Banaprastha – Only if the message could be clearer

A Review by Amitava Sen

Banaprastha: Biswajit Kaberi and ParikhitAs 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.

Amitava Sen

The views expressed in this article are solely those of its author.

3 thoughts on “Banaprastha – Only if the message could be clearer

  1. Amitava-da,

    Thank you for the review. You have said whatever you felt after the watching the play and I appreciate it. However I feel that I need to respond to some of your comments, not as a member of the production team, but as a playwright.

    1. You commented – “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?”

    Do you think all of us visit our home in India every year? Here is an email comment from one of our audience: “….I appreciated it more because I went to India in May after 11 years.”
    Parijat went back home after 8 years.

    But even when I visit India every year or every other year, the social changes keeps on amazing me. Yes, we are aware of the changes, but when it starts affecting you personally, it hits home. I am sure you feel it too. If not, I’d say that you are in denial. Some of us do try to pretend that they are abreast of what’s going on back home, they even appear to appreciate some of the social changes to prove their liberal mindset – but deep within, it hurts them too – it hurts when you find your home is no more. One of our western audience member told me, his mother used to say – “there is no home!” I was almost in tears.

    2. “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.”

    How could you get this distorted message that the play is trying to say that it is “laudable to acquire HIV”? The only message (if any) one could conclude is that HIV can attack us from any front – one need not visit brothels or use infected needles or get transfused with contaminated blood.
    Just to let you know that the Suranjana character is not entirely fictitious. It is based on real life character.
    Careless saintly behavior (like some health care workers) or unprotected romance, can cause this virus to infect – because the virus does not care whether the body they are attacking is that of a saint, or a romantic lover, or a criminal rapist. But each such case can be a story – a story in its own right. Suranjana and Pallab’s story is also a story – please don’t humiliate it by saying that it seemed it is laudable to acquire HIV for the right cause.

    I felt that without the presence of the character Suranjana, Pallab’s story would have been incomplete and it would have been unfair to Pallab and many other young men and women. Pallab never tried to give any excuse for his predicament, but that should not be misinterpreted in anyway. The story may draw some sympathy for Pallab and Suranjana – but I don’t know how it can be interpreted as being an effort to glorify the acquisition of this deadly disease!

    3. “The doctor, expert on AIDS treatment uttered not so much of a word about anti-retroviral drug. ”

    Dr. Parijat Sen did mention – “HIV is no longer a death sentence” and also mentioned several times that drugs are now available that can hold of HIV for long periods. Although he did not mention David Ho or Bill Gates or go into the details of anti-retroviral cocktail or HAART therapy – it was not the treatment of HIV/AIDS the issue here – at least to him or his brothers family. It was well established in the play that access to treatment is not the key problem in India (or Calcutta) – although not all hospitals would admit an HIV patient even today.

    As per the recent reports, many HIV patients do not seek medical treatment because they are afraid that doing so would expose their HIV status and they would be social outcasts.

    Also you must be aware that anti-retrovirals are not cures – they just happen to hold it off for some time and the time varies from person to person and the quality of care he/she is receiving. One of the key problems in India is that the patients do not continue their treatment and thus develop resistance to the medications.

    4. “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. ”

    Although HIV is still considered a stigma in some western countries, but it is not the same as it was during the seventies or the eighties. The HIV stigma in the west is associated with homosexuality (I’d recommend Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America”) and the west’s homophobia. With the wider acceptance of homosexuals in this country, the stigma associated with HIV has lost its sting in many ways. However, in India, the HIV stigma is associated more with sexual morality – besides the undue fear of infection.

    Before writing this play, and even before staging this play, I have read countless episodes of social cruelty in India towards HIV patients. Even a current running serial novel in “Desh” patrika was writing about this issue. After watching the play another audience member pointed me to this article – http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Cities/Kolkata-/Neighbours-thrash-HIV-patient/articleshow/4626142.cms

    A recent (August 2008) report said that a bill of rights for HIV patients that was presented to the govt in August 2006 is yet to reach the parliament.

    Amitava-da, denial is not going to help us.
    Yes, “the apathy towards HIV is not typical of Calcutta or India” – but I am an Indian and that is what I can write about. I cannot write about what happens in Indonesia.
    We had several non-Indian audience and they did extract the universality of the issue. I am sorry that you felt that I was unfairly critical of India.
    I just wanted to tell a story through this play – a large part of which are based on facts and my own feelings.

  2. Sen-da,

    Did you ever appreciate anything in the Bengali community in NJ ? This guy Sudipta and his team ( I personally know Indranil very well who is the director of this play) has been trying very hard to revive the Bengali theatrical culture in north America, and you always discourage them with your critical remarks.
    Not only for theater, but also for community functions like Kallol Durga Puja etc, you always voice your criticism to a group of enthusiastic people who wants to do something.

    In last 15 years, I have not seen you taking part in any drama or any cultural activities or take active part in Pujas, but you are always the first one to criticize.
    Why don’t you do a play like Banaprashta ? Why don’t you start some cultural activities here and show us how it should be done?

    Regards
    Abhijit Ganguly

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