Bengali theatre, though it has distanced itself considerably from the Marxist party doctrine after Singur and Nandigram, remains quite polarized in its responses to Maoist extremism. The few groups that have dared to mount productions on this volatile subject have either supported the rebels — often lapsing into nostalgia for that inexplicable soft spot of Bengalis, the Naxal movement — or toed the government line against them. For the first time, a play rejects both political ideologies and presents the plight of the common man caught in between. The idea for Swapna-sandhani’s Birpurush came to Koushik Sen when he observed a young boy’s traumatized face during a trip to Lalgarh which he suggested to Sumitro Bandopadhyay, who wrote the script.
But Birpurush begins elsewhere. It satirizes the mediocrities and wheeler-dealers at a cultural function in Tagore’s honour, by depicting the artists’ tantrums backstage as they wait their turn to appear. When the emcee announces Tagore’s Birpurush as the next item, the middle curtain parts to reveal the setting for the real drama within this outer frame.
The inner story revolves around a village boy, his parents and grandfather. The boy has learnt Tagore’s poem in school and recites it from memory, fascinated by the child-hero. But his school must close down in order to shelter the paramilitary forces (Sen incorrectly identifies them as “army” men in the credits) that have entered the area. The family’s and villagers’ lives turn topsy-turvy. The troops oppress them by day, wanting information; the radicals terrorize them by night, press-ganging the father to join the cause. One vivid scene catches them literally trapped in the crossfire.
Meanwhile, in an absurdist twist of fate, a wounded fighter from each camp falls into a concealed ditch, from which neither can escape. They face off inside like animals until, exhausted, they can do no more. Sen strains credibility here by arming one of them: when the other wrests the dagger from him, it stands to reason that he will kill his enemy, but they just carry on sparring and slinging invectives at each other. This could have happened only if neither carried any weapon. The episode recalls Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting”: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend.” Perhaps Bandopadhyay knows that Owen died in combat with a poem from Gitanjali scribbled in his diary.
Likewise, Birpurush abounds in irony. The title itself provokes us to ask about heroism. Tagore’s child in his make-believe world fades into the background; the boys here have no hope of games at all. They see two warring sets of model “heroes” — jawans to rescue them, comrades to free them. But the true heroes are the villagers, trying desperately to survive in such conditions with the precious little they have.
Sen directs with passion and sympathy for them. He spares nobody: caricaturing the Home Minister, teasing the culturati (for bargaining with Bratya Basu to reduce the fee for his hit Ruddhasangit, or for signing the popular Debshankar Halder even though the group has not yet chosen a play), and attacking the media for hotfooting it home when the going in the forest gets hot.
However, since television crews have gradually replaced policemen as targets of stage parody, the cameraman and naïve reporter have become a bit of a cliché. Also, it seems difficult to believe that the security forces cannot keep up behind the boy to whom they have assigned an undercover job.
Significantly, Birpurush introduces a novel development in theatre economics: a production subsidy from Orion Entertainment, a corporate screen presence that promises help for workers in theatre to “earn a living out of it.” Does one discern the beginnings of enlightened capitalism here — as in the West, to support meaningful art, no strings attached?
At the end, the opening context returns, as everybody callously goes back to their city lives and artistic networking. Someone notices that the main actors playing the village family have gone missing. In the last scene à la Pirandello, we see them, the true stars (Riddhi Sen, Rabindranath Jana, Debarati Sikdar, Sayan Dasgupta) cautiously moving from the back wall towards us, speaking now in the alien intonation of Jungle Mahal, not for their curtain call, but virtually refugees from what they refer to as “babuder natak”. Touché.