Hantarak – The Slaughter of Reason and Logic

Posted by Kaahon Desk On April 16, 2018

That Rangalok’s latest production, Hantarak, has struck a chord with the audience is evident – the show on 05.03.2018 ran to a near-capacity Rabindra Sadan.  Many in the audience clapped several times during the play, registering their endorsement of the play’s views. But, going against the grain of a section of the audience’s reception of the play, I am compelled to characterize it as one full of problems, which I will try to enumerate.

This play, written by Tirthankar Chanda, is in reality a thesis play in the garb of a thriller, where the protagonist remains a vehicle to convey the playwright’s many ideas. One can always write a thesis play today, notwithstanding the fact that such plays were in vogue around a century ago, but the biggest drawback of Hantarak is that its thesis itself is acutely confused. A brief outline of the plot will help clarifying the point made above. A professor is on the death-row, having committed a number of murders. A television team is in the jail to record the professor’s final testimony which will be broadcast live for an eagerly waiting audience. The interview begins; the professor recounts his murderous exploits. In an unguarded moment the game changes (the details of which are not being given so that some suspense can remain for those who will watch the play later); what continues, however, is the professor’s exposition to which are added the testimonies of a few other prisoners. Finally, the police shoot the professor dead. As the plot unfolds, it becomes evident that the professor, having lost faith in the state and societal systems, has committed the murders as judge, jury and executioner. Undoubtedly, injustice is rampant in our society, but the professor’s becoming an urban Phantom (of the comic strip) spills beyond the limits of logic and reason to give rise to a host of problems. A child dies asa result of the carelessness of a doctor-nurse duo; the professor kills their child as retribution/justice; a woman pours hot tea on a poor teenaged sweeper in a train compartment before handing him over to the police on the trumped up charge of stealing; the woman too becomes the professor’s victim. Quite clearly, there are problems aplenty here – even if we ignore the question of modus operandi, the argument that all wrongdoings deserve to be dealt with murder is decidedly outlandish. Also problematic is the rather sweeping nature of the professor’s wrath – sometimes he is angry with individuals, sometimes with the state and many of its organs such as the media, the police, the judiciary, the army. It does seem after a point that it would have been better if instead of murdering selectively, the professor had dropped a large bomb on the whole of the country. Curiously, three institutions are spared of his anger – the politicians who legislate (though an MLA is killed, it is not to punish his policy-making but his corrupt nature), the bureaucracy that implements the legislations and the resource-rich corporate capitalists who in fact control the entire state system. Why?

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Many things in the play defy logic. Is it possible to come so close to such a dangerous criminal, that too with just one guard around? Why will the guards, who finally shoot the professor, wait till he finishes his narrative to kill him, especially since nothing changes in the circumstances between the time of shooting and quite some time prior to it? There are other problems too – on one hand, a candle-procession taken out at Moulali to protest riots in Meerut is mocked at, while on the other, images of dead or wounded children from Syria and the Middle East are shown to highlight the plight of children in India. A map of the world is intermittently projected on an on-stage screen; is that the reason for the images? The world and its injustices pictorially depicted are easily accessed today, thanks to the internet. But, image-dropping without attempting to explore, ever so slightly, the abysmal crisis in Syria and the Middle East, should have been avoided. The play talks about and shows images of a group of dalits being tortured while strung upside down from a tree; then, towards the end, the same visual is reproduced with an actor hanging upside down. On one hand, criticism is leveled against television audiences seeking voyeuristic pleasure from grisly images; on the other hand, the same voyeuristic urge of theatre audiences is satisfied under the ploy of generating empathy. An example may be given of how two sequences in the play virtually cancel each other out. Presented is a soldier who has been turned by army-training into such a killing machine that he reflexively shoots whenever he hears any loud noise. He kills six people, family members and other innocents, in civilian life, not in war. The play takes issue with the training that the army imparts which turns people into machines. Conversely, we meet a brother-sister duo at the end of the play, who we had seen at the beginning too. The brother is vicious, in the beginning and also at the end, having learnt viciousness from television and from life generally. The sister is normal, peace-loving – she appears at the very end, candle and flowers in hand. So, what is the lesson here? The same stimulus is making one vicious while the other remains peaceable; meaning, the nature of an individual does depend largely on individual dispositions. If that is so, how can army-training be solely responsible, and an individual’s psychological make-up absolutely not, for that individual’s becoming quite like the dog in Pavlov’s experiment?  The disappointing confusions in the play’s thesis are indeed tiresome.

Problems remain even when we move from text to performance. Speaking loudly (virtually shouting) from the living room with the wife who is in the kitchen does allow the audience at the back of the auditorium to hear the dialogues clearly; what is totally ruined in the process is the realistic bent of the narrative. The speed with which the mother comes rushing from the kitchen in almost no time at all, hearing her daughter wail in pain, indicates that the mother knew in advance that the daughter will get hurt. These are minor problems. The biggest problem of the play is its over-the-top theatricality, the blame for which can certainly be deposited with the director, Shyamal Chakraborty. He has let the play run at a break-neck pace, probably in order to jump over the gaps in the play’s logic and to not give the audience the time to think things over. He has set the dialogue delivery and the bodily movements at a very high scale. Where it would have been most reasonable to keep his actor firmly on the ground, he has made him climb up a table (it is unpardonable the professor is so cavalier with center of gravity) and made another actor lift his leg on the table in an agonizingly awkward posture – theatricality has triumphed over logic and reason. Sanjib Sarkar as the professor has fulfilled his director’s demand of over-the-top, amplified acting; his tic of throwing his hand up in the air in a peculiar gesture has helped him in his task. Sanjita Mukhopadhyay has competently teased out first, the tutored curiosity, and then the terrified empathy and an equal measure of disgust that her character (the television reporter) demands. KajalShambu has turned in a controlled performance that stands out in the midst of all the loudness. The use of projected still images and videos seem satisfying because the text justifies the projections. The synchronization, at one point, of the live action on stage and the projected video is pulled off with remarkable skill.

It is not difficult to understand why Hantarak scores with the audience. When someone fights the battles against injustices which we are incapable of fighting ourselves, our pent-up angst gets pacified somewhat and we experience relief. This is exactly why, a few decades back, a number of Hindi films had garnered incredible popularity with their angry-young-man heroes taking on all evils of society single-handedly, caring not a bit about the law or any such thing. But the politics of these films, one must remember, is quite knotty. The angst of the audience is first provoked, next drawn out and then finally drained out to actually preserve the status quo. These films typically end with the hero either dying or going to jail, followed by a short scene that signifies the return to and of normal, peaceful life. These movies do not instigate the urge to do away with the ills of society; rather, these act like a safety valve through which the audience might expel their pent-up anger to return to society as docile conformists. The resemblance of Hantarak – with its plot, its hero, its ending – to these movies is unmistakable; we think we have been moved, but in reality we have merely shifted a bit in our seats to finally reclaim our zones of comfort.

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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