"Mercy"  - a monologue by PC Ramakrishna
A Madras Players presentation on the occasion of their fiftieth year celebrations
- Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan, Chennai
e-mail: vasanthi40@hotmail.com 

June 6, 2005 

"Mercy," a monologue was presented by P C Ramakrishna in the month of February, from 24th to 27th. The script in English, prepared by Ramakrishna himself, was based on a Tamil novel by well-known author Sivasankari. Mithran Devanesan directed the production and did the sets and lights. There was a rendition of classical music pieces and voice over dialogue by Gayathri Venkatraghavan and Janaki Sabesh respectively.      

The monologue lasted for 70 minutes during which the audience watched in pindrop silence. This was rather unusual for a Chennai audience who has a tendency to walk out of a theatre when the clock strikes 8.30 pm however good a production is. Also at the end of the play there was a rousing standing ovation for the actor Ramakrishna, who is not a stranger to Chennai audiences.

I saw the play on the very first day; the Museum Theatre hall was full to capacity, which was unusual for a Madras Players production. The story in short is about an ageing Brahmin couple – the husband Shakti a writer of sorts in a local magazine, the wife, Janani an accomplished Carnatic music singer. After one of her outstation performances, Janani gets hit by a crumbling wooden beam and goes into a coma. Medical attention is given, prayers are offered, but Janani does not recover. Finally, the loving husband, unable to see her in this predicament (by this time she has been removed to her own home from the hospital) decides to initiate euthanasia (mercy killing) though he is against it in principle. On the day when he was to administer the sleeping pills to his wife (that was the chosen mode for mercy killing), for some odd reason the husband decides to go to the temple of Srirama, the Isthadevata (the chosen God) of his wife in Madurantakam, a town some miles away from Chennai. He did this ostensibly to plea for forgiveness of the God for putting an end to his wife's life. He had to wait till evening to get a darshan after which when he was returning in his car, a thunderstorm hits the location and prevents him arriving at his own house at the chosen time for initiating the mercy killing. Meanwhile, miraculously the wife wakes up from her coma and begins her journey to recovery. Seized by a sense of guilt, the husband commits suicide. The monologue ends there, naturally, because the speaker (the character) dies and there is nothing more for the actor to add.

Needless to say, that the audience on the whole and the media critics went into ecstasies about this performance. There were one or two dissenting voices. But, they were overwhelmed or submerged in the midst of the torrential praise accorded to this "son of the soil", the veteran actor, whose voice has always thrilled the Chennai audience. Under these circumstances, it is very difficult to take a critical assessment of the play. But, I feel it has to be done in the name of alternative or multiple perspectives on any art production. And hence this report.

I start at the very beginning – the novel from which the script has been carved out. I feel that it has a subliminal message couched under philosophical aspects such as fate, destiny, and the moral code against putting an end to a life that breathes. Euthanasia has always been a controversial subject and one cannot forget the famous play and film "Whose life is it anyway?" which created quite a furore when they came out. Even now, I do not think euthanasia has been made legally permissible. So, one can understand the Indian religious mind which revolts against any kind of forcible ending of life that breathes. But, what is insidious in this case is the providential and merciful escape of the husband from mercy killing, which ends in a guilt trip ending in a suicide. If mercy killing is forbidden by religion, does not suicide also falls under the purview of forcible and illegal taking out of a life?  But, the play is set in such a way that we are supposed to develop a sympathetic attitude towards the husband who takes his life. What a weak man he must have been, to have nurtured guilt towards a deed, which he had not actually performed?  What about the wife who after waking up from a long coma finds out that her husband had taken out his life? Wouldn’t the guilt be transferred to her, if she was a typical South Indian Brahmin wife?  But, then nobody bothers about that in the euphoria of the husband's martyrdom. So long as the man's conscience is cleared why bother about the woman? In any case, she is supposed to bear the guilt of not only uncommitted crimes, but even the fact of being born a woman?

