Shekal Chhenra Hater Khonje is Rangaloke’s latest production. Tirthankar Chanda has written the play-script, based on Samaresh Basu’s novel of the mid-1980s and Shyamal Chakraborty has directed the play. The playwright has come up with a straightforward, linear narrative and the director has presented a directorial design that were quite the standard fare some thirty or so years ago. There is about every aspect of the play – the script, the direction, the acting, the atmospherics – a feel of the 1980’s/1990’s. Even if one were to give allowance for the fact that the narrative does indeed span roughly five decades from around the 1940’s to the 1990’s, one is not quite sure why the play written and produced in 2016, should be so firmly stuck in an aesthetic mode that is quite dated.
Since, in my opinion, this production is beset with a number of problems, I will first look at its strength before taking issue with its ills. The best thing about the play is the acting. Most of the actors turn in solid, realistic portrayals of their characters, done in the old-school declamatory style,with Sanjib Sarkar (as the protagonist, Nawal Agaria) leading from the front. Sanjib carries the play on his shoulders, with all the other actors supporting him by doing their bits. Sandipsuman Bhattacharya’s set, Dipak Mukhopadhyay’s light and Swapan Bandyopadhyay’s music, while not particularly striking, come through as effective.
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A cursory summary will help us look at the problems that plague the play: Nawal Agaria is a factory worker who rises through the ranks of a progressive communist party to become MP. His father was a factory hand too, who had spontaneously protested against an exploitative management in British India to emerge as a leader of sorts of the workers. Nawal has learnt from his father the mantra of struggle for the betterment of the oppressed masses. Nawal’s party (the CPIM, which remains virtually unnamed throughout) comes to power in his state, West Bengal, and with time, the party moves away from its professed goal to struggle for the oppressed to become bureaucratized and corrupted. Nawal is anguished, confused – he begins to criticize the party. Eventually both Nawal and party fall out with each other – Nawal is shown at the end of the play searching for an alternative path.
Problem 1: Given its content, the play will inevitably draw comparisons with other similar productions of recent times and if we were to take, say Ruddhasangeet and Winkle Twinkle for example, Shekal Chhenra compares, in terms of execution, quite poorly with both. The Hemanga Biswas bit, the party sitting in judgment bit in Shekal Chhenra comes across as insipid derivations of moments from Ruddhasangeet, completely lacking in theatrical punch. Nawal’storment brings to our mind that of Sabyasachi’s in Winkle Twinkle and Nawal’s son reminds us of Sabyasachi’s, without doing Shekal Chhenra any good at all. If the content of one’s text is similar to that of other recent texts, especially major ones, it becomes mandatory to be innovative in one’s treatment, if one wishes to escape the pitfall of imitativeness; such a spirit of innovativeness is absent from the making of the play.
Problem 2: Speaking of content, Shekal Chhenra fails miserably to deliver on this crucial aspect too. Samaresh Basu’s novel was begging to be adapted imaginatively and with a broadness of vision, so that the play could have become much more than an autopsy of the dead fact of the electoral setback of the CPIM. Instead of focusing on the crises of the left movement, the play is content to simplistically conclude that CPIM’s chief undoing was the presence of ‘Benojol’ in the party. Conceding that asking the play to engage with local, national and global issues (such as left politics and questions of environment, civil liberties, terrorism, right-wing nationalism, the ideological dichotomy between the parliamentary left and the militant left) is asking for too much, there is no excuse for this that Shekal Chhenra studiedly avoids teasing out and critically probing issues which even the text contains, such as those of caste, women’s rights, the gradual bureaucratization of the party, its take-over by the refined bourgeoisie, the succumbing to the lure of private capital, etc. To hide behind the defense that the adaptation was faithfully following the source text will simply not wash,because an adaptation that fails to take into account the contemporary context is not worth the pages it is printed on.
P.S.: At one point in the play Nawal accuses a character (and later even himself) of not criticizing the party when its decay was already evident, mainly in order to keep oneself and one’s interests safe. The same can be said of the play as a whole – why did the makers wait till 2016, after the passage of a quarter of a century since the publication of the novel and when the CPIM remains reduced to but a ghostly presence, to come up with the play? The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.