Realistic theatre on the move
- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur

September 20, 2009 

Soorya is a well-known cultural organization with its chapters all over the world. In an attempt to revive realistic drama, Soorya is concentrating on theatre with 30 members, exclusively, for acting for the last five years. Presenting plays wherever Malayalies work and live has boosted its morale. After a trip from Middle East, the team now moves through the districts of Kerala.  A theatre festival organized by Thalam, a cultural society in Thrissur, celebrated three days of theatre as part of Onam festival.
The first address was an adaptation based on 'Court martial' by Swadesh Deepak, a drama written in Hindi. The script-writer, Krishnamoorthy, who has directed the play acknowledges his debt and adds that he has been pained by so many stories of injustice coming from circles closeted beyond public gaze. In many ways, caste in India still dominates a post modern society retaining vestiges of feudalism. The play deals with such social issues where cruelty is enforced in the name of discipline. It is a micro-realistic play, a real time story cast within the framework of ninety minutes as it happens in a military court. The play has echoes of what happens in Kashmir, in Manipur and for that matter, in all war torn areas all over the world.
The stage setting of a military court with the picture of Gandhiji, the Father of Our Nation in the centre, surrounded by Gen Manekshaw, Indira Gandhi and Zakir Hussein sets the tone of irony. The song in the background is a lament for the failed Gandhian ideals. And the pictures evoke Emergency, the dark chapter in modern India’s political history. It is against this backdrop the court-martial takes place.  An ordinary soldier has killed an officer and wounded another fatally. The murderer has confessed his deed and is willing to accept the punishment. So it is a foregone conclusion for other soldiers even before the court-martial begins.  Yet the defense counsel who is aware of how elusive truth could be, is determined to go chasing it against all odds. As the drama progresses the postmortem of a buried event comes up. It unravels the reasons that led to the crime, which are deep rooted social malaise in the Indian psyche coupled with personal jealousies that create complexes. And tragically, the laws of the Court fail to uphold human values. Yet when the judge acknowledges eternal values it is the triumph of human spirit. The song of disillusionment is repeated to convey how Gandhi died in vain. And the play ends with a profound sense of loss.
The second day saw a different stage. The arena theatre with minimal stage props had a function to fulfill. Viewers seated on four sides of the stage ensured audience participation nullifying the distance that creeps between the proscenium stage and spectators. 'The Love Letter' is based on the short story of Vaikkom Muhammed Basheer. The costume takes us back to 1943 when the story was written. Surprisingly, the core theme of the play reflects the present day society without any change in its attitudes. Honor killing is still prevalent in many parts of India. Once again caste and religion that creates obstacles to human aspirations, dominates the drama. The treatment of romantic love bordering on farce is quite refreshing. The play highlights that true love knows no boundaries, a message that has reverberated from time immemorial. 
Then came a skit, 'Jilebi' written by Prakasan Kuthoor, which is all about business rivalry and the nature of the world of advertisement. Two stalls run by childhood companions from a poor neighborhood is a microcosm of the series of shops in market places that sell the same ware. Competition is not for improving the quality although they advertise it. All energy is spent on creating slogans to promote business by duping the public.
'Sookshmacharcha,' a skit by Rabindranath Tagore satirizes the intelligentsia.  The retired school teacher hooks a commoner who paused to say "hello..." And non-stop gibberish with accompanying comic gestures produces side splitting laughter. At another level, it evokes the loneliness and frustration of the retired in their twilight years. 
'Pulari' - The Dawn - penned by Krishnamoorthy is about the tragedy of hope. Hope that nurtures human life and dreams is poignantly presented in its tragic dimension. Set just before Independence, against the backdrop of the raging Second World War, the story is of a village steeped in simplicity and humanity. As a light and sound show, the play is unique in presentation. Life in this tiny village is one of endless waiting. It is of stories of people who wait, wait with hope; of people who wait without hope. By the time the play ends, it is waiting without hope that shines as a beacon light to a gloomy people. The play has many dimensions: personal, social, political, and philosophical.
Onam celebrations in Thrissur take its colors from folk art to classical. Here realistic theater got a shot in the arm, thanks to the sponsorship of an industrialist, A Mahendran, Managing Director, Godrej Sara Lee Ltd. That noted ones in the festival were staged earlier, is definitely not a cause for complaints.
Padma Jayaraj is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to