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Delving into Partition's realpolitik
Photos courtesy: Riddhi Sen

May 3, 2019

Trust Utpal Dutt (1929-1993) - the redoubtable Indian actor, director and writer who was a radical figure in Bengali theatre and all-India cinema for more than 40 years - to have written controversial Bengali political plays. He was perhaps best known for such political drama, which he often produced on open-air stages in rural Bengal, as well as for his commitment to a strong leftist ideology. His plays became an apt vehicle for the expression of his Marxist ideologies, visible in socio-political plays such as Kallol (1965), Manusher Adhikar, Louha Manob (1964), Tiner Talwar and Maha-Bidroha (1989). He was arrested in 1965 and detained for several months because the ruling political party feared that the enormously successful play Kallol was provoking anti-government protests in West Bengal. His stay in jail unleashed a new period of rebellious and politically charged plays and he continued to direct and stage his plays even when he was in prison. During the 1970s, as many as three of his plays were continually staged and drew capacity crowds, despite being officially banned!

So, no wonder, when Dutt chose to pen his controversial work Ekla Chalo Re (Press Ahead Alone!, a take on the famous Tagore song), the eminent playwright would deal with the conspiracy behind the assassination of Gandhi, among many other crises. The life and politics of Mahatma Gandhi have always been a point of interest for essayists and playwrights all over the world. What Dutt depicted in the 1946-48 interregnum of Indian political turmoil was primarily Gandhiji's gradually becoming isolated not only from his brainchild Congress, but also from Sardar Patel, which caused him no less pain. In his personal life, the eldest son Hiralal had revolted for his perception of negligent upbringing, to the acute embarrassment of his devoted wife Kasturba. Compound this with the national turbulence of impending Indian Partition which Mr. Jinnah was pressing on and which was being craftily supported by the British overlord Mountbatten, although resisted by Gandhiji with all his moral might. When added to the national scene of emerging communal violence which was leading Gandhiji towards his ultimate weapon of 'fast unto death', and the lurking Hindu extremist intrigue to "eliminate" Gandhiji altogether from earth, the apocalyptic chaos could perhaps be judged.

Ekla Chalo Re premiered by Swapna Sandhani on April 5, was brilliant recreation of that recent history with all its actions and repercussions. Under the baton of thespian Kaushik Sen and with a brilliant cast as well as a most competent teamwork of the well-known group, it was a wonderful dramatic experience. The veteran Ashok Mukhopadhyay as Gandhij pushed to depressive segregation; Deshankar Halder's Sardar Patel with his gritty materialism; Kaushik himself as a diabolical Mountbatten; Surajit Bandyopadhyay as almost a helpless Nehru pressed by circumstances; Reshmi Sen as Kasturba - a hapless, yet devoted consort; it was a conglomerate of stellar acting talents. Monalisa Roy as Edwina Mountbatten was adequate, while Loknath Dey as Jinnah was perhaps a shade lacklustre.

But, most of all, it was Kaushik's directorial tight-rope walking that carried the day. There could be many slippages - both Hindu extremism raising its ugly head in scheming against Gandhiji and in their diabolical success, sensing the rise of a "Hindu Raj"; and implied involvement of Sardar Patel in stopping the police officer-duo from their hot pursuit of Bapu's intending murderers ("as per Utpal Dutt's original text", clarified by Ashok to this critic) could both go overboard in their sinister implications, but were kept tightly under the leash by the director. It was most admirable how he handled a potentially "fire-raiser" (remember the famous eponymous play by Friedrich Durrenmatt?) script.

An interesting question was how the dramatis personae would represent the political personalities so very alive in people's mind? More specifically, asked about Gandhiji's endearing mannerism of left-handedness and slightly staccato speech, Ashok clarified, "Kaushik, as director, had asked us all to use the real-life persona of famous personalities for drawing inspiration, not for imitation." This critic would whole-heartedly agree. The stepladder-like set diagonally crisscrossing the proscenium by Sanchayan Ghosh was very apt, to reflect the political rise and fall in the flow of events. Music by Goutam Ghosh was excellent.

An absolutely great theatrical experience!

Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.

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