Man for all seasons

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By Bratya Basu is making his voice heard on the stage and also in cinema and television, says Susmita Saha
  • Published 6.05.06
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Why does it suddenly seem that Bratya Basu is everywhere? Next week rehearsals will start for his play Hemlat ? The Prince of Garan Hata, which he’s also directing. The curtain is also scheduled to go up on another of his plays that will be performed by drama troupe, Theatre Platform in the near future. If that’s not enough, he’s a familiar face on television screens as the anchor of election special Bangla Bolche. And, he’s in front of the cameras in a film that’s going to be shot in the city.

That’s not bad for a 36-year-old who has successfully straddled the fields of drama, film, television and writing - and set new standards of excellence even as he hopped from one to another.

Take a look at Hemlat in which the Prince of Denmark is taken out from his home country and moved all the way to north Calcutta. But Basu has played around with the original in more ways than one. Hemlat, which Basu calls, ‘a subversion of Shakespeare’s Hamlet’ is about more than just the Prince’s indecisiveness that leads to his destruction. It features a group of decadent, modern individuals and the depredations of time play a crucial role in the production.

This apart, his play titled Darjiparar Marjinara, directed by Debashish Roy and performed by the group, Theatre Platform is slated to open in June.

Here he has visualised society as a red light area where every individual is prostituting him or herself in one way or another. A decadent civilisation forms the canvas of the play where debauchery and irrationality permeates every strata of society.

Basu had always wanted to be the voice of dissonance and he started early. As a young playwright, he authored Ashaleen, a play that’s still considered as one of the first post-modern works of Bengali theatre.

He got to direct it a few years later for Ganakrishti, a theatre group he joined after college, when the person who was initially directing it fell ill. Starting out as the sound operator of Ganakrishti, he rose swiftly and suddenly became both an actor in the troupe and the director. The transition was swift and Basu, by then had decided that he would rather rock the boat than ride the waves. So, he built his plays around the problems of modern-day people rather than the conflicts of a bygone era.

But life was tough for drama groups in the early ‘90s and much of the work in Bengali theatre was hackneyed and unimaginative. All this began to change when a new crop of directors came on the scene.

Basu, for instance, expressed his outrage and dissent by creating characters who were not afraid to speak their mind. Also, he was the director who ensured that the productions conformed to his vision. Out of the 12 plays that he has penned, seven have been directed by him and bear his trademark scepticism. Along the way, he made irreverence look stylish and wooed back audiences.

He followed up the success of Ashaleen with notable productions like Aranyadeb, Sahar Yaar and Chatushkon, demolishing the conventional approach to theatre. His plays were original and refreshingly unpretentious, unlike the adaptations of classics that were being performed by theatre groups at that time. Soon, his plays began to be performed by others and staged in packed auditoria. The theatre group, Swapnasandhani chose to show Mukhomukhi Boshibar.

The latest work in Basu’s versatile repertoire is Page 4, a portrayal of the world of art and culture and how its leading lights are fighting each other for visibility and power. It has already completed 23 shows and more performances are on the cards. “It’s strange how the intellectually inclined were once viewed to be dissociated from the centres of power. Needless to say, the scenario has dramatically altered,” says Basu.

But writing and directing plays are only one part of Basu’s repertoire. He also loves directing films that go beyond a surface-level rebellion. While his first film Raasta was about lost innocence, his recent endeavour Teesta is about a woman who falls in love with a younger man and how the experience turns nasty. At that point, the protagonist, played by actress Debasree Roy finds solace in the mountains.

Although Basu deals with subjects that are socially relevant, he insists that films must be entertaining. “There is no point bewildering the viewer with verbose dialogues and characters that seem to descend from outer space. He should be able to enjoy what he sees on the screen,” he says. Also, he dismisses the idea of commerce being totally alien to non-mainstream cinema and believes that a director should see to it that his project is not an exercise in self-indulgence. He is already conceptualising his third film and promises that it will be a commercial film.

Acting in films could have been a natural progression but it actually happened by chance. His first role in a feature film is in Herbert that released last month. “I was offered the role by the director of the film, who’s also a close friend and I accepted after reading the script,” says Basu. Since he enjoyed the experience thoroughly, he is open to acting in other films.

And after working in both film and theatre, he believes that messages that cannot be delivered in one media can be done in the other. “The money and the glamour quotient of films cannot be ignored altogether,” he says with a mischievous smile.

On top of all this there’s television. He has been on the small screen lately hosting an election programme, Bangla Bolche which offered a platform to representatives of various political parties to fight it out in front of a live audience. The programme was interspersed with video clips of people from all walks of life who are allowed to voice their views.

Basu is happy that he was provided the opportunity to look beyond the collective choices of the electorate. “I had to travel to all the districts of West Bengal and interact with people who look at things differently. The surprise element of these conversations kept me going.”

Nevertheless, he’s probably a playwright first and foremost (even though he does also teach in a college). It’s only when he is wielding the pen that he feels completely in charge. “This is the best form of creative outlet that I have and my body of work is a direct translation of my state of mind at that point of time.” His literary endeavours also include book reviews for periodicals.

He doesn’t get much spare time. But for now, Basu, the TV-to-movies-to-stage man is not complaining.

Photograph by Aranya Sen