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Social mirror - real and surreal

July 11, 2019

Mirza Ghalib, Delhi's iconic reconnoiter, said once, "My whole life, I kept dusting my viewing mirror, without ever removing dust from my own body..." Two recent adaptations from the Western dramatic genre attempted to seek reflection of our own society, warts and all, in the playwrights' own mirror.


Henrik Ibsen (1828 - 1906), the Norwegian playwright, theatre director and poet, is the most frequently performed dramatist in the world after Shakespeare and, by the early 20th century, his A Doll's House - penned in 1879 -- became the world's most performed play. A scathing criticism of the marital roles accepted by men and women which characterized Ibsen's society -- and relevant even now after 140 years! -- the story is about a very ordinary family: a bank manager and his wife Nora, with their little children studying elsewhere. The husband supposes himself the ethical member of the family, while his wife assumes the role of a pretty irresponsible female in order to flatter him into this snug -- not to say stifling -- arrangement. There intrude several hard-minded outsiders, one of whom threatens to expose a fraud that Nora had once committed (without her husband's knowledge) in order to obtain a loan needed to save his life. When Nora's husband finally learns about this dangerous secret, he reacts with outrage and repudiates her, out of concern for his own social reputation. Utterly disillusioned about her husband, whom she now sees as a hollow fraud, Nora declares her independence of him and their children, and leaves them, slamming the door of the house behind her in the final scene - recognized as a very bold feminist gesture.

Ibsen was consistently a poet in this work from beginning to end. He tempered and refined his medium from romantic lyricism into a strict and subtle economy, which sought, among other goals, to put to a kind of Socratic test, those values that defined the world of the newly dominant middle class. Ibsen devised here a dramatic language that could record both the immediate psychological tremors and the larger philosophical and mythic reverberations of the modern age, with almost seismographic delicacy and precision!

Khelaghor presented on June 22 by 'Prachyo', was a faithful adaptation of Ibsen by Ratan Kumar Das and most adroitly directed by Biplab Bandyopadhyay. The play revolving around Nora's persona (here Nira), was well handled by the veteran Chaiti Ghoshal, though she should avoid descending occasionally into the superficial. The three cameo roles - of Kaberi, the bereaved childhood friend of Nira; the villain bank clerk who is bent on blackmailing Nira for her desperate loan she would now pay back and rather forget; and the family physician and steady friend Dr. Rakshit - were all professionally done by Anjana Basu, Shantanu Chattopadhyay and, above all, by the director himself, in that order. Tamonash, the banker husband of Nira, was handled by Debshankar Halder with his usual panache, though he, too, should look out in not becoming mannered and, therefore, predictable.

A word is due about the setting. Ibsen's own directives about the setting of A Doll's House is ordinary to the point of transparency, since his plot exploits with cold precision the process known as "analytic exposition." This critic recalls the earliest - and epic- Bengali adaptation Putul Khela by 'Bohurupee' where the great thespian Shombhu Mitra used very symbolic upholstery and carpentry by Khaled Choudhury in the 1950s. Some years later, Gudia ka Ghar by 'Rangkarmee' under Usha Ganguly used, for her Hindi version, an elaborate mosquito net - under the supervision of the iconic Tripti Mitra - to indicate the cloistered atmosphere of Nora. In the early 2000s, Putliko Ghar by 'Aarohan Gurukul' under Sunil Pokharel in the Nepali version made his viewers sit around the performance space - decorated with dolls -- at Kathmandu, to symbolize how artificial was Nora's make-believe personal life. For once, this critic was glad to witness Biplab's visualization, sans all symbolism and set in stark reality, as would have pleased Ibsen!

Excerpts from interview with the director:

First, the usual question, why revive the old play A Doll's House after all these years?
Yes, I too asked myself the same question: is this because we're unable to build up a new narrative about our own time? In the domain of literature, I consider this play to transcend the barriers of space and time, and represent eternity. In the gradual evolution of society and civilization, man's individual and collective crises are recapitulated by this play that throb with a perennial feel for truth and experience.

