| Shantigopal: Playtime again
On the left of the large drawing room rests a black swastika on a red cardboard background, nestling against a battle-grey helmet. In the foreground is a black platform, with steps on three sides. Around the walls of the room — where rehearsals are taking place every evening — is a collage of Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Swami Vivekananda and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose — photographs of one man enacting the roles of these “remarkable men in history”.
Shantigopal, the ‘chameleon of Bengal’, is back — playing Bishwatrash Hitler — after more than 15 years in hibernation. The jatra thespian, famous for having such a “plastic face” that he could mould himself into the spitting image of anyone that caught his fancy, last played Hitler in 1985. Now, urged on by friends and fans in his Baranagar para, he has decided to re-launch two of his ‘superhits’ — Bishwatrash Hitler and Lenin.
Another reason for the comeback is to scotch rumours that he was either dead or too ill to act. “I heard people asking whether I was alive. I want to tell them, ‘yes’. I also want to perform for the young generation that has only heard about me and the characters I played,” says the Alec Guinness fan.
Shantigopal, who seemed to bring alive personalities from the pages of history books, insists that he never used any “imported mask or special cosmetics” while donning the myriad roles. “I have always used an easily-available make-up kit. But I took great care in drawing up the minute lines that actually create the resemblance. The wrinkles on the face, the slant of the eyebrow, the curl of the lip, all that slowly built up the character,” he explains.
Shantigopal came to the jatra stage from an amateur theatre group “to earn a living” in 1958. He joined Royal Binapani Opera, where jatra legends like Boro Phani and Panchu Sen ruled. Ten years later, he formed his own group, Tarun Opera, and staged Hitler, written by Sambhu Bag.
Tarun Opera almost folded up after Shib Bhattacharya died in 1984. “He was like my father and he managed my troupe. Without him, I could not continue… Now, my friends and the boys from the para want me back on stage,” says the 65-year-old, staring at a photograph of himself as Hitler.
Now, to be Hitler again, Shantigopal is delving into the Fuehrer’s autobiography, Mein Kempf, and post-War books, like William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to delve into the dictator’s psyche.
A small crowd in New Barrackpore caught a glimpse of Shantigopal as Hitler last week. But January 5 is D-Day, with a mega show at Circus Maidan, Sinthee More, where former chief minister Jyoti Basu is expected to be among the audience.
And this is just the beginning — Shantigopal plans to play Rabindranath Tagore and Fidel Castro in the coming months and years.
But not Pele, though. Shantigopal fondly recounts the time when the football legend had dished out disappointment in Cosmos colours at the Mohun Bagan ground, prompting fans to comment that it must be “Shantigopal playing Pele”.