|Moment from Ethnomedia’s Ron
The big surprise of Ganakrishti's theatre festival this year flew in from across the Atlantic, and performed in Bengali. I don't mean to sound condescending, but the few amateur non-resident Bengali (NRB) productions I've seen, whether epar or opar the seas, languish in pathetic homesickness for an imagined Bengali culture, and in equally pathetic club-variety stagecraft.
Ethnomedia from New Jersey confines this genre to the trash bin with Ron, an original play that probes deep into the NRB ennui, attracting pin-drop attentiveness from a packed Rabindra Sadan after wowing audiences on its premiere a fortnight ago at the first South Asian Theatre Festival in the US.
Dramatist-director Sudipta Bhawmik names his work symbolically after a second-generation Indian-American youth, Ron (Ronobir, which of course signifies battle-hero) Mitra, who joins the US Army and is sent to serve in Iraq. This enables Bhawmik to vocalise the hard questions that the immigrant community faces on a daily basis. What is their identity' Do they become 'American' the minute they take the pledge of allegiance' Are those who hold on to their Green Cards, declining to take US citizenship, more Indian' Most tellingly, where do their children's values lie' Or do they not think that far ahead'
At another level, Ron recalls the anti-war drama of the Vietnam era, like David Rabe's. When your soldier son fights for a cause you don't believe in, whom do you support' As Ron's close ones wait for his promised phone call during the course of an evening party, Bhawmik explores through very mature dialogue their varying attitudes to loyalty ' to the country, to the family, to friends, and even to one's spouse. Meanwhile Ron himself flits through as a presence, admirably and naturally acted by Amitav Roy, commenting on them in English and Bengali.
His parents, movingly portrayed by Shankar Ghoshal and Lilabati Mazumdar, are pacifists but accept his individual choice. Their Bangladeshi friend (Kaushik Datta), who survived the trauma of 1971, has a completely different perspective on war. A younger couple ' Ron's friend (Nandita Ghosh) who moved from Calcutta after an arranged marriage, and her volatile husband (Debi Prasad Palit) ' also holds mutually opposed views, complicated by her affection for Ron. Finally, Ron's former paediatrician (Keka Sircar) has invited a writer from Calcutta (Indranil Mukherjee), an alcoholic who precipitates the discussion by provoking everyone.
In contrast, the three other productions from outside unfortunately exemplified the bane of festival procedure: no screening process, often just returning the favour of past invitations to the organisers. Brechtian Mirror's Kaheka from New Delhi is an abysmal pretence to theatre, though Noor Zaheer's script has a social message against human sacrifice in Himachal Pradesh. Like a rank-bad middle-school skit, Amitava Dasgupta's direction had me wishing that the participants really were a hundred miles away after they sang and danced to A hundred miles.
Ananya Theatre from Kaliyaganj, Uttar Dinajpur, at least attempted a difficult text, Tagore's Prakritir Pratisodh, one of his earliest excursions into theatre, but the director Palash cannot theatricalise it effectively, and his troupe's off-key singing pains sensitive ears.
From Balurghat, Dakshin Dinajpur, Prodosh Mitra's dramatisation of Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay's Ek Dui proved that this story about our responsibility to act and speak up is too slight for a full-length presentation. He also had a major problem directing the collective of theatre workers named Samabeta Natyakarmi, who forgot their cues, handicapped by the absence of key cast members.