City comedies adapted into local scenarios have introduced familiar faces in new incarnations. Renu Roy, founder of Spandan and enormously experienced actress, has turned debutante director-cum-adapter on Spandanís Is Anybody Listening? Vandana Alase Hazra, dancer, singer and critic, has directed Rananís first guest production, Andhar Nagari Chaupat Raja.
Roy excels in her maiden directorial foray, though her title for Neil Simonís The Prisoner of Second Avenue does not light up sparks. Instead, The Prisoner of Southern Avenue would suit it much better, since she sets it in an upscale flat on this street, her lead couple (picture) living in present-day Calcutta. She also chooses the perfect Simon drama ó from the period when he began mixing straightforward comedy with more serious content ó because his examination of the trauma faced by laid-off executives in New York fits neatly into our economic climate where job security does not exist anymore. Only a couple of anachronisms, like Michael Jackson, mar her Indianization.
But the biggest surprise is Keshav Roy, an absolute natural. Where was he hiding all these years? He seems born for stage acting. He expresses the full panoply of highs and lows that his character goes through, from hyperactive overreaction to clinical depression, reaching its nadir when his irate neighbour douses him to stop his shouting. Baisali Chatterjee Dutt (his wife) tracks the opposite graph, rising to success, but must do much more to keep up with Keshav's dynamics. His three siblings people the only scene that has unadulterated humour; instead of caricatures, Nivedita Bhattacharjee, Charu Gupta and Surjya Kar offer low-key ironic portraits.
Bharatendu Harishchandra, father of Hindi theatre, composed several plays that deserve revival, for those who do not know that his generation of dramatists spearheaded modernism. In Andher Nagari (1881), he took potshots at corrupt rulers ó targeting the British ó with an absurdist depiction of a city where the Maharaja passes random judgments of hanging. Harishchandra astutely avoided official proscription by couching it as a musical. Alase Hazra uses the same technique, so that this short production, mostly in Bengali translation, can pass as innocuous satire, while intelligent viewers can apply the topicality for themselves. For a sharper impact, she could drop the interpolation from A.K. Ramanujan and keep the sardonic original. She employs Rananís dance skills, specially Kathak, to good measure and has the songs delivered live. The only male is the Maharaja (Amlan Chaudhuri, who enacts quite a loony), possibly the first time that women have performed nearly all the parts in Andher Nagari.