You seem to have discarded use of any symbols and metaphors in your production...
Shombhu Mitra wanted to catch the period and realities of Ibsen's time, and used symbols accordingly. His Ibsen was the one noted as a naturalist dramatist, having banished Europe's prevailing romanticism. It was an intellectual interpretation of a more complete Ibsen in a holistic manner. We live in a social milieu with an altogether different middle class, with power equations of our men and women with a different perception of inequalities, set in the perspective of our intellectual perception of language, society, state and politics -- with a moral hypocrisy hiding an opportunist approach and a selfish mentality. Ours is a different middle class.

What is your focus on Ibsen?
I seek to begin from a single family and broaden the perspective to the bigger conflicts of the modern man's life and society and their tragic end, alongside hollowness of the belief system; the disaster that follows when the faith crumbles down; and the power structure that remains hidden among both men and women. Towards this familiar daily hypocrisy of modernism in the urban jungle, Ibsen raises his finger.

Your use of light is brilliant, but music has remained minimal, despite its vast potential...
Thank you. Regarding music, you must realize that this is a drama of dialogue where words are of supreme importance. Music can be only suggestive!

Bhunibabur Chandni
Photos: Saswata Chatterjee

Oscar Wilde (1854 -1900), an Irish poet and playwright, became one of London's most popular dramatists in the early 1890s. Facing heavy criticism throughout his life for his flamboyant nature, he was a part of Victorian aesthetic movement, which rejected the rigid discipline of the Victorian era and emphasized the importance of art in everyday life. The Canterville Ghost was the first of his short stories. Witten in 1889, it is about an American family who moves to a castle haunted by the ghost of a dead nobleman, Sir Simon de Canterville. The castle has all the accoutrements of a traditional haunted house, with the wainscoting, the library paneled in black oak and the armor in the hallway characterizes the setting. Wilde mixes the macabre with mirth, juxtaposing devices from traditional English ghost stories such as creaking floorboards, clanking chains and ancient prophecies!

The Otis family hears the rattling shackles and witnesses the re-appearing bloodstains on the floor, but these are removed every time they appear in various forms and none of the rattles scare the family-members in the least. On the contrary, despite the ghost's efforts to appear in the most ghoulish guises, the family refuses to be frightened and Sir Simon feels increasingly helpless and humiliated. Indeed, he assumes a series of dramatic roles in his increasingly failed attempts to impress and terrify the Otises -- making it easy to imagine him as a comical character in a stage play and the Otises beating him every time. Finally, depressed and weak, Sir Simon exposes his vulnerability during an encounter with Virginia, the Otis's fifteen-year-old daughter. Virginia is different from everyone else in the family, she does weep for him and pray for him, and disappears with Sir Simon through the wainscoting to bid him farewell. Then she reappears at midnight, carrying jewels and news that Sir Simon has passed on to the next world and no longer resides in the house.

Bhunibabur Chandni
premiered on July 1 by 'Curtain Call' and imaginatively directed by Tirthankar Chattopadhyay was a true adaptation by Sharmila Maitra, recalling the ghostly settings now in Kanter Bill of Bengal, with a BDO family moving in with raucous youngsters and the ghost as a famous Jatra player of yesteryears, accompanied by his make-up man. There is little explanation how even a successful actor could own such a huge, though decrepit, mansion and that too, replicating a Gothic castle from the West. All the characters use stylized acting, barring the BDO's compassionate daughter Anuprerana (Rajyasre Malakrar) who inexplicably adopts completely natural style. The teamwork is just about adequate.

Goutam Halder, who essays the pivotal role of the ghost, reduces it almost to frivolous proportions. Now, this critic would like to hail the highly gifted Goutam as the 'Peter Sellers of Bengal' for, like the versatile English actor, known for his impersonating skills seen in Lolita (1962), Pink Panther (1963), Dr. Strangelove (1964), etc., Goutam has shown immense flair to portray characters using different accents and guises, and with contrasting temperaments and styles in plays like Feriwalar Mrityu, Gotraheen, Meghnad Badh Kavya, Sujan Bediyar Ghat, Mudra Rakshash, Mymensingher Geetika, et al. Of late, his comical actions in Return Ticket and in the current play, however, show scant regard to flesh out the characters with ample thoughts before proceeding to improvisation, and not turning them into clowns! Dyuti Ghosh Halder, a highly talented actor - last seen to advantage in Matir Gadi Mrichhakatik - appears here as the visiting BDO's wife, with totally avoidable gesticulations. She, too, beware!

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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