Don – Takey Bhalo Lagey: Dreaming in the time of Conflict

Posted by Kaahon Desk On June 3, 2018

In 1965, Dale Wasserman wrote a musical based on Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, The Man of La Mancha which went on to become a Broadway classic. In 1994, Arun Mukhopadhyay, the beating heart of Chetana (and a member of the present production) translated Wasserman’s musical as Dukhimukhi Jodhha (unfortunately, the present critic has not watched Dukhimukhi Jodhha). For Chetana’s latest production, director Sujan Mukherjee has altered and added to Dukhimukhi Jodhha to come up with Don – Takey Bhalo Lagey. The drama demands some discussion.

Previous Kaahon Theatre Review:

First, we notice that Don – Takey Bhalo Lagey is an extremely faithful translation of The Man of La Mancha. This faithfulness is located neither merely in the ‘play within a play’ trope, nor merely in the form of the musical. It can be claimed that the Bengali text has translated the English text sentence by sentence. Those who have watched Don attentively will be convinced about the degree of faithfulness of the translation if they can compare this one example of speech (among many) lodged in their minds with its English counterpart: “I have been a soldier and seen my comrades die in battle…These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no gallant last words . . . only their eyes were filled with confusion, whimpering the question: ‘Why?’ I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had lived.” The reason why faithfulness is being harped upon will become clear when later this article will take up the issue of mode of acting.

Secondly, the point where Don departs from La Mancha is where, through the character of Subhamoy Dutta (played by Suman Mukhopadhyay), certain events from and the general atmosphere of India’s contemporary political life seep into the play. In La Mancha the character that is Subhamoy’s counterpart is Cervantes himself, caused to become a character by Wasserman. In Wasserman’s imagination, Quixote in La Mancha is not so much a human figure as a symbol of a distinctive approach to life, a philosophy and practice of living; in brief, he is an idea. In Don too, Quixote is an idea that proclaims life to be all about trying to grasp the impossible with full knowledge that it is impossible. In Don Subhamoy Dutta and Quixote are clearly identified with each other, just as Cervantes and Quixote are in Wasserman’s drama. However, as the Subhamoy/Quixote identification is posited within a definite political context, it invites examination. Subhamoy is a poet, author, and playwright who, along with his colleague Satyajit Mishra (played by Satish Shaw), has been jailed for speaking against the nation-state. The jail is already populated with other prisoners who institute a mock-trial before the actual one begins, and in which Subhamoy presents his defense through a play based on Don Quixote (the play within a play), getting all the inmates involved. The manner in which names such as Dabholkar, Kalburgi, and Lankesh are used as references – without the least mention of their work, their politics and the impact they had on the socio-political life of the nation – suggests that the drama is more interested in ticking boxes of political correctness than in a penetrating engagement with political issues. Moreover, if Subhamoy and through extension, Dabholkar, Kalburgi, and Lankesh are all Quixotes, does not Don then take a rather equivocal position with regards to their politics? That is, while the identification of the battle against the humongous nation-state with the lone warrior Quixote’s tilting at demonic windmills does engender a sense of exhilarating romanticism, this identification also tends to fix the outcome of such a battle. If only the drama had not entered into the particular space of Dabholkar, Kalburgi, and Lankesh and remained in the rather universal sphere of resisting great forces through Subhamoy/Quixote’s many unequal battles, we would have only seen ‘life as it should be’ and not ‘life as it is’.

To turn to the performance, one notes that Don being a musical, it is music that propels the narrative forward, it is music that cradles the theme, it is music that creates the mood during various dramatic moments. Some of those who sang were not always in impeccable tune or rhythm, but there being a difference between a musical event and theatre music, a few minor hiccups here and there can always be glossed over, especially when the performance flowed largely unhindered. The transitions from speech to song and back were handled with fluent ease by everyone. The music of Don (music director, Prabuddha Banerjee) has borrowed elements from flamenco and rock on one hand, and from kirtaan, tappa, Hindi film music, Rabindrasangeet and Kabir Suman’s songs on the other. While this ploy of touching base with music from different countries, cultures and time has given to the play a lush sonic richness, it also creates a problem. With music often bearing its own geography and time, the music of the play was transporting us not only to medieval Spain but to many other locations and times. A few words about the sound of the play which has live music, recorded music, songs sung and dialogues delivered with and without lapel microphones. The sound could very easily have reached the audience very unevenly; in fact, it was patchy at times, but on the whole, the technician who projected sound needs to be warmly applauded for his skills. When one actor gets the lapel (Suman), he does enjoy an added mechanical advantage over the others, but he is compelled to keep his vocalization limited to a rather muted scale. During the moments when the lapel malfunctioned (22.05.2018, Academy), Suman’s unaided voice fell comfortably on our ears.

