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MELODRAMA AND REALISM

Discovering unusual work by little-known artists makes a critic’s job worthwhile. I had no expectations from the inaugural production of Jadavpur Manthan, rank newcomers in Bengali theatre. But Shuna Manasa Katha surprised me with its theme: gay lovers in a village, forced to mainstream themselves by marriages, one of them continuing a sordid secret life in Calcutta as a hijra. This core story would have sufficed to hold us, but dramatist Rakesh Ghosh (who previously wrote and directed a play inspired by Rituparno Ghosh) arguably inserts too much else, such as a puja to Manasa, a villainous mahajan, rural and urban crime rings, several murders and concluding redemption — a true melodramatic mix, occasionally enacted that way, too. By choosing to keep the men in their heterosexual pairings, however, he does not liberate them from society’s cage. R. Bharati directs his cast into credible portrayals, specially Sudeb Bhattacharyya (picture) and Rudra Mishra as the lovers, Ranita Saha (picture, sitting) and Mitrashri Basak as their wives, and Shubhajit Sarkar, Shubha Kumar De and Soham Sarkar as remarkably realistic hijras.

The Bandel-based Arohi gets few opportunities to stage shows in the city, but their two latest plays, both comparatively short by Bengali standards, introduce the thoughtful yet economical pen of their house dramatist, Amitabha Chakrabarti, whom group theatre should certainly cultivate. Manasa raises her head again in Rupkathar Janye, which tracks the difference between old countryside Jatra and its newfangled revival by the local merchant. We see the decline through the eyes of a drunk wastrel who hears the voice of the dead Jatra master exhorting him to search for “the original melody” — symbolic of the purity that has disappeared from our corrupt world.

A similar quest underlies Halud Ranger T-shirt, except that the protagonist is a senior government executive in Calcutta, who no longer seems interested in his lifestyle and begins to say and do the most incongruous things both at office and home. Yet, in a quite moving finale, he finds his soulmate in the Hindustani chowkidar, sitting on the floor with him and singing together, breaking all barriers of class, culture and language.

Ranjan Ray directs Arohi in much-improved performances since the last time I saw them. He is himself exceptional in both lead roles, their totally contrasting characterizations heightening our appreciation of his histrionic abilities. Him apart, Arohi has other accomplished members as well, many talented in song and dance: Satyaki Bhattacharyya (the chowkidar), and Mandira Som and Susmita Bhattacharyya (the actresses in Rupkathar Janye) merit mention.