Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Evading the issue

Surnai's production of Jameela Bai Kalaali closed the Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival. The play is adapted from Mario Vargas Llosa's La Chunga, and set in rural Rajasthan. Like the original, the name of the adaptation is also the name of the protagonist and the bar she runs. The present adaptation seems filtered taking in only the story from the original play, and not the underlying themes. The lesbian overtones have been played as a fantasy of the men who come and drink at the bar. The turning point of the original play is in the silence of La Chunga. Many people see the silence as the key to the story of the young girl's disappearance and her fate. "What did you do with her? When will you tell us?" the men ask La Chunga and her only response is her silence. At this point the playwright begins to play with the fantasy of the audience at large.

However, in Jameela Bai Kalaali, two things about the way the plot and themes are dealt, are disappointing. One, a scene detailing what actually happened to Chameli is explained. Later, Jameela Bai explains to the audience that her love for Chameli is of a maternal kind.

Jameela Bai Kalaali joins a list of plays that don't want to address homosexuality. This play stands proof of the fact that merely conforming to a story does not make for a successful adaptation. The `tall ageless woman' of Llosa's La Chunga is subverted. While talking of the changes, Ila Arun, who adapted the play says in Theatre Alive "... and with Rajasthan comes the colour and music of the state which I thought was perfect for the play." Strangely though, the play had a mix of recorded and live singing, which seemed out of place. The lead actress, Ila Arun, a singer and performer let down her audience by not singing live on stage.

Ila Arun as Jameela, remains cold on stage. While one can interpret this as Jameela's defence against the men who taunt and provoke her, the coldness in speech and facial expression continue in her interaction with Chameli (Rajeshwari Sachdev). On her part, Sachdev was trying very hard to fit into the role of Chameli. K. K. Raina, Ravi Jhankal, and Mitwa stood out with their energetic delivery and movement in their individual scenes with Arun and Sachdev. They were convincing in their portrayal of common thieves. Rajit Kapur was good as Jabra. Though his Hindi had an urban touch to it, his obvious study of a village thief and pimp, showed well in all the scenes. For a play that has been performed for nearly eight years prior to this performance, Jameela Bai Kalaali displays unacceptable glitches, like not camouflaging the lights on stage. On the whole, Jameela Bai Kalaali was disappointing.

Deepthy Shekhar

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Seemingly Farcical

I asked a friend to come watch the fifth play of the Ranga Shankara theatre festival 06 with me. The play was in Marathi, and after the Cotton 56, Polyester 84 experience, I was ready for more. It was called Makdachya Hati Champagne, (Champagne in a Monkey’s hand)and promised to provide a lot of entertainment. But my friend, refused to come to watch the play since it was in Marathi. His complaint was not new. I had heard it many times from many people. “How can I waste time over play in Marathi or any other language? I wont understand anything. It is wasted viewing,” he concluded. I wondered about this the matinee show began. Do I need to know a language to understand a play? My preparation, to get a head start in understanding helped me.

I knew this play was a political satire. I had read the promotional material Ranga Shankara had made available, but I was keen on understanding how a political satire could be set in a bachelor pad in Maharashtra. Three men live there, all addressed by names matching their personalities. ‘Chaku’ (Vivek Bele) is uncouth and blunt, Pustak (Sandesh Kulkarni) is a book worm obsessed with Bernard Shah’s ‘My Fair Lady’, and then there is ‘Makad’ (Anand Ingale). He is called Makad – Monkey. Why? “Let me explain with an example.” He is Makad like the monkey who cut off the nose of the king, while trying to kill a housefly. Creating chaos. Makad works as a television reporter, and craves for news all the time, when there is no news happening, he churns it, like Makad in the king’s story –making a mountain of a mole hill – 24/7. Enter Pencil (Sharvani Pillai). The girl Chaku woos. She is called Pencil because, her past is erasable, and yet has no refill. She also has not cap to cover her mistakes.

The play can seem to be a slapstick comedy. Yet look beneath the layers. Each scene begins with the television. There are glimpses of political strife that consumes the Maharashtra Government. In the play- similar tensions revolved around Pustak and Chaku, both contenders for Pencil’s attention and love. Pencil not only loves all the attention she is getting but she takes it further by arranging the contest to select the man she wants to marry. The external and internal strife are similar. The play depicts the manipulation and the schemes of all the parties involved.

So what is Makad’s role in all this? How does he gain? He does not love or woo Pencil, neither does he gain her love or suffer at the loss. So what is his motive or gain? The playwright projects the idea current in these times. He introduces the ‘opportunist’ here. “Just be available at all times” is his mantra. Pustak’s marriage to Pencil, the threat of the divorce and surprisingly bigamy with Chaku, are too familiar political occurrences of ‘vote of no cofindence’, and the coalition governments. And like the political dramas turning sour, because of the middle man’s intervention, the proposal of bigamy / coalition government falls flat, and suspends into a limbo state. A marriage not ending in divorce (vote of no confidence) or moving towards bigamy (Coalition Government).

The play has been constructed as a satire with a lot of imagination. The playwright introduces various concepts and philosophies –“be available” and “conceptual spying” and other hilarious examples of ‘political strategies’ are interspersed with witty lines. The performance was entertaining. The 180 minutes does not seem heavy, when the audience is kept on its toes. For people like me to whom the language is foreign, the high energy of the play and the involvement of the audience kept me going. I laughed when the audience laughed, mainly enjoying their joy, and realized that I did not need a translator after the first few minutes. This is also because, what can seem to be a highly verbose play also had a lot of physical enactment. Pustak’s, who can be made stereotypically stiff in his body postures, moved like an inspired dancer, Makad – true to his creed of middle men was an actor with in the play and worked his voice and face effortlessly. And Chaku, who is unlike all the unimaginative portrayals made in the past of ‘uncouth and unversed’ people.

One thing that stood out in the performance was the effortless ease in which the entire execution was handled. There was no fumbling of lines. The set was constructed to use the space of the stage appropriately. Three beds, changing wall murals, a television, an illuminated wine cabinet and even a sink were fitted beautifully, and the actors moved between all this in ease. The coordination between the actors and the sound was perfect. The actors Sandesh Kulkarni, Anand Ingale, Vivek Bele, and Sharvani Pillai not only enjoyed themselves, but performed for a highly energetic audience. My friend – he missed an opportunity for a good laugh. It is all in the ‘being available!’

Good in parts

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 challenge

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.

Purpose served?


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