So, the plot itself is very problematic to me. Ramakrishna's translation and adaptation, however good it is as a literary piece, is politically and morally incorrect as far as I am concerned. Therefore, I did not expect to be moved by the tragic predicament of the protagonist as he was portrayed in the story. Well, probably the presentation could have redeemed the production. I had serious problems with all aspects of the production. Let us first talk about the much-praised sets of Mithran Devanesan. I felt that the sets were totally unnecessary and redundant in the case of the monologue. Monologue is probably one of the most difficult theatre techniques; one person, with his/her body language and voice projection has to capture and captivate an entire audience for the duration of 60 to 70 minutes. The person has to be a consummate actor to carry out this onerous task. But, all the good monologues that I have witnessed in this country (like Chakiar Koothu, Ottan Tullal, Harikatha, Kathakalakshepam or modern monologues) and abroad, were done on a bare stage in flat lights. The term monologue itself signifies that it is done through one person's talk and acting.  The transformation into another space and another time was always done through the actor's body language and consummate acting skills. 

However, in this case, the stage, sets, lights and sound were not only suggestive, but blatantly obvious. It was like a scene out of traditional Indian films or theatre, where the atmosphere is fully geared to represent the tragic background. In short, there was nothing left for the imagination of the audience. A mannequin was used in an outlandish way to represent the wife in coma. Enough musical instruments were displayed to show that she was musical. Recordings of Carnatic music were interspersed at intervals to remind the audience that she was an accomplished singer. The grids in wood that the media praised relentlessly overtly suggested that the protagonist was trapped within his own schizophrenic imagination. In fact, the overabundance of the sets and the indiscriminate and excessive use of music made the whole effort pathetic. Maybe all these were provided as crutches to Ramakrishna should he flounder with his dialogue rendition. The stage was screaming at the audience. Be ready for a tragic outcome. In Shakespeare's famous words, "If you have tears, prepare to shed them now." Cruel and unfeeling critics like me were not moved to tears by the fate of the protagonist; but tears did come out of my eyes out of sheer frustration and indignation. I hate being taken for a fool. When I go for a theatre or dance performance, I do not want literal and obvious hints about how I should behave or what my reactions to the production should be.

What is left for a weary critic to talk about? Oh, yes, the acting. That was probably the most pathetic part of the whole show. Neither Ramakrishna's voice nor his acting talents roused feelings of tragedy in me. I have seen Ramakrishna doing some superb acting in many roles. But, this was not one of those occasions. Most of the time I wondered whether he himself was moved by the predicament of the protagonist he had chosen to represent. The emotional commitment and dedication to the role he had chosen was sadly missing. Was it all lost in the verbiage and intellectual homilies on Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music? Another thought that occurs to me is that as a daring actor, he could have easily changed the ending that Sivasankari had chosen. He could have shown the husband as a strong man who was thankful to the fate that restored his wife to him and continued his life in peace. But, that requires a lot of guts, doesn't it? To change not only the fate of the script, but the fate of the character he represented. In the absence of that moral courage, the moaning and groaning remained typical and stereotypical melodrama that we see often on stage and in film in India. 

Well, Ramakrishna failed in his interpretation, but what was the director Mithran doing? Could he not have not resurrected the play from the boredom and stereotyping that it fell into? Obviously, he did not feel that way. He felt that the tragedy of the guilty husband was indeed a tear jerker or at least a sympathy winner.

At the end of it all I feel like a lonely misfit. What is the problem with me? The director, the actor and the critics enjoyed the show. The audience lapped it up. Why do I have to raise my lone voice and get across all that I felt after watching the show. Call it a case of misguided awareness and sensitivity to the nuances of theatre or a misplaced idea about the function of a critic. In any case, from today onwards there will be a great change in my life. I will be lonelier than ever. Discarded by the opponents and despised by the friends, I shall call upon my dwindling resources of inner courage to survive. What a tall, pompous and self-pitying proclamation!

Vasanti Sankaranarayanan, is a PhD holder from Madras University on the subject “Malayalam Cinema, Society and Politics of Kerala”. She has translated books from Malayalam to English and vice versa and has written some dance scripts. She is a freelance journalist and art critic.