Friday, 20 March 2020

Theater review: Playhouse, an adaptation from Friedrich Dürrenmatt

I watched Playhouse yesterday. Produced by the group Shailushik. At the Rabindrasadan auditorium.
Playhouse is a dark comedy or a problem play of five principal characters around the theme of justice. More precisely the justice seldom delivered in a courthouse of law. But that which is brought forth by a guilt ridden conscience upon itself after the layers of a carefully orchestrated pretence are peeled off one by one. To reveal a face scarred with the ugliness of sins gone overlooked by the world at large.
Indrajit Dutta's sparkling new red BMW breaks down on a rainy night in the outskirts of North Bengal. He seeks refuge in a house of a retired judge, Pinaki Samanta, which doesn't have a functional telephone. Indrajit plays the metaphorical double of both the epical hubristic Meghnad and the mythological Ares. As he also reminds me of the tragic hero Macbeth.
Ironically, he is the zonal manager of a firm that makes hephaeston, a binding polymer that is as strong and unbreakable as steel. Interestingly, the product name is a derivative of Hephaestus, the Greek god of smithy (think Vishwakarma minus the charm) who married Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty. Legend holds that Aphrodite was disgusted with the ugly lame husband and started an illicit romance with the handsome Ares. Coming to know about this affair from Helios, Hephaestus wraps his wife with a net of steel and takes her to Mount Olympus for justice.
The imagery of a noose or a steely mesh drawing close on criminals, who are off limits for regular legal proceedings, pervades the play from the beginning. The ominous undertone doesn't take too long to settle you in an expectation of an imminent doom. Only it is never overtly pronounced.
The stage quickly fills with three friends of the old judge - a jailor cum hangman, a public prosecutor and a defence advocate - a boisterous crowd of retired men of law, who seem to belong to a self imposed agency of bringing culprits to a deserving deliverence. Apparently however, they engage in frivolous evenings of single malts, listening to Chopin, singing Cohen and feasting on crab sizzlers finishing off with custard. All this while play acting scenes of make believe legal trials for merriment. They invite Indrajit to play and he agrees in good humor to enact the role of a convict, accused of corruption leading to murder of his erstwhile boss, Bijan Samaddar.
As the evening proceeds, effects of intoxication and a semblance of real life arbitration lead Indrajit to reveal his past, thanks to a persistent interrogation by the prosecutor. He is goaded into confessing the mindcrimes he had committed to climb up the corporate ladder. For an ambitious transition from driving an Alto to a BMW. While the defence counsel and prosecutor match their wits to concoct contrasting illustrations of Indrajit as a helpless pawn of hard times versus a cold blooded killer, the judge declares him both guilty and innocent but sentences him to death nonetheless. But then Indrajit is also given a choice. What is it?
Won't give away the plot, nor the ending but the play kept me hooked. Superlative histrionics from Padmanabha Dasgupta, Arjun Dasgupta and Sridip Chattopadhyay were totally worth every moment of attention. The music was also commendable, striking an intended balance between a contrived jollity and a jarring angst.
Indrajit's character, whose boundless ambition becomes his undoing, has undertones of the overachieving Macbeth. Remember how in Shakespeare's play, Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft orders three witches to congregate at a forbidding place where Macbeth will seek their help? In the fourth act the witches or as some read them, the Three Fates, gather as Hecate ordered and produce a series of ominous visions for Macbeth that herald his downfall. Play house has echoes of the witches in the jailor, the prosecutor and the defence lawyer - all progressively conjuring up a series of visions for Indrajit. Pinaki, the judge is Hecate's shadow without any sensationalized voodooism attached to the version.
I will not refer to Friedrich Dürrenmatt's story which inspired this play. Nor will I go to draw parallels with Edgar Wallace's Four Just Men. Simply because Playhouse goes the extra miles to make the stage a topical reference to the present day India. Director Kamaleshwar Mukherjee and script writer Padmanabha have both created a production that rings familiar with the contemporary audience. Allusions to chit fund, fascism, Nirav Modi on one hand and the aspiration-less communist middle class on the other, clarifies where the moral compass of the play points to. Dürrenmatt's distinctly left wing ideologies influence the treatment albeit shortly.
Do watch Playhouse. Please do.
Picture courtesy: Sridip Chattopadhyay's wall

১০৬ ‌‌বছরের পুরানো পাইস হোটেল (Bengali script)

