Kolkata Theater : A Personal Snapshot

After a gap of two years I was back again in Kolkata this winter and whenever I had some spare time, I utilized it watching a theater. Although most people in Kolkata were flocking the multiplexes for “3 Idiots” or “Avatar”, I thought it would be prudent to capture as many Bengali plays as possible since I won’t be able to see them back in New Jersey.  The day I landed in Kolkata also happened to be the opening ceremony of Nandikar’s National Theater Festival, and Satya-da (Satya Bhaduri, editor of the theater magazine SAS) invited me to attend the show with him. That evening, the festival opened with Bangladesh Dhaka Drama’s staging of Selim-al-Din’s “Dhabaman”.  “Dhabaman” is an allegorical folk tale of a young buffalo who wanted to be free. The play was presented in a traditional folk form with elaborate choreography and physical acting. This kind of play does not depend on traditional dialogues but on descriptive narratives which works almost like a commentary of the happenings on stage. It was a pleasant experience overall, especially when you get to watch a play in a form that is rarely used in Bengali theater these days.

The next play I saw (at the Aneek Theater Festival) was Natya Anan’s musical “Hirak Rajar Deshe” based on the popular film by Satyajit Ray. The play, directed by my good friend Chandan Sen, was well attended (Rabindra Sadan was almost full) and seemed to be well enjoyed by the young viewers. Musicals are a neglected genre in Bengali theater and I am glad that Chandan and his team showed the courage to stage something like this. However, remaking of a classic is always a challenge and Natya-Anan had to face an uphill task to stand up against a wonderful film that still lingers in the memories of every Bengali film goer. Besides, the current political situation in Bengal makes the content quite relevant. The music was different, but quite good. Although I would have preferred the songs to be performed live on stage rather than the loud pre-recorded  playback. The actors did a decent job, however the choreography could have been more imaginative.  The play used some special effects with lights and sound which looked nice (if you don’t try to compare with any Broadway production). Overall, I’d recommend the play to anybody, especially the kids.

At the same festival, the next play I saw was Bohurupi’s “Birja Sulka”, a play based on the story of Shikandi of Mahabharata. Shikhandi’s tale has always fascinated me, but frankly speaking, this play disappointed me. The structure of the play  was seriously flawed and failed to capture the attention of its audience. The director, Tulika Das, may have been motivated by the spirit of  woman’s liberation but failed to deliver. The actors had serious problems with the dialogs (in verse) and the  poor structure of the play added to their despair.  I expected a better quality from a group like Bohurupi.

On 28th Dec, I saw the best play of this season – Theater Workshop’s latest production “Juddha Paristhiti”. “Juddha Paristhiti” is adapted from Nabarun Bhattacharya’s novel by the veteran thespian Ashok Mukhopadhyay, who also directed the play. The play is about a middle aged institutionalized schizophrenic man who lost his mind due to police brutality during the political turmoil of the seventies.  Often he escapes from his asylum and roams the streets of Kolkata searching for his hidden arms – his instruments of liberation.  The play demonstrated how a well crafted play can keep the audience glued to their seats and how an imaginative director can transform a stage using simple structures.  The actors did an excellent job in presenting the play, although  the excessive use of the fourth wall could have been minimized (also true for many of the other plays I saw.) The playing of the “International” during the curtain call seemed to be too dramatic and overimposed.

This time I also happened to see the production of my play “Jadiyo Galpo” by Theater Workshop (directed by Ashok Mukhopadhyay) staged at the historic Minerva Theater.  Since I have a personal attachment with this play, I’ll refrain from going into the details. The audience  seemed to like the play and the two actors on stage (Ashok Mukhopadhyay and Krishnagati Chatterjee) were able to hold their attention even with an intermission break.

Another Bohurupi production that I happened to chance upon was “Mr. Kakatua” and was pleasantly surprised to see that this old play can still draw the crowds. The play, directed by Kumar Ray, is a comedy that not only entertains but also makes you think. Unlike “Brija Shulka”, this play was firmly placed on a solid structure and the actors went all the way to enliven the stage under the brilliant direction of the veteran Kumar Ray.

The last play that I happened to watch was Bratyajan’s “Ruddha Sangeet”, the celebrated and sensational play written an directed by Bratya Basu. It was a call show (organized by a bank) at the Mahajati Sadan and when I got the news I took my chances and showed up at the theater back stage. My good friend Bratya was kind enough to arrange a seat for me for a show that was for invited guests only.  The play is kind of a biopic on the life of the popular singer Debabrata (or George) Biswas and is loosely based on his memoirs “Bratyajaner Ruddhasangeet”.  The play became an instant hit in Kolkata, especially at a time when the city intellectuals (artists, writers, actors) have been alienating themselves from the ruling left party and joining the ranks of the opposition.  The play talks about a similar time in history,  when the communist party in Bengal tried to stifle the voice of the free spirited artists and performers.  The play brings on stage some of the most popular and famous Bengali personalities of the last century and some very dramatic moments. However, dramatic moments alone cannot make drama. The play was too anecdotal in nature and lacked any plot line. This might have been intentional but it fails to keep the audience interest going.  This became quite evident when I heard people behind me getting restless and some of them leaving the auditorium early.  The lack of a clear story line and definitive action on the part of the protagonist (except at the end when George Biswas fights against the ban on his songs) makes it a docu-drama at best but not a play.  As a director, Bratya did a commendable job in managing a huge cast in a well choreographed manner on stage.  The stage was sparse which was alright, however, a little more imagination might have helped to make it more pleasing visually. Debshankar Haldar as George Biswas was excellent, and so was Satrajit in the role of Ritwick Ghatak – but this kind of created a wide gap between the quality of characterization between them and the other actors.

My overall impression has been that despite all the rumors I hear, Kolkata theater is still thriving. People are going to the theaters, new plays are being produced. The quality of production (in all branches) has lot of room for improvement, but that can only happen when the theater goers demand for it. I wanted to see few more plays like “Patal Babu Filmstar” by Purba Pashcim, “Darjiparar Marjinara” by Swapno Sandhani (written by Bratya Basu), “Shonali Sarak” by Ganakrishti and many others, but my time was limited this year. Better luck next time.

One thought on “Kolkata Theater : A Personal Snapshot

  1. My feelings about “Ruddha Sangeet” are similar to yours. True fans of Debabrata Biswas (or George-da) would swoon over it, of course, but the drama is really a series of episodes — much like the movie “Gandhi” — and most of them have little in terms of dramatic impact. So non-bhaktas would be less impressed.

    “Patal Babu Filmstar” had too much Bengali sentimetality for my taste — the ennobling power of poverty, for instance — and was mediocre at best. I very much liked “Hutum Bhagaban,” though, because it was unpretentious and funny, and had very good acting by two child actors.

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