Festivals that unwittingly overlapped with International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month in March drew attention to the subject of women in some new plays. Usha Ganguli dramatized Rangakarmee’s latest, Ham Mukhtara, from the horrific case history of Mukhtar Mai, the Pakistani honour/gang-rape victim who fought valiantly in court for almost ten years before finally losing her appeal in 2011, for “insufficient evidence”. Ganguli documents real life, of course, but makes it a mirror to the continuing gender oppression in India too.
It ranks alongside Chandalika among her recent directorial accomplishments. As has become typical of her style, she disciplines 20-odd young, mainly untrained actors into a tightly cohesive ensemble that moves collectively with utmost precision. Her choreography, sometimes packing them like sardines, appropriately demonstrates the herd mentality and regimentation within the rural community, but also the bonding of a sisterhood. The black costumes enforce their social invisibility, yet flashes of colour reveal their selves. Also true to the workshop technique of evolving the production, she dispenses with sets (except for hanging painted braids suggesting women’s hair) and most props, making it stageable anywhere, including outside the proscenium.
Ganguli rightly does not project herself in the forefront, functioning as a narrator, but not intrusively. She discovers a fresh actress in the eponymous role, Mrinmoyee Biswas (picture), who expresses the trauma Mukhtar underwent as well as the strength of character with which she stood up for her rights, perfectly aware that she ran the risk of ostracization or worse, and eventually opened a village school for girls.
Kathakriti celebrated its 25th anniversary with Suchitra Bhattacharya’s novel, Hemanter Pakhi, dramatized by Sanjib Ray. A homemaker who starts writing suddenly tastes success and finds herself wanted in literary circles. This brews consternation in her family, for the chauvinistic husband feels she should tend to household duties, while her mollycoddled adult sons continue to take her for granted. Realizing that her self-fulfilment can never reach fruition, she surrenders to them. Lest we forget, the authors who drop in behave opportunistically, too.
Given that the National Award-winning cinematization from 2002 remains fresh in public memory, Ray’s rather reductive version also seems ill-timed, even if we agree that the film changed the conclusion. His direction does not offer anything particularly new, barring the heavy-handed symbolism of the pet bird (performed by a danseuse) with whom the woman talks and who a cat stalks. Whereas the bird flies the coop at the end, she must stay cooped up at home.