লেক মার্কেটের গা ঘেঁষে রাসবিহারী এভিনিউর মোড়ের দিকে চলতে চলতে একটা সরু গলির ভিতরে, একটা প্রায় এই বুঝি ভেঙ্গে পড়লো ধরনের বাড়ির একতলায় এই হোটেল। পাশ দিয়ে হেঁটে গেছি বহুবার, চোখে পড়েনি কখনো।
দক্ষিণ কলকাতার সব কিছুই হয়ত উত্তরের থেকে অনেক বয়েসে ছোটো, নবীন। ব্রিটিশ আমলে আপিস পাড়া বলতে ছিল চৌরঙ্গী আর উত্তরের কলকাতা। তাই অলিতে গলিতে গজিয়ে উঠেছিল ভাতের হোটেল। উত্তরে এখনো আছে আদর্শ হিন্দু হোটেল, জগদ্ধাত্রী আশ্রম, আরো কত কি। কিন্তু পাইস হোটেলের ক্ষেত্রে আমরাও কিন্তু পেছনে পড়ে নেই। আমাদের দক্ষিণী কলকাতার আছে তরুণ নিকেতন। এখনো স্বমহিমায় বর্তমান। কলাপাতা র দাম যেখানে দু টাকা। পাইস মানে যতটুকু খাবে, বাটি পিছু আলাদা আলাদা মূল্য ধার্য করা।
আমি মার্কামারা ভেতো বাঙ্গালী, সেজন্য বিশুদ্ধ বাঙ্গালী রান্নার স্বাদ আমার কাছে অমৃত সম। তার ওপর এই হোটেলগুলোর গায়ে লেগে থাকা ইতিহাসের মন কেমন করা গন্ধ। সবুজ প্লাস্টিক পেইন্ট করা প্রাচীন ইঁটের মোটা দেওয়াল, কড়ি বরগার ছাদ টিনের চালা দিয়ে ঢাকা। শ্বেতপাথরের চৌকো টুকরো দেওয়া কাঠের টেবিল, প্রতি সিটের আলাদা নম্বর। আমি বসেছিলাম ১ নম্বর চেয়ারে। ব্ল্যাকবোর্ডে দূর্বোধ্য হাতের লেখা দিনের মেনু, কলাপাতায় ভাত, নুন, গন্ধ লেবু, লঙ্কা। অচেনা লোকের সঙ্গে গা ঘেঁষে এক টেবিলে খাওয়া, কর্মচারীদের হাসি মুখে নামতার মতন মেনু আওড়ানো, রংচটা হেঁশেলের দরজার ওপর বিবর্ণ কালিতে "প্রবেশ নিষেধ" লেখা। আর খাবার পরে আঁচানোর জন্যে বাইরে উঠোনে একটা কলঘর।
আধুনিক কোলকাতার পাঁচতারা রেস্তোরাঁর হাতছানি ছাড়িয়ে এখানের চৌকাঠ পেরোলেই যেন টাইম মেশিনে চেপে সাদা কালো সিনেমার সেই ফ্রেমে ঢুকে পড়া। সবটুকু মুছে যাবার আগে গেলাম ফিরে কয়েক দশক পিছিয়ে।
হোটেলের বর্তমান মালিক শ্রী অরুণ দেব। তৃতীয় জেনেরশন মালিকানা। তার সাথে দেখা হয়নি, তবে তার নাতি ছিলো আজকের ক্যাশ কাউন্টারে। সপ্রতিভ ছেলেটি বেশ গপ্পি গোছের। বললো দাদুর ঠাকুরদা, শ্রী জগৎচন্দ্র দেব এই হোটেল স্থাপন করেন ১৯১৫ সালে। মানে বঙ্গভঙ্গ আন্দোলনের ঠিক এক দশক পরে।
বললো, আজও নাকি এই বয়েসে দাদু নিজে হাতে বেছে রোজ সকালে বাজার করেন। লেক মার্কেটের বাজারে নাকি এক ডাকে সবাই চেনে দাদুকে। বিশেষ করে মাছ বিক্রেতা রা। চিতল, রুই, কাতলা, চিংড়ি, ভেটকি, ট্যাংরা, পাবদা, পারসে, কাঁকরা, ইত্যাদি নিজে হাতে টিপে টিপে বাজিয়ে নেন। তারপর দাদু কেনেন টাটকা মরসুমী সবজি। দাদুকে দরদাম করতে হয়না। রোজকার খদ্দের। তায় আবার হেরিটেজ হোটেল।
এখানে ডিমের ঝোল মানে হাসের ডিম। পোল্ট্রি র ডিম রান্না হয়না। শুনলাম যে মাংস, ডিম আর মাছের কালিয়া ছাড়া অন্য কোনো রান্নায় পেয়াজ রসুন ব্যবহারও হয়না। এটাই এখানের রান্নার নীতি। মনে হয় কাছেই কালীঘাট বলে, তীর্থ যাত্রীদের জন্যেই শুরু হয় এই ব্যবস্থা। এখনো চলছে সেই নিয়ম।
প্রথম দু হাতা ভাত ২০ টাকা। তারপর হাতা পিছু টাকা। ধবধবে সাদা, ধোঁয়া ওঠা ভাত। দুপুরে নাকি ৮-১০ রকমের শুধু মাছের পদ থাকে। আমি খেলাম, পাতলা মুসুর ডাল, আলু পেয়াজকলি ভাজা, পাঁচমিশালী তরকারি, হাসের ডিমের ঝোল, খাসীর মাংস আলু দিয়ে, আর শেষ পাতে আমের চাটনি।
