Three Bengali directors approach gynocentric material in their latest works with different degrees of bravery. Through Rangrup’s Jalchhabi (picture), we welcome to the Bengali fold a young star of the London stage, Martin McDonagh. I often criticize Indian theatre’s unfamiliarity with current international trends, so it is indeed a pleasure to find Tirthankar Chanda adapting McDonagh’s debut, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, a popular hit on Anglo-Irish stages in 1996. McDonagh was just 25 years old, and since then has made a big name as an Irish-English playwright — a native of London, he writes almost exclusively on Ireland, the land of his ethnic roots.
Chanda transplants the Irish ethos rather well into provincial Bengal, where a 40-year-old single woman looks after her ailing mother, survivors of the town’s most established family, now living in derelict conditions. Their love-hate relationship forms the core, the daughter desperately wanting to break free but unable to because someone has to care for the older lady. Her fling with her high-school sweetheart suffers as a result. McDonagh has a highly eclectic style, beginning with superficial comedy, moving to a mainstream melodramatic plot featuring sharp twists and turns and concluding in horrifying violence.
Sima Mukhopadhyay directs it all with fidelity, only missing McDonagh’s ironic take on melodrama inevitable in contemporary Western theatre. Instead, she makes it a roller-coaster ride of high emotions, which the four-member cast expresses most realistically; she herself, as the daughter, looks exhausted at the end as she takes over her mother’s position. Chitra Sen portrays the shrewd mother adeptly, and Bimal Chakrabarty the lover. Sanchayan Ghosh designs a sombre, rundown living and cooking area, though it lacks the claustrophobic feel in the original, cramped into little more than a kitchen space.
Also concerning two women, Chokh’s Ardhek Akash, written and directed by Abhijit Kargupta, sets off recollections of Tendulkar’s Kamala, about an oppressed rural woman rescued and brought to the city. A male journalist bought Kamala in search of the ultimate scoop; here, Pushpa is punished mercilessly by villagers for an extramarital liaison, then raped, and her saviour is a female professional writer. Where Tendulkar focused on social hypocrisy, Kargupta brings in political dimensions to gender exploitation. Because the rapists belong to the ruling party, they not only receive protection, but the leaders also instruct their urban goons to scare and rough up the women
In the light of state politics today, it is courageous of Kargupta to speak out, for he knows that it may deny him the tacit or overt support that many Calcutta groups enjoy. That is why one must defend his cause, even though the production has its weaknesses. Among them, the depiction of the Bangla band (whose leader also has an adulterous relationship with the authoress) demands much greater verisimilitude. Paramita Chaudhuri enacts Pushpa naturally, while Nibedita Kargupta performs the writer with increasing confidence, but needs to improve the volume of her voice. The politicians are made to look suitably corrupt.
Natadha’s Shakuntala reassembles Kalidasa’s classic to retell the sad story of India’s best-known dramatic heroine. But why attempt this at all when our finest play, according to the pundits, has done it so much better, unless one wants to present a completely different angle? As dramatist-director Shib Mukhopadhyay does not say anything particularly new, he should have let the still-relevant source speak for itself. For instance, he gives environmental consciousness some importance. But that is amply present in the original. He does try to inject revolutionary protest into Dushyanta’s reign, but only in passing. The basic narrative remains the same, yet without many of its most challenging points. Mukhopadhyay even retains some of Kalidasa’s characters like the Vidushaka without granting them adequate space to justify their revival.
The biggest travesty is Shakuntala herself: Mukhopadhyay could not have chosen a more un-Shakuntalan actress. Monalisa Chatterjee tries to affect innocence and pure virtue, resulting in a coy artificiality painful to watch. She is the second Shakuntala on this production, which suggests that it isn’t getting anywhere. No wonder Arna Mukhopadhyay looks lost as Dushyanta, unsure as to the object of his love; so Shakuntala virtually has to seduce him. He should also refrain from cultivating a vocal quaver; before he knows it, it will become a habit.