New world orders mutating old ones form the subject of two Bengali productions in which modes of transport watched over by human eyes become metaphors of change: a railway line guarded by a sentry in Bohurupee’s Atmaghati, and a riverine bridge affecting a ferryman’s life in Kalyani Kalamandalam’s Seturam.
Atmaghati, written by Arup Shankar Maitra, carries an absurdist flavour, because the protagonist seems an impossible mix of security police and paramilitary personnel, as well as assigned to one remote forest post for 15 years. He has only a TV set for company, besides rare wireless exchanges with his superiors — who one day alert him to a female suicide bomber bent on blowing up the Rajdhani on that track. He apprehends her (picture), but finds her an apparently innocent, frightened runaway from home.
Even if we allow for incredibilities in theatre of the absurd, director Debesh Raychaudhuri stretches some of them too thin, for the low-ranking hero has very sophisticated musical tastes, compared to the authentically melodramatic soap-opera soundtrack that he enjoys, and the rather late attempts at caricaturing officers and commandos fall quite flat. But he acts the lead with his customary tragic intensity, while debutante Piyali Samanta as the extremist evokes appropriate sympathy in him for the frustrations of youth misguided into violence. The surprise ending makes it intriguingly possible that he hallucinated the entire play.
Bohurupee’s folder mentions the conflict between nature and progress, the railroad slicing through and desecrating the forest, but Raychaudhuri does not project this, thankfully, for we cannot wish away the benefits of the world’s largest train network. Likewise, Manab Chakrabartti’s story, Seturam, attaches everything evil to the bridge, and posits a prelapsarian rural idyll preceding it, but it is obviously romantic and naďve to think that village life has no vice, or that nothing good happens in the city. Curiously enough, both recent productions of Seturam originated outside Calcutta: Theatre Platform (Khardah) a decade ago and Kalyani Kalamandalam now. One can understand their suspicion of urbanization, but we have gone beyond simplistic black-and-white dualities. A contemporary Seturam should explore sustainable development, where bridge and boat coexist.
Instead, in Tirthankar Chanda’s dramatization, the worst possible ramifications follow the construction of the bridge. Capitalism accompanies it along with cronies and criminals. The close familial kinship in village society gives way to impersonal materialistic dealings with newcomers. The boatman loses his livelihood and, in order to survive, turns into a vile shopowner. Shantanu Das, the director, also acts this role in a consummate portrayal of his gradual deterioration in character, supported by a relatively large and diverse cast.