সত্যি বলছি এত তৃপ্তি করে অনেক দিন খাইনি। যেন বাড়ির রান্না। পাতলা হালকা। মার্জিত ঝাল, অশরীরী ঝাঁঝ। পাঁঠার মাংসে নেই কোনো গুঁড়ো লংকার রক্তকরবী। আপিস পাড়ার বাবুদের যেহেতু রোজের খাবার যোগান দিতে হতো, তাই গেরস্থ বাড়ির সাদামাটা রান্নার চলন। কিন্তু স্বাদ অটুট। এ খাবার সপ্তায় ৫ দিন খেলেও অম্বল হবার সম্ভাবনা নেই।
তবে বাড়িটা শিগগিরই ভাঙ্গা পড়বে। নতুন করে গড়া হবে তরুণ নিকেতন। প্রোমোটার কাজে হাত দিয়েছে। এই ধূসর ঐতিহ্য জলদি পাবে চাকচিক্যের মোড়ক। তখন হয়তো আর এই অমোঘ টান বোধ করবো না এখানে এসে পাত পাড়বার। নস্টালজিয়া মনের অসুখের চেয়ে কিছু কম না। আমি আবার সেই রোগে বিপুলভাবে আক্রান্ত।
খেয়ে হাত ধুয়ে বেরোচ্ছি, ছেলেটি দৌড়ে এসে হাতে এক খানা কার্ড গুঁজে দিয়ে বললো, দিদি একদিন দুপুরে আসুন। একটা ফোন করে আসবেন। যা খেতে ইচ্ছে করবে, লইটটা শুঁটকি, চিতল মাছের মুইত্থা, কাকড়ার ঘন্ট, পোস্ত বাটা, কুমড়ো ফুলের বড়া, সজনে ফুল ভাজা, একবার বলবেন।
গুছিয়ে খাওয়াবো।
এমনি এমনি কি আর কোলকাতা ছেড়ে থাকতে পারিনা?

Film review: Thappad (2020)

Go watch this. Take your sons along. Daughters too.
Some spooky coincidence that I watch an awareness commercial on domestic violence, Bell Bajao from Little Lamb Films; and the same day I end up landing at the theater to watch Thappad. Although Thappad is not just a commentary on borderline domestic abuse. But a social study of the subtle gender divides that permeate our subconscious.
It addresses all that in the symbol of "sirf ek thappad", which lands on a wife's share but only she cannot see any of it herself. Even if she does, she is conditioned to take it on her stride, as if she deserves it all. Seven women, whose lives entangle in a common narrative thread of love and loss play a collective lead in the movie. Tapsee Pannu holds your attention at the center stage. Sharing a slice of her life is her mother, mother in law, would be sis in law, her neighbour, her domestic help, and her lawyer. Each supporting character lends an aspect to a woman's struggle.
Without the Bollywood sentimental extravaganza, Anubhav Sinha does perfect justice to the story with nuanced frames capturing each shade of natural emotion. Almost every character is at a loss to figure out how a one-time slap unwittingly served in a moment of sheer frustration can lead to such brouhaha. What they, like everyone else overlook is that the slap is not just a slap. It is just the tip of a century old iceberg gathering generations of accumulated wifely sacrifