A Review by Amitava Sen
As I entered the theatre the house was full and audibly expectant; as the play ended crowd was visibly appreciative and a few even ecstatic which was quite an achievement and cause for satisfaction for the group of people who presented Banaprastha at Edison Valley Playhouse on May 31, 2009. The play was generally well produced. A full house helps to create an environment of connectivity between the performers and audience. Perception of a full house and ambience that it helps create encourage the players to be their best. Selection of this adequately equipped arena, small in size, reflects producers’ sensibility about the importance of interaction between the players and the viewers and economic prudence at the same time.
The play was about a returning Bengali doctor with the expectation that he would spend his retirement amongst his own people. Instead he found himself in an unlikely family situation and in a native city, which was different than what he left behind decades ago. But in these days of cheap airlines tickets and cheaper communication cost can anyone be so unaware (and acting so taken aback) of the changes going on, particularly for a person having purchased a place of residence there during the intervening years? Where has he been?
The play apparently and seemingly has a statement to make with a hint of somewhat half-understood intellectualism that Bengalis so proudly flaunt and which sometimes veers towards sentimentalism. The play whether intended or not attempts to convey a message. Message is not clear though, at times it looks like telling us that it is all right, even laudable to acquire HIV virus provided the cause is right.
But unfortunately there is no saintly or romantic way to get afflicted with HIV virus. That brings us to another question. Was the character Suranjana necessary at all? She appeared in two scenes. A quasi-erotic introduction, a hint at potential virus transmission and one in the middle of the play, the intent of which was unclear, except that it stemmed the flow towards building up the narrative.
The time setting of the story was not clear. The doctor, expert on AIDS treatment uttered not so much of a word about anti-retroviral drug. What did he want to fight was not clear, was it the disease or the societal stigma that went with it? So is it pre-David Ho (inventor of cocktail regimen) and pre-Bill Gates initiative? That was a long time ago; the ignorance of HIV virus was universal at that time. Even now the ignorance about and apathy towards HIV virus is not typical of Calcutta or India, it is still a fact of life in more advanced societies as well. On this subject at least India is not far out of step with the rest of the world and this is a wrong issue to depict the primitiveness and heartlessness of our people, which appears to be the subtext of the story. That is not to say in any way that India is not far behind in treating the disease and in the area of accessibility to the treatment.
In the role of the father/ brother Sudipta Bhawmik, as always was superb, though at times he might have been a little overwhelming, but that proved quite effective in a stage setting. As his wife Keka Sirkar was natural as a mother swept away by the turn of events. Her mature but fragile demeanor brought out the pathos that the story was about. But her high-heeled shoes in all circumstance were somewhat incongruous and distracting. Gargi Mukherjee, the actor getting the top billing with lengthiest resume, in the role of Suranjana did not quite get it. A woman afflicted with HIV did not need to be speaking under her breath, sometimes out of breath but always shrill. Her interpretation of the character was undefined. Lily Majumdar (Nabanita) did not come out quite as urbane as a do-gooder NGO person. She appeared uncomfortable in that character, flubbing her lines a few times, confusing between counseling and counciling (sic). It is not all her faults; her dialogue gets unwieldy and haranguing making it difficult to deliver on stage. Shubhodev as the older brother was impressive, especially in the first part of the play.
Stagecraft, lighting and sound were professional under the circumstances. Stage discipline followed by the players was excellent. The credit is due the director, Indranil Mukherjee, who is also a fine stage actor in the role of Alakendu. His attention to small details was noticeable. But his handling of the denouement, that is the final resolution of the intricacies of the plot, was rushed and uncharacteristically melodramatic for the ethos of the story.
In the end add I must, the play was thoroughly engrossing and enjoyable.