Fifty-five years ago, the new group Chaturmukh debuted with Thana Theke Aschhi, Ajit Ganguli’s adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, which rapidly became a favourite text of Bengali group theatre, revived by Gandharva and many others. In 1978-79, it had a brief run on the professional stage despite stars like Tripti Mitra, Ajitesh Bandopadhyay and N. Viswanathan in the cast, under the direction of Shyamal Sen. Now, Sen’s son, Koushik, not only revisits the play but paints it with such contemporary relevance that Swapna-sandhani’s production must rank among the best of 2013.
For those of younger years unfamiliar with Priestley’s most enduring drama, it presents a police officer calling on a well-to-do family to question them about the apparent suicide of a woman they claim not to know. As the evening’s investigation wears on, each one’s culpability unravels. But I cannot spoil audience pleasure by recounting the surprise conclusion. Sen adds a preliminary sequence in which the local industrialist has thrown a party where liquor flows freely and chitchat flies alluding to Chief Ministers from West Bengal to Gujarat (the latter a poster boy for the business-class guests). Dinner over, the invitees depart, the hosts relax — and a phone call announces the inspector’s impending arrival.
Armed with evidence, he politely persuades the family members one by one, including the would-be son-in-law, to drop their denial mode and confess how each had separately exploited the young worker — interpreted in Priestley’s lifetime as his socialistic attack on the British upper class. But now that the cutthroat brand of capitalism has made deep inroads into India on the coattails of “liberalization” and globalization, the play becomes more applicable to the treatment that our affluent citizens mete out to their hapless employees. Sen takes this dissent further by courageously referring to state politics in his director’s note, how in 2007, Swapna-sandhani had joined the civil society movement “to address the cruel voice of power”, and how after elections “sadly, within two and a half years, the present Government adopted the same language — that is the oppressive language of Power.”
Moreover, he also foregrounds gender issues by underscoring the susceptibility of single women in our society today through the dead girl who, although not among Priestley’s dramatis personae, Sen has represented briefly in a mask, with the effect that this generality comes to symbolize her entire sisterhood’s trials in “modern” India. Fighting to earn a living, without any relatives or friends in the big city, they become the victims of rapacious predators.
The performances (picture) support the agenda strongly. Kanchan Mullick stands the stereotype of the bumbling Indian cop on its head, because while he looks the scrawny, challenged caricature, he displays the intelligence and tenacity that should make Kolkata Police promote the character as a role model for themselves, to nab those whom they routinely let go. Reshmi Sen delivers another superbly studied portrayal, of the socialite wife in full control even as things get out of hand, and Koushik himself suavely acts the husband who throws his political clout around to no avail. Shankar Malakar and Monalisa Pal give the children distinctive personalities of hypocritical rebel and spoilt daughter respectively. In contrast to the Sens, Rabindranath Jana, Nabanita Basu Majumder and Siddhartha Banerjee depict their rivals as uncouth, yet the Sens accept them as in-laws for their money.
An Inspector Calls had its premiere in the Soviet Union, understandably, in 1945. That very same year, across the Atlantic, a relatively unknown dramatist by the name of Thomas Lanier Williams shot to fame with The Glass Menagerie, coincidentally about another vulnerable girl’s personal humiliation. A Bengali adaptation of it by Partha Chattopadhyay, Anweshak’s Kacher Putul, still has sporadic shows, though originally staged to mark the birth centenary of Tennessee Williams in 2011, an anniversary that went largely unnoticed in this city.
Small groups like Anweshak get hardly any dates in Calcutta’s top auditoriums, but Kacher Putul is worth watching as an introduction to the classic source, reset in a Bengali middle-class milieu. Subrata Datta directs sensibly, without the melodrama that others often impart; Soma Sarkar (the mother), Sangita Pal (the daughter), Anirban Chakrabarti (the brother) and Dipankar Haldar (his friend) all contribute equally to the acting.