The Ranga Shankara Theatre Fest 2011 had a political theme- all the events including seminars, film screenings, plays and platform performances have a political thread running through them. But then, who can get more political than Badal Sircar, the doyen of anti-establishment theatre in our country?
The Rangshila theatre group from Mumbai staged Sircar’s "Teesveen Shatabdi" or "Thirtieth Century," on 21 October, a fascinating play about the moral aspects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. This is one of Sircar’s early plays written in 1966. A time when the echoes of the war and the staggering destructive power of atom bombs were still in evidence, leaving a scar on the psyche of the generations that survived and succeeded the war.
Staging such a play would then be a massive challenge in terms of making it relevant again to a people who appear to be fairly far removed from the causes and casualties of the bombing. The question is, can I be accused of a crime that I never planned and participated in?
Sharat Chowdhury (Shashi Bhushan Chaturvedi) is troubled by the fact that no one seems answerable to what is possibly the world’s worst case of premeditated, cold-blooded mass murder. When we first meet Sharat, he is wheel-chair bound while his mind appears to have left the confines of sanity. He receives a phone call from the thirtieth century, and from his side of the conversation, he appears to be defending the people of the twentieth century and their actions with respect to the war. His wife Vani (Shruti Vyas) feels that the clue to his insanity appears to lie with his physicist friend Sadhan (Rajesh Tripathi). Five years ago, Sadhan and a perfectly sane Sharat had a life-altering discussion that seems to have since wrecked Sharat. From here on, the play unravels the causes that led to Sharat’s current state.
Sharat and Sadhan investigate the lives of the people who were directly and indirectly affected by the bombings. They conduct a mock trial-various historical characters associated with the events are called to testify. Their answers provide damning facts and perspectives to the bombings.
(For more about the trial go here) In the end, his trial of the various characters leaves Sharat feeling guilty. Sadhan, however, defends their helplessness by comparing them to passengers in a bus driven by a deranged driver over whom they have no control. Sharat feels that it is the right of the passengers to demand that the driver drive responsibly. The constant battering of his psyche by the untold number of facts and feelings that he has experienced through the eyes of the characters finally drives him insane. The play ends as we once again see a helpless Sharat in the present, defending his century and his people in a mumbling, incoherent, yet touching fashion.
The set design for the play is tight and spare. A few low stools that form the furniture and the witness stand are all the sets, besides a huge white screen that has a revolving coffin-shaped door through which the various characters enter and leave. The screen is also used to project images that support the narration. The lighting is adequate, and the movement of the various characters through the coffin-shaped door is highlighted when they are silhouetted against the screen during their entry and exit; this provides a visual spectacle of sorts.
The actors themselves are seasoned veterans who are extremely comfortable with their characters and dialogues. They share and dominate the stage with ease born of long practice. However, director Avneesh Mishra appears to have taken it slightly easy in the direction department, and appears to rely on the strength of his actors. Beyond basic decisions regarding scene setting, he leaves it to the actors to pull it off.
The play is not knit tightly enough; the "silhouetted" entry and exit trick, the lack of choreographed movement, and the lack of actor interaction with the sets makes it slightly visually tiring for the viewer. For most of the play, Sharat is a rational, thinking, feeling being. However, his transformation to a lunatic in the last few minutes of the play appears unconvincing.
Perhaps being light on the reins of direction does not allow the play to fully transfer its emotional weight to the audience. You keeping waiting for the emotional wallop that the script seems to carry, but it never quite knocks you out. Most emotional moments in the play threaten to disturb, but they do not fully draw you in, leaving you vaguely unsatisfied.
The cueing of the music and the drama that it can provide passes by unhindered, again adding to the frustration that you feel. However, these are but minor glitches; perhaps the director needs to step away and re-look at the play in terms of fine-tuning it, something that can surely happen over a number of shows, the show at the festival was the group’s second.
However, there is no denying the excellent effort and professionalism that the group delivers-two hours and twenty minutes weigh lightly on your time, and the play seems to flow effortlessly.
Finally, it is Badal Sircar who disturbs you in a thousand different ways. His choice of characters from Ferebee, Mrs. Eatherly, and Leonard Cheshire to Albert Einstein is a masterpiece in the understanding of humanity, and of course, of drama. The million horrors of war and its undeniable consequences and ramifications hover over you long after you have left for home.
It is a feeling akin to reading Jonathan Swift in terms of the untold cruelties that mankind is capable of. The multi-layered text, replete with the smallest factual detail and imagined emotional content, is astounding in its approach and leaves you wondering about the kind of man Sircar must have been.
To have taken on the mighty topic of the A-bomb and consequently reducing a disconnected reader to a state of guilt is no mean task; it is Sircar who most effectively delivers the message that the actors grope for. Truly a marvelous script, and he most certainly must have been a marvelous man.
The play is certainly worth a second watch and potentially many more trips to the theatre. It would be fascinating to study how the actors and the director grow with the script and how many more revelations and surprises that Badal Sircar’s multi-dimensional script can provide upon re-reading and re-enactment.