Since this is a very late review of Awddya Sesh Rajani, with the play having already had a phenomenally successful run in Kolkata theatres since February 2016, it is possible to begin by stating the by now evident – this play, quite deservedly, takes a position of prominence within the small group of recent Bengali theatre productions that have received critical acclaim and popular patronage in equal measure. The fact that a commemorative, celebratory volume containing the play-script and a host of essays and interviews centered on the play has been published attests to the success of the production.
The Actors: Arguably, of the roles that he has essayed thus far on stage, this one where he plays Amiya Chakraborty is the most challenging for Anirban Bhattacharya, simply because there are a number of layers of representation that he has to depict concurrently. He has to act out Amiya, the playwright, director, actor and also the husband and lover; in all these identities, Amiya’s demons and passions, his convictions and conflicts, his fantasies and realities demand projection. Anirban also has to enact Amiya enacting various characters in bits of plays within the play. But Amiya is a fictional recreation of a real figure – Ashim Chakraborty, the rebel/outsider of Bengali theatre of the 1970’s – and Anirban has to appropriate the historical persona through literary works, archival records, personal testimonies and reminiscences, and, of course, through the frame of understanding that the script and his director’s brief have set. Anirban’s portrayal of Amiya, one of the most memorable performances by a lead actor in recent times, triumphs because he acts with his mind. The brilliance that we witness is the glow that a thinking performance emits, where every nuance of gesture, movement, voice modulation is the result of pointed, purposeful thought. Debjani Chattopadhyay (as Rajani) is the surprise package because she is a television regular who reconfigures her craft for the particular requirements of onstage acting superbly. Most of the challenges mentioned above facing Anirban are Debjani’s too – she, in her turn, rises to meet and tackle every challenge thrown her way. The moments when Amiya and Rajani’s performances spill into their lives, making fiction and truth inseparable, are moments of sparkling onstage chemistry between Anirban and Debjani. Ankita Majhi’s Mala is a contained, powerful performance in which she thoroughly becomes her character, while Satrajit Sarkar performs the role of Bishnu Dutta leaving a critical distance between actor and persona through which seeps out an element of ironic caricature. Much of the play’s success can be attributed to this that virtually all the actors are uniformly good while acting singly or in combination with other actors.
The Play: Though every department of the production deserves to be reviewed separately, I will, for reasons of word-limit constraints, look at the play as a whole. The text of this bio-drama, authored by Ujjwal Chattopadhyay (based on Shyamal Gangopadhyay’s novel) and edited by Bratya Basu, is rooted in serious research. Thoroughly post-modern in its acute self-reflexivity, Awddya Sesh Rajani continually explores issues of aesthetics, politics and economics of dramatic texts. Traditional plot structure that moves through rising action and climax to denouement has been replaced by a narrative that has multiple highpoints that coincide with moments of artistic and personal crises in the life of the protagonist.
As director, Bratya Basu has been experimenting for some time now (with varying degrees of success) with audio-visual dramaturgy that brings together image, object, sound, music, light, multiple media, choreographed movement to generate and communicate meaning in a performed text (rather than depending solely on text-dependent acting to make meaning). The theatrical assemblage that he has put together in Awddya Sesh Rajani will not be easy to replicate or surpass. The decrepit tram is a marker of historical time and specific locale; it is also an index of dated, fixed hang-ups about art, aesthetics and obscenity. Very interestingly, even after having eaten away so much of the stage, the tram actually makes possible, with appropriate light design, multiple organizations of stage space. The bits of cabaret evoke memories of certain cultural practices of times past and the associated debates about high and low art, culture and corruption, theatre of social commitment and commercial gain. In the play, however, there is no debate, because Bratya Basu here dramatizes his own convictions about theatre; for him the debate seems to have been settled. He has repeatedly made public his firmly held beliefs that theatre has to be made financially viable, that the binary between high and low art needs to be exploded, that popular does not necessarily mean cheap and sleazy. And this is the only issue I have with this remarkable production, poised to go down as one of the most significant works in the history of Bengali group theatre. The director (who is also part playwright here) has burdened the play with the weight of his convictions and shut the debate down. On the one hand, Awddya Sesh Rajani seeks to dislodge a certain type of drama from the privileged position it enjoys in our cultural practices– the so-called progressive, socially committed play, loaded with of dogmatic baggage and usually commercially unsuccessful. On the other, Awddya Sesh Rajani itself carries the deadweight of its makers’ ideological persuasions and in the process of doing so ends up, somewhat ironically, resembling the type of plays it apparently seeks to challenge and undermine.