Fame and family, fiction and fact, truth and falsehood, memory and reality — these foggy compartments in Elkunchwar’s Atmakatha make it so compelling. As the conscientious young scholar, Prajna, tenaciously probes the autobiography of respected author Rajadhyaksha, his personal flaws tumble out of the closet one by one, revealing him a selfish and opportunistic cad. One of our very few thinking directors, Vinay Sharma, expresses the cyclical predicament succinctly in his note to the Padatik-Rikh production of the Hindi translation, which marks his much-anticipated return to direction after many years: “Everything is recorded. Everything recorded is distorted. Everything distorted is recollected. Everything recollected is recorded.”
He meticulously designs an oppressive mise-en-scène (picture) for this Beckettian purgatory. A cellular black set narrows acutely, suggesting the vortex of time, toward a backlit window upstage, from which characters view others’ reminiscences as if in a prism/prison. Between episodes, shadowy images outlined on negative film play out on the walls the very scenes that we see in flesh and blood, as if trace elements haunting them eternally. The sounds accompanying them grate like nails clawing blackboards, as if inscribing tortuously in their minds.
Kulbhushan Kharbanda does not disappoint in his comeback, exuding the charisma for Rajadhyaksha that unintentionally traps a third woman in the present after the two in the past. As Prajna, Anubha Fatehpuria expresses her feisty confidence, keen intellect as well as vulnerability; and their exchanges always liven the proceedings. In contrast, his separated wife (Chetna Jalan) and sister-in-law (Sanchayita Bhattacharjee) tend to fall back on their victimization. Jalan does rise to full dignity periodically, but Bhattacharjee should cultivate her power much more than she does: Atmakatha actually shows three strong women exposing an apparently stronger man as spineless. Not for nothing does Fatehpuria’s costume design for them vary just subtly the shades of their saris.
As Rajadhyaksha indulges his hobby of astronomy nearing the end, Kharbanda’s face becomes almost childlike in fascination; his lies and ego vanish, and he and we gaze into the ultimate truth of existence that sweeps away petty individual fame. Since Elkunchwar mentions the night sky at the start, I find it imperative that we see some of it from the beginning, finally overwhelming Rajadhyaksha and us at the close (which Sharma ensures). But he must stay still and not move, holding the ambivalence in conclusion as to why he cannot answer the phone.
Autobiographical drama itself has some leading exemplars, like Neil Simon, who composed Chapter Two on losing his wife to cancer, mourning for her and then finding love again despite his inner resistance. He fictionalized his experiences, of course, but used his trademark comedic style and came up a winner. Although Proscenium staged it here in 2006, Theatrecian’s The Second Innings Indianizes it without deviating from the bittersweet spirit. Neha Poddar debuts creditably as director, but could edit the text more cleverly, given that she has updated the telephones to mobiles, yet missed two of those references that no longer fit in.
Simon’s plays depend considerably on uniformity of acting depth across both lead and supporting pairs. While Shubhayan Sengupta (the widower) and Poddar herself (a recent divorcee) perform the reluctant lovers fluently, his married brother (Aditya Sengupta), responsible for introducing them, looks and behaves far too much like a teenager to make the situation convincing. In comparison, the object of his affections, the heroine’s friend (Prerona Sanyal), delivers her first substantial role with greater credibility.
Calcutta Club also returned to the tried and tested Simon for its annual production. Director Partha Ghose took up the early farce, The Odd Couple, in which Simon reworked old formulae by joining up two newly-divorced men as apartment-mates, who fearfully contemplate dating women again. An obvious vehicle for “stalwart” actors Pradip Mitra (the gung-ho pigpen) and Arya Gupta (the whiny perfectionist), the show held few surprises except for entertaining walk-ons by Rita Roy and Piali Ray as the merry Pigeon sisters. Most infelicitously, however, Roy and Ray boasted accents from different shores of the Atlantic, leaving us wondering about the true nature of their sibling link. In the confusion, Gitanjali Alagh Jolly ran off with the honours for yet another elaborate drawing-room set. Next time round, someone should attempt Simon’s female recasting of his own play, from 1985.