse Bhagat Singh
BUZZ OVER FUZZ The mystery of Bhagat Singh's missing moustache became the topic of discussion post-performance. From left: Pathy Aiyer, Ashish Sen and Deepak Joshi
Last week's performance of Deepak Joshi's new writing of God and Country, directed as a one-man show by Ashish Sen with actor Pathy Aiyer as Bhagat Singh and J.P. Saunders surprised with a good audience turnout. It would not be a lie to say that Bhagat Singh is turning into one of the most popular political heroes of India, if one recalls the biopics and films based on his life and philosophy.
In this recent adaptation of one of his famous and last essays, Why I am an Atheist, Joshi tries to understand Bhagat Singh the enigma and examine his lack of faith even in the time of adversity. Was there a truly stoic man in his shoes or was he a zealous youth trapped in his own vanity? Did choosing to be a `thinking revolutionary' mean choosing to disbelieve in God? Joshi poses these questions through the ghost of J.P. Saunders, a British police officer Singh accidentally killed. Saunders in the play peruses the question of atheism in the context of the nation. But there is a third mysterious character who goes into narrative monologue, and sometimes explains the context of the play.
The content poses the biggest challenge here for the actor and the director. The bare bones of the play — discussions between the characters about faith, patriotism, conscience — are all based on the essay. Those not familiar with the essay will fail to understand most of what is said in the play. There is the risk of the audience only grasping the story, and evading the analysis or interpretation of the play. Also this begs the question: how does the entire essay and its analysis fit into a 45-minute performance? The answer: jerky. While an experienced actor like Aiyer manages to move between the characters skilfully, jumps in the content and presentation make it erratic. There are many allusions like the constant reference to Nero or the influence Trotsky and Marx had on Bhagat Singh.
The discussion between Saunders and Bhagat Singh moves fast, without much chance for comprehension, almost making it feel like plain oration at parts. The narrator does admit that one might see the entire discussion as nothing more than academic ramblings. But nothing changes. The director also includes a physical voice, an offstage, loud voice, at times in the play, repeating what Bhagat Singh has said. Whose voice is it? It was distracting and seemed out of place.
Director Ashish Sen chose to use a single actor to play all these three roles probably to reinforce the fact the Bhagat Singh was indeed conflicted and perhaps in constant conversation with himself. In the execution of the play, in combination with the content, the different characters have been given different points on stage as if in a way to establish their characters. The stage setting was simple. While Bhagat Singh paces between the chairs, sometimes sitting, but always talking aloud, the character of Saunders starts behind the chairs, slightly away, to give the impression of the British guard. The third character stands again aloof (metaphorically and actually) moving in places connecting the different pieces of the play.
One wonders if the play was challenging enough for an actor as experienced as Aiyer. But the ease with which he moved through the characters did show that he was at least having a good time on stage. The lighting by Paresh was good, but the costumes and the mystery of Bhagat Singh's missing moustache became the topic of discussion amongst the audience post-performance. While it is a pity that this seemed to be the topic of discussion with some, most young members of the audience seemed to want to reach out for a copy of Why I am an Atheist.
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