When a man plays a woman

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By Much more than just body language changes... CHAPAL BHADURI tells Reshmi Sengupta about the challenges of Ramanimohan
  • Published 20.05.06

Have you ever played a man on stage?

No, not really. In 1988-99, I acted in a production called Khola Janala Bandho Darja where I played a woman throughout and changed into a man only in the last scene. Ramanimohan is my first full-length role as a male character, and this is a huge challenge for me.

I have been acting as a woman on stage since 1955 and I am known as a nari charitrabhineta. These days there is no need for male actors to play female characters and often I wonder if I have been completely wiped out as an actor. I want to prove that I am not finished yet, and I am really grateful that I have been given this chance by Nandipat director Prokash Bhattacharya. For me, the play is also very interesting because I have never worked with group theatre in a big way before.

What attracted you to this play?

Well, Ramanimohan is an actor who played female roles at a time when women did not act on stage. And he played his part so beautifully that many people used to mistake him for a woman. When women made an entry, Ramanimohan was unceremoniously dumped from the theatre company. A trap was laid for him and his career came to an end. Many years have passed, but he still yearns to go back to acting.

So, in a way the play mirrors your own life and experiences?

Yes, the play is autobiographical to a large extent. It has a lot of similarities with my life. I quit Natta Company in October 1966 and faced the same insult as Ramanimohan. I have gone through the same circumstances. The only difference is that I am not a married man.

How difficult is it playing a male character for someone who has always enacted female roles?

You know if a man does female parts for over 44 years, his body language is bound to change. For me, the roles of heroines or mothers are routine. I am at ease doing these and I can impersonate different kinds of female voices. Even Uttambabu (Uttam Kumar) didn?t recognise me when he came to see my performance in Jahnabi... This man?s (Ramanimohan) part got me thinking hard. In this play, Mohan Dutta, or Ramanimohan, is seen playing a woman only once.

So what has been the biggest challenge in morphing into Ramanimohan?

My biggest challenge was to play a husband and a father of five sons. The way a man behaves with his wife, or talks to his son is something that I have never experienced in my life. Ramanimohan was deprived of acting when he was at the height of his powers. But why was it snatched from him? These are questions that are raised in the play. He has a very good understanding with his wife, Suprabha Devi, and I am working hard to make the husband-wife relationship very believable.

Did you face any problems working for group theatre? The mechanism here is so different from jatra?

Yes it is. The kind of acting I am used to doing is different. It?s a family drama. It?s a very difficult role considering that I have to sing to recorded tracks, something I am not used to doing. I have performed live and even lip-synced, but never sang with a track. Then there is weeping and some expressions that are quite difficult. There is a little bit of dance too. I am in my mid-60s now, and it is quite strenuous. Initially I had problems in adjusting myself to the lights during the rehearsals, but then I got used to it.