AUTO , when Play rescues Drama

Posted by Kaahon Desk On April 26, 2018

Let it known at the outset of this review of Kolkata Rangeela’s Auto (original text, Nabarun Bhattacharya’s novella, Auto; adaptation and direction, Kaushik Kar) that the critic has not read Nabarun’s text. This disclaimer is necessary because the criticism will encompass both the drama and the production; the comments about the drama will be precisely based on the text that the production throws up-if Nabarun’s text is different, the critic’s observations will naturally not apply to it.

At the center of the drama we have Chandan, an auto-driver, who sorely misses his mother who died before her time, and who dreams of moving on to a larger four-wheeled vehicle to make life for himself and his beloved wife, Maya, a tad more comfortable. An accident completely messes his life up – his auto blocks the progress of a get-away taxi being used by a group of robbers. Though others run away, one robber is caught and mercilessly lynched. Chandan, who never wanted to be a hero, watches, cowering in fear and rendered almost senseless, the gruesome crushing of the man, especially noting how repeated blows smash his genitals. The scene plants itself in his memory and consciousness – he gradually begins to become impotent, emasculated. One of the ring-leaders of the lynching, Vicky, a garage worker, takes Chandan back to his house and soon, begins an affair with Mala to finally elope with her. At the end of the drama we have Chandan striking back by killing Vicky.

Previous Kaahon Theatre Review:

A number of things need to be said here. The drama casts the successes and failures of a man’s life in terms of his sexual (im)potency. His impotence becomes the metaphor of his failures; society regularly mocks him for his impotence and he himself is greatly distressed because of his growing feebleness. A worried Mala tries quackery to cure Chandan; finally, when she runs away with Vicky, it is because he is virile. The gender politics of this drama is problematic as it rests a man’s societal and existential worth upon the foundation of his sexual prowess, his masculinity. If a feminist reading finds the drama to be problematic, so does a Marxist one. Chandan empathizes with the dead man from a humane position, but he identifies himself with the man not from a class location (which was always possible) but from the shared experience of being impotence. At another crucial juncture of the drama too, class solidarity fails to be formed – Chandan and his friend Irfan (the owner of Asmaan Tara hotel) discuss the pattern of the world where the biggest kills the one smaller than him, who in turn kills the next in size and so on. It is said that the smallest will not take beatings permanently and one day, he will turn around and take on the one who threatens his very existence. Chandan identifies Vicky as his mortal enemy and thus kills him. Chandan’s considering Vicky to be the chief threat to his existence, though both belong to the same class, goes against the grain of the most elementary of Marxist precepts; the conflict between Chandan and Vicky can be read as a struggle to seize the means of (re)production, personified in Mala. Fate seems to play a role in depositing in Chandan’s hand the gun (via Nanda who dabbles in astrology) that he uses to kill Vicky; when Irfan says, ‘one should leave a mark upon the world’, he seems to be echoing a famous saying attributed to a seer. It cannot be argued that the drama critiques and subverts Chandan’s masculinity or his apolitical bent because the drama is always invested in trying to establish Chandan as an undisputed tragic hero. I am not sure whether Nabarun had temporarily taken leave of his known political stand while writing his novel Auto, but it can be said with certainty that the politics of the drama Auto remains deeply problematic.

While there is enough reason to be wary of the drama’s politics, it has to be said, to remain true to one’s thoughts and emotions while watching the play, that the play is wonderful. It is admittedly politically unsound to speak of the play as separate from the drama, but there is no way one can dismiss the truth of having been wonderstruck while watching the performance. The first thing that needs to be said is that the play has been constructed with immense care and with a keen theatrical imagination at work. One assumes that as director Kaushik Kar has spent such a length of time living with this play inside his head as is required for him to know intimately all its details before going on to establish complete control over it all. The play is tightly constructed, with lights, music, set and acting complementing each other in near-perfect proportions.  The language of Kaushik Kar’s theatre has borrowed heavily from that of cinema – the many transitions are akin to cuts in films; ‘koi humdum na raha, koi sahara na raha’ playing in a loop becomes the tragic hero theme music; the non-linear narrative uses the cinematic device of incremental repetition of scenes. Using one medium’s language in another has worked well in Auto.

The construction of certain scenes and moments deserve mention. How does one perform the sense of sorely missing a dead mother? The word ‘Ma’, articulated with an anguished wail, is the very first word uttered in the play. How does one perform football leaving Chandan’s life against his will? In a scene that is part flashback and part dream sequence, Chandan dribbles a football that suddenly rolls out of his control to unbalance him and he stumbles and falls. The horror of lynching is vastly amplified by using slow motion, added to which are tempered yet powerful light and sound effects.  Towards the close of the play, when Chandan speaks to his auto, the headlights begin to glow to create a moment of magic realism where machine responds to man. The sequence with Chandan, Mala and Vicky (with a cup of tea in his hand) will reverberate in one’s memory for a long time just because of the wonderfully evocative use of a long stretch of silence underscored by very limited gestures. This is the point which marks the beginning of the unfortunate entwining of the three lives – the manner in which silence has been used to suggest sexual tension, apprehension, revulsion is exemplary.

Satrajit Sarkar as Irfan has portrayed the essential tranquility of his character by performing at a pace that is a bit more poised than that of the others; he has deliberately uttered his lines with polished clarity and at a comparatively lower pitch than others to suggest the character’s inner cleanliness.  He has shown how best to foreground a supporting character, in response to the demands of the text. Gambhira Bhattacharya has suggested Vicky’s aggression with fluent skill; the hurried manner of speaking, the loud movements of the limbs indicate Vicky’s rather shady nature. In his scenes with Chandan, Vicky hardly makes eye contact with him, revealing his guilty conscience. Tannistha Biswas has very realistically indicated Mala’s socio-economic position and the personal history of her life through her diction and physical mannerisms. Tannistha’s empathetic portrayal of Maya lights up the moments of domestic happiness in Chandan and Maya’s lives before the intrusion of Vicky. Sukanta Das (Nanda), Samiran (the assaulted man and Mutual Man) and the others have all done adequate justice to their roles. KaushikKar’s Chandan is arguably his best performance so far, with restraint being the hallmark of this performance. He has acted with his entire body – while his muscled arms indicate his working-class present and his sporting past, his drooping shoulders and his pain-wracked eyes reveal his mental agony. He has modulated the pace of his movements on stage to indicate the various states of Chandan’s mind.

Kaushik and Gambhira have designed the lights in a manner to ensure so that all the dramatic potential of theatre light is utilized, without a ray of illumination entering the performance in an unmotivated manner (light projection, Subhankar Das). Lights have been used to create zones; at times, with the soundtrack remaining fixed, lights have changed to mark the beginning of a new narrative movement (for example, during the transition from the Chandan/Irfan scene to the Chandan /Vicky scene towards the close of the play). It will not be an exaggeration to say that lights have spoken in the play. The above-mentioned duo has designed the set too; it is obvious that light and set design have been an integral part of the construction of the play from the very beginning. Music is an asset too(design, Samiran; projection, Kalyan); when Chandan contemplates the future with hope or when he is sexually stirred, the growl of the revving auto about to start moving gives to these small moments an added dimension.

The way Kaushik has driven his Auto gives us reason to expect more from him in the future. Sometimes in our metropolis, some of our auto driver co-citizens fling caution to the wind to drive their reckless vehicles towards disasters – we hope, as far as theatre is concerned, director/actor Kaushik will do no such thing.

Dipankar Sen
A student of theatre as an art practice, he is definitely a slow (but hopefully, steady) learner. He is a father, a husband and a teacher of English literature in the West Bengal Education Service. His other interests include literature in translation and detective fiction.

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