The many actors in the play, irrespective of the size of their roles, clearly bear the mark of sustained practice in their performances. Nibedita Mukhopadhyay (Aldonza/Dulcinea) has founded the character of the fleshly Aldonza upon a gross physical presence and has created that of Dulcinea mainly through verbal acting and play of expressions; this intelligent bifurcation of acting style has led to the two characters, polar opposites, coming to equal life. Only, towards the close of the play, in order to suggest Aldonza’s agony, Nibedita resorts to an overstated mode of acting that is quite cliché. Satish Shaw (Satyajit Mishra/Sancho Panza) as Sancho has conveyed through his facial expressions a certain wonder about and love for Quixote which subtly nudges the audience towards a given understanding of Quixote. When a perplexed and irate Aldonza corners him to ask, ‘Why do you follow your master?’, Sancho’s moment in the play arrives, which Satish has skillfully made his own – in a muted voice and almost in the manner of plain speaking, Satish sings out Sancho’s artless admission, that he likes the Don. Satish has ably shown how little is required to do in order to express a love that is unconditional and boundless. Some plays become one-man shows despite the presence of many actors; Don is one such play and the one man here is Suman Mukhopadhyay (Subhamoy Dutta/Don Quixote). That Suman is a powerful and competent-in-many-styles singer is proven by this play. His bold strides as Subhamoy become, as Quixote, sometimes a snatch of a dance where his feet jump about and at other times a tottering walk, especially when confronted by reality. As Quixote, Suman delivers his lines with a whispery touch and yet with a quiet firmness, thereby positioning his character in the liminality of the real and the unreal and conveying him thus to the audience. All this is seen, all of it happens, but when Suman’s mode of acting reminds one of Brian Stokes Mitchell’s performative mode in the 2002 Broadway revival of La Mancha, the question of remaining faithful to the source text raises its head again, this time somewhat problematically. Remaining unwaveringly loyal to the source text is not only a time-honoured approach to textual translation, but can actually work very well at times, as it has for Don. But in the case of performance, when one actor’s work becomes a faithful replication of another’s, a ringing hollowness marks the performance, a situation that is best avoided. While it cannot be denied that Suman has performed wonderfully in Don, a thorny issue remains as to how much of that performance has sprung out of his own artistic self. Those wishing to remain unscathed by the thorn of doubt should not search ‘Man of La Mancha Broadway revival Brian Stokes Mitchell’ on the Internet.

Curtain Call (22.05.2018, Academy) – The entire cast assemble on the stage. The auditorium is packed to the rafters. On the request of a member of the audience, Sujan and the others begin to sing the theme song of the play, the one about dreams. Since a very vital business was left unattended to, both before and after the singing, it needs to be done here – providing a brief history of the song. The English original of the song is called The Impossible Dream. Initially, it was the famous English Poet W. H. Auden (and his partner Chester Kallman) who was roped in to write the lyrics for La Mancha. Then, Auden quit the project, mainly on account of irresoluble differences with Wasserman and Joe Darion replaced him. Darion chose words and phrases from the play’s text to write – “To dream the impossible dream,/ To fight the unbeatable foe,/ To bear with unbearable sorrow/ To run where the brave dare not go…”; Mitch Leigh composed the tune and The Impossible Dream was born. Quite soon the song spilled over and out of La Mancha’s limits to reach all locations of protests and of promises to dream for a better world. The song was sung during the Vietnam War protests, there is record of it having been sung in churches in America and not very long ago Occupy Wall Street protesters sang this song. The translated song that was sung that day belongs certainly to Don, but it would have been gracious to have used the opportunity provided by the curtain call to recall the names associated with the original song that has become a global anthem of hope and dreams. Chetana’s thrift in mentioning names is painful. All involved with key elements of the production were mentioned by name and duly thanked. But the not-so-small group of young actors, on their knees in the front row on stage, remained unnamed. We will hope that all the impossible dreams of the world of theatre these young talents have filled their eyes with will be realized someday.

P.S. – Soon after the performance on the 22nd, spread the distressing news of actor Satish Shaw having been detected with cancer. Kaahon earnestly wishes that this dedicated theatre personality recovers quickly and completely.

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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