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LITTLE CAUSE FOR ENTHUSIASM

Most of the new shows at Nandikar’s National Theatre Festival did not enthuse us, even though directed by some of the established names in the field. Moreover, by extending invitations to five productions that Calcutta has already seen, three of them at older editions of the very same event, the organizers diluted the content, too.

The National School of Drama Repertory Company repeated Ranjit Kapoor’s double bill from last year, but also brought Dafa-292, based by Anoop Trivedi on Saadat Hasan Manto’s life and works. The title refers to the six obscenity charges against Manto, but Trivedi does not examine these in detail. He directs a montage of biographical snippets — such as Manto’s banter and incompatibility with his wife — and fleeting scenes from Manto’s writings. Luckily he does not dwell too long on the best-known stories, which got overexposed during the Manto centenary. Indeed, the most significant part is his inclusion of Tin Auraten, one of Manto’s rarely-performed dramatic sketches, which I have in vain exhorted people to stage. Three seemingly quiet women waiting on a railway platform take unexpected turns at ceaseless garrulity, much to the annoyance of those around them. Sajida, Ishita Chakraborty and Savitha B. (picture) enact them hilariously. Sauti Chakraborty’s lighting scheme shifts as required from dim evening naturalism to suggestive symbolism.

All the other plays were relatively short. Mandap from Delhi presented Shayer Shutter Down, a one-man show in Hindi written and directed by Tripurari Sharma, about human isolation in the big bad city that lacks the sense of community prevailing in villages and small towns, leading to disturbances in the psyches of those who leave their homes for employment there. But one does not have to “pull the shutters down on the memories and voice that one carries inside” (to quote from the director’s note) in order to cope with urban alienation. The subject has received much better, less simplistic treatment in scripts like Elkunchwar’s Pratibimb or Nadira Babbar’s solo Dayashankar ki Diary, and Teekam Joshi himself has demonstrated his superior acting in, for instance, Janeman.

Thalai-k-kol’s Manthiran by the innovative Tamil dramatist-director, V. Arumugham, from Pondicherry, disappointed equally. It bore a promising premise of reconsidering the myth of Hanuman lifting a whole mountain to bring lifesaving herbs, from a contemporary ecological perspective. Such flagrant destruction of nature obviously cannot pass today. However, Arumugham ultimately does not question the divine status of the Ramayan, and in fact glorifies it. His cast does not perform particularly well, except for the sequences relying on traditional Terukkuttu that Arumugham knows so thoroughly. His use of childish special effects and superficial attempt to modernize the play by projecting videos of war and detonating hillsides add nothing of true substance.

Assam contributed two troupes, both leaving a somewhat greater impact. Ba staged Menaka, dramatized from Homen Borgohain’s novel, Matsyagandha, by Pakija Begum and Jimoni Chaudhury. The heroine belongs to the lower-caste fisherfolk of upper Assam, routinely oppressed by the rest of society. Her sister-in-law has become pregnant after falling in love with a higher-caste man. Menaka, a firebrand, not only prevents her from aborting the foetus but also hectors the man into breaking off the match arranged for him and, in a happy conclusion, marrying his deserted lover instead. Pakija Begum directs at an emotional pitch appropriate for the rural context, herself delivering a power-packed performance in the lead. Anup Hazarika’s fishing-net set design expresses reality as well as metaphorical entrapment.

Seagull, from Guwahati, adapted Ionesco’s The Lesson into Assamese. This absurdist satire on formal education that ends up killing its students — anticipated differently by Tagore in his fable Totakahini — finds resonance anew. The sections from Ionesco that Baharul Islam has selected he has translated and Indianized faithfully, but he has also left out large chunks, especially the philological ones. He could have kept the original text as much as possible, given its brevity. Bhagirathi Islam directs in an exaggerated physical style ably implemented by the two young and uncredited actors, going almost to the extreme of the professor violating his pupil. She drives him up the wall with her ridiculously stupid answers, and he grows terrifyingly from a harmless teacher to a raving monster.