Finally, a Death and the Maiden that I approve of, more complex than the black-and-white earlier versions from Mumbai (Alyque Padamsee), Dhaka, Calcutta and Kalyani. Credit must go to Debashis Sengupta who, ironically, improves on Ariel Dorfman’s text by adapting Andhare Ekela (presented by Niva Arts) to Bengal’s present political climate with greater subtlety. Even bigger irony lies in his alteration of the doctor’s association with Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile to one with the ruling Left Front here.
However, Sengupta has not made it a partisan drama. Unlike Dorfman, he gives the doctor a sympathetic back story: his mother also suffered trauma, from opposition violence. Andhare Ekela therefore pleads for a stop to the divisive hatred that vitiates Bengali politics today, an ideal reflected in the terminal video clip corresponding to (although quite different from) Dorfman’s epilogue. But Sengupta never diminishes Dorfman’s central concern of custodial rape; he keeps this focus unblurred by downplaying the eye-for-an-eye attitude that emphasizes the woman’s revenge, and removing the did-he-do-it complications that push Act 3 of the original towards a whodunnit.
Yet these aims would not have fructified without the exemplary contributions of the director and cast (picture). Biplab Bandyopadhyay, without much previous directorial experience, fine-tunes the production like a conductor of chamber music. Debjani Chattopadhyay, looking pale by eschewing makeup, delivers a tense, powerful performance as the once-brutalized wife now under psychiatric treatment, who wants her tormentor tried (raising a realistic take on justice that may interest Amartya Sen). Arijit Chowdhury expresses her husband’s bewilderment and belief in fair play, and Gautam Dey the doctor’s personal pain equally well. I consider the cultural switch from Schubert to Tagore appropriate, as the major songwriters from the West and the East, whose compositions are put to macabre use here.
The desire for reconciliation in Bengal’s Left (and theatre, currently split down the middle) receives rather strange support from Theatre Workshop’s Yuddha Paristhiti. Ashok Mukhopadhyay has dramatized Nabarun Bhattacharya’s comparatively weak post-Herbert novella, which follows a Naxalite, driven insane by police torture in 1974, who flees his mental institution in 1994 and returns to Calcutta, where he hid some rifles 20 years ago. Desperate to locate them, he discovers a housing complex has come up on the field where he had buried them.
Containing all the ingredients of Nabarunian satire, the situation drops instead into the threadbare Bengali cliché of romanticizing extremism, similar to its most popular stage manifestation in the mawkishly nostalgic Winkle Twinkle — a Rip van Winkle of the 1970s waking up to find everything has changed around him. Sorry, but misguided youth killing innocents win no brownie points. If you live by the gun viciously, prepare to die by it, unpitied.
Theatre Workshop’s actors fulfil their allotted tasks, especially Lokenath Dey as the confused, dishevelled protagonist, but most of the other characters remain one-dimensional in the script. Kasturi Chatterjee can do little in a role that fits the stereotype of the Communist wife good only for household duties. And, while I hold no brief for the Calcutta Police, we have another hackneyed caricature here of a buffoonish officer terrified of the escaped Naxal.
Mukhopadhyay goes further as director. Besides an impersonation of Lenin calling people to action, a grandly choreographed coda reminiscent of red-flag-waving socialist realism — the Soviet artistic doctrine — glorifies Naxalism as ultimately part of the same revolutionary movement, exhorting all Communists to come together again. Wishful thinking.
The same comment applies to the chief minister’s inaugural statement, at the ongoing Ninth Natyamela organized by Paschimbanga Natya Akademi, that his government would never issue fatwas against theatre. In fact, this largest-ever Natyamela, featuring 125 groups (commendably, 75 of them from the districts, including folk forms for the first time), conspicuously excludes any pro-Opposition directors.
It opened with the new Minerva Natyasanskriti Charchakendra’s Achin Ganyer Gatha, guest-directed by H. Kanhailal. The play, by Kanhailal and Debashis Majumdar, seems too simple at first — a village girl abused by her wicked stepmother — until one reads her as symbolizing the land and people (whether Bengal, Manipur or India), unwisely handed over by her father to someone (variously interpretable) who mistreats her, till she literally flies away. Kanhailal’s patented grace, lyricism and musicality are evident, and it pleased me to see a young Calcutta team imbibe his techniques. Shampa Das (the daughter) exemplifies this joyful performatory enhancement through the force her otherwise slender frame embodies.