Old Wine in a New Bottle
June 21, 2005
Old wine in a new bottle is meant to be a good combination, the older the wine the better the presentation in a new bottle, eye-catching and appealing to the new world. However, sometimes when the qualities of the old wine is not properly understood and is mixed with some spurious new wine, the whole effect is one of contamination. The bottle however new will be of no use, if the wine is not truly unadulterated. This analogy is probably not the apt one for the way in which Evam the new, young and enthusiastic group of Chennai theatre world presented Badal Sircar's time-honoured "Evam Indrajit."
However, the point I am trying to make is, a play has to be properly understood before one contemporarises it. The means of contemporarisation should not in any way harm the basics or the core concept of the old play. This requires a full understanding of the play, its author's intentions and the time (background) in which it was written. Otherwise, it is better to produce the play as a period play.
Going into the basics of the play, Evam overlooked some of the basic tenets of a Badal Sircar play. Badal Sircar's plays are very political in theme as well as structure and have to be treated as serious political plays and not humorous parodies of life situations. The humour in Sircar's plays are "black" and ironic. A superficial or peripheral interpretation would be catastrophic. Secondly, Badal Sircar plays were always performed outdoor. A proscenium stage is not the ideal set up for a Badal Sircar play. However, if one wants to do it as an indoor play, one has to have a bare stage or at best, a stage with minimum props and sets. Badal Sircar was totally against an expensive theatre production. So, he always tried to minimalise on his stage and props. Apart from conveying political and social messages through his plays in a subtle and aesthetic manner, he had another principle; that is, theatre belongs to the actor and the play should always be given back to the actor. In other words, the actor should not in any way be overwhelmed or made to look puny with elaborate sets, loud music or any other supporting factors. And if I remember correctly, Badal Sircar was totally against using technology as a prop for the actor.
Evam in their enthusiasm to modernize the play and make it look relevant to the contemporary world, went against all these nuances of a Badal Sircar play. Neither the actors, nor the director gave the impression that they have understood the basic concepts governing the play or the characters they were trying to impersonate. For example, each character in the play had a dual role to play; one as the specific character and one as the representative of the class that he belonged to. So, the students who grew into livelihood earning jobholders and then into family men had to basically play four roles. Similarly, the poet or writer had to play the role of the specific poet as well as that of the narrator-observer-commentator-visionary. This is not an easy job. The roles had to be internalized and then acted in a natural, spontaneous, seamless and harmonious way. Frankly, I do not think the actors had either internalized these aspects of characterization or rehearsed enough to do it well.
Secondly let us take a look at those sets. Michael Muthu who made the sets has done a stupendous job. The sets were very imaginative and stunning. The black backdrops with the spirals and circles in turquoise blue and the tunnel-shaped exits and entries were clever and surreal. But, was that the need of the hour? It was an impractical stage set and it hampered the quick movements of the actors. Badal Sircar's play shifts with quicksilver and lightning speed and if the actor has to cope with it he/she has to have the freedom of movement. The set, instead of supporting and complementing the actor, hampered and constrained him/her. If Badal Sircar were to see the play, he would be vehemently opposed to a set of this stupendous scale.
Thirdly, let us look at the modernizing attempts. A stray mention of the HIV or bringing in the importance of "insurance" in modern lives can hardly be called acts of modernising. In fact, they only merit the title "trivializing". What was the significance of the play? What was Badal Sircar trying to portray in his play? The times when he wrote the play were the sixties and there was a world-wide angst among the younger people, especially the students about their educational curriculum, job opportunities and the kind of life they were expected to live. Remember the student revolt in Paris and the student uprising in Tiananmen Square. The routineness and the resultant frustration of the younger people, who were confused and disoriented was the theme of the play. Even now, the younger people have angst and frustrations. But they are of a different nature. The need to secure highest ranks, the parental pressure to take up the education which would offer chances of successful and money making jobs, the Multinational pressures on job holders to perform at all costs, the peer pressure to lead a certain kind of life which would offer security, entry into clubs and money to spend on costly holidays and parties – these are the pressures of modern young people. Again, the lure of the computer and other technological gadgets - not to minimize hardship or to maximize productivity but just for fun - is another deadening and dulling factor too. So, if the director and the actors wanted to modernize the play, they would have had to tackle these new angsts of the younger people. That would mean changing the entire play. So, probably it would have been better to retain the script of the playwright and attempt to see the relevance through emphasizing on the routinising and mind-numbing aspects of lives of ordinary people which has not changed very much from the sixties. But, then I realize that a critic cannot preempt the vision of the director or the actors.
Fourthly, the introduction of technology. Did it serve any purpose? Did it enhance the play in any way? Frankly, I felt that the visuals were very ordinary and could have been avoided. They only duplicated and replicated what was said in the script. What Badal Sircar left for the imagination of the audience Evam showed on the video screen and with images that had a touristic or advertising posters quality. It was an act of overstatement or duplication. Badal Sircar, who was noted for his understatements and avoidance of technology would have cringed at this introduction, nay intrusion, of technology. The music and the efforts of the chorus also were not effective. If there was a need for a chorus, and it had to be invisible, it should have been orchestrated better.
Lastly, Yes, I do intend to end this list of disagreements with the conceptualising and presentation of Evam group. The quality of acting was not up to the mark. None of the actors gave the impression that they were acting their roles with sincerity, passion and dedication. This was acutely felt during the second half after the interval. That is when Badal Sircar's script turns to be philosophical and has to be edited properly and enunciated with care. Mere recitation of the lines without any conviction would only produce weariness and boredom in the audience. And that is exactly what happened. I thought that a playwright and theatre activist who wanted to give the theatre back to the actor would have mourned when he witnessed the kind of casual and uncaring acting that Evam artists presented. Frankly, it pained me and made me righteously angry.
But, let us not omit to look at the flip side of things. The hall was full (at least 750 people). The audience was very well behaved. They laughed at all the seemingly funny situations. In spite of the fact that the play ended only at 9.30 pm, none of them left the auditorium. This is truly an amazing sight. In Chennai, which is noted for its audience retreat from the auditorium at 8.30 pm sharp, however illustrious the artist is (Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Zakir Hussain, Aamir Khan or Nazeeruddin Shah), the audience waited with bated breath till the last moment, for Evam to produce its final moment of glory. But, they waited in vain.
It must be
mentioned that this is an Evam-Madras Players collaboration, Madras Players
which had in 1971 produced its own version of Evam Indrajit, which left
an indelible impression on the audience. Are the veterans of Madras Players
comparing this show with their own version? If they are, what are their
comments? These are all questions which may or may not be answered truthfully.
But, I do hope that during the next month, Evam will improve the quality
of their acting as they are supposed to be going to bigger and more illustrious
venues such as Bombay for the Prithvi Festival and Bangalore to present
it at The Ranga Shankara.