Mokammel er Amitabh – A T20 match in Bengali Theatre

Posted by Kaahon Desk On November 9, 2019

Jadavpur Manthan’s Bengali play ‘Mokammel er Amitabh’ (Mokammel’s Amitabh) was recently performed at Padatik Little Theatre on 25th October. Based on Sadiq Husain’s short story, the play is directed by Rajib Bardhan. The runtime of the play is approximately 40 minutes. This review is based on the performance of 31st July in Tripti Mitra Natyagriha.

The story is set around the first decade of this century. The protagonist ‘Mokammel’ is a young, lower class Bengali and his ‘Amitabh’ certainly is the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan. Mokammel is Amitabh’s admirer, Amitabh’s heroic deeds on screen inspires him. But in real life, Mokammel is a failure. The structure of the plot is very similar, there have been few plays based on similar stories. But when we discuss the play, two topics achieve significance. Firstly, contemporary plays in Bengali theatre has the tendency to avoid the contemporary political climate, but the play is an exception in this regard. Even though the play doesn’t explicitly talk about any particular political party and the political elements come through only with the context of the story, the play never shies away from naming the politicians.

Previous Kaahon Theatre Review:

The main talking point about the play is its execution. Sadiq’s story is written in first person. The play has a writer or narrator (a ‘Sutradhar’, who called himself ‘Sutrodhor’) who narrates the story with expressions while sitting with a table and chair at one side of the performance space and the rest of the space is where the acting of the story takes place. Whenever the story has dialogues, the narrator stops and the dialogues are uttered by actual characters. Since the narrator is also a character in the play (Mokammel’s friend), he comes into the play to act his part and simultaneously continues to narrate the story as the narrator. The whole play proceeds like this. The director himself arrives at the end of the play to tell us that the story has been followed to a T and only two sentences have been added with the author’s permission. That means this unique structure of the play is a conscious decision. From a technical point of view of theatre production, this is a wonderful innovation. The makers’ actual motive behind this is not clear but it might be that they wanted to present the feeling of ‘reading a story’. Normally, when a reader reads a story, he or she visualises the events in his or her head and if that person comes to watch this play, he or she won’t need to read the story, the visuals are offered in readymade way. The story in a conventional stage production will be stretched to at least 2 hours but here, everything’s done in 40 minutes! If you are a sports enthusiast, you can establish this analogy – if conventional play is a classic five-day Test match, where the player has to give the ultimate test of his ability, then this style of production is like a T20 match, a package decorated with incredible swiftness and contextual entertainment. In this age where the practice of classical literature and theatre is increasingly becoming luxurious, this kind of format may catch the attention of both the makers and the audience.

But this format has few backdrops that can’t be brushed under the carpet. An author, while writing a story, fills it with his or her imaginative fervour that due to the artistic richness enables us to breeze through the text. But visually expressing the same as it is in a play or movie makes it seem unnatural. That’s why we need to make some changes to evoke the same emotions or feelings in the language of theatre or cinema. Apart from this, literature has few things in between the lines which the reader discerns while reading in his or her own way. If theatrical or cinematic versions don’t have that corresponding visuals or corresponding ‘between the lines’, then the cause-effect equation is disrupted. Reading a written story thoroughly in theatre and taking a religious stance against deviating from the written source text can lead to problems like these. A few examples in this play are like this. It’s beyond my understanding how Amitabh Bachchan as a nickname can become a matter of shame for a person in his neighborhood instead of vanity. Things that Mokammel says to Ashis Nandi appears to be admirable but he faces humiliation instead. Mokammel calls his father a derogatory term and Gafur spreads it among masses but exactly before that, from Mokammel’s own dialogue we derive that his father is known with that exact name in the neighborhood. Few such ‘lack of explanation’ remain in the play. A conventional approach would have dispelled the issues.

Another property of this play is that it is introduced as Intimate theatre but none of the story, dialogue or execution gives us the feel that it is suitable for Intimate theatre. In Tripti Mitra Natyagriha, lengthwise the play was elaborated to almost half of the space, the other half was for the viewers. With all the chair, table, bed, wooden frames, furniture and clothes hanging from ropes, the setting wasn’t much different from proscenium. On top of that were several projections of Amitabh Bachchan’s films, due to the lack of blank wall which were projected on the clothes. Overall it gives the feel that the play was planned in such a way that it can be performed in either mould of proscenium or Intimate. Still it feels that it was inserted in the Intimate space rather forcefully – the lengthwise presentation of the space takes it beyond general viewing range. That’s why when the performances are happening on both sides of the performance space, we had to strain our necks to get the full picture. In acting, all the performers are competent and except Mokammel, all of them appear in multiple roles.

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A lot of people were present in Tripti Mitra Natyagriha that day, a huge part of which was young and related to some theatre group or the other. Almost everyone received the play with huge enthusiasm. It’s undeniable that with increasing shortage of people’s time, comes the change of viewers’ taste. With that let’s come back to the T20 analogy. A fan of classical Test matches may accept T20 with scepticism but even that person has to admit that in T20 too, when a bowler is running in and a batsman is facing him, for that limited time, it’s nothing but pure cricket. ‘Mokammel’s Amitabh’ is almost like that. The acting is definitely classical, but in order to finish it quickly, it forgoes dramatisation for the sake of ‘voice over’, uses a familiar trope as the story and it has been served with the chutney of safe politics and popular culture. It’s a very new format and has an entertaining crowd for it. We hope in future there will be a lot of experiments with this format and puritans with higher standards will accept it as an artistic format – but till then, the doubt remains.

Anjan Nandi
A science student, postdoctoral researcher, writer-translator of science oriented popular literature and a dedicated audience of theatre for last two decades, he has observed many changes in Bengali theatre from a very close proximity. He is a regular contributor in Bengali Wikipedia and engages himself deeply in photography and cinema.

Translation– Biplab Mazumder

Read this review in Bengali.

বাংলাতে পড়তে ক্লিক করুন।

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