Having watched a number of rather freewheeling stage adaptations of (mainly) English texts over the last many months, it was a refreshing change for me to watch a Bengali play that is a faithful transcreation of the source text – John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella about depression-era California migrant farm labourers is adapted by Debasis Biswas (also director and actor) as Indur o Manush. Incidentally, the novella’s structure – chunks of prose, which can be read as stage directions, interspersed with lengthy portions of dialogue – readily lends itself to adaptation for the stage. The play script is taut and lean, evoking the flavour of Steinbeck’s minimalist literary style. Biswas’ decision to not find a rural Bengali dialectical equivalent of the rough, rustic and earthy English spoken by Steinbeck’s characters should work well both for those familiar with the source text and those who are not – for me, the standard Bengali the characters spoke did not sound out of place.
The play explores themes of loneliness, friendship, the importance of dreams in our lives and the impossibility of realizing those dreams and, of course, love. There is about the play a certain quietness, at times a slowing down of the pace at which the plot moves and an ambient gloom (light designed by Sekhar Samaddar). These elements combine not only to facilitate focused exploration of the themes, but also to create a sense of deep meditativeness that is becoming increasingly rare in Bengali theatre nowadays, given its new-found penchant for racy action, mandatory song and dance routines and dazzling light effects. Indur o Manush is designed to make one feel, think, meditate and not merely entertain. Once in a while, practicing to think is not a bad idea; Debasis Biswas, the director, deserves praise on this count that he retains faith in that practice.
The set by D’Moy is minimalist, in sync with the stylistic bias of the text, with the two uneven, broken ladders hanging at back-stage center remaining as fixed reminders of the permanence and fragility of dreams in our lives. Rabiranjan Moitra has composed a wonderful soundscape for the play (the woods coming to life at night through sounds is a treat to experience), but he could have been more loyal to the setting of the play by choosing to employ elements from the vast register of American folk music. This is not to suggest that his music does not work, but a song like (for example) Woody Guthries’ This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land was crying to be used in this context.
Koushik Kar as George is able to convincingly portray the central conflict that ravages his character – his love for and frustration at Lennie. Koushik’s George makes the many shifts from the harsh realities of the world of adults to the fantasies and innocence of that of Lennie’s apparently effortlessly, which clearly proves that he has prepared well for his role. Of course, Shankar Debnath (Lennie) does not have the massive build that the Lennie of Steinbeck’s novel demands, but that is beyond anybody’s control. His portrayal of the mentally deficient Lennie who perpetually wants to pet soft things is marked by a sense of empathy. He perfectly captures Lennie’s desolation in a world that he does not fit in, as well as his almost animal, instinctual love for George. Shankar’s physical approach to acting serves him well in this role. Tannistha Biswas’ fluent, affective portrayal of Curly’s wife is able to draw in the males around her (and the audience) by exuding a raw sexual charm and at the same time render them anxiety-ridden in her presence. She is quite successful in wringing out the pathos that underlines the poor woman turning herself into a sexual object only in order to draw general attention towards herself. Krishnendu Adhikari as Slim is, quite unsurprisingly, very good, as is Debasis Biswas as Candy. Sumit Roy as the loud, brutish Curly can consider subduing his masculine strutting by a few notches. However, it goes to Sumit’s credit that when, for a few fleeting moments, he has all the stage for himself and the spotlight is squarely on him, he owns the moment with his anguished grimace and his silent wail of utter despair that bares for us Curly’s hollow, tormented soul.
Indur o Manush is a play crafted with care. It has no frills, no decorations. It is dark, death-haunted and disturbing, much like Steinbeck’s novel, and yet, strangely uplifting and life-affirming. Received with patience, the play transforms into a soft thing that we can touch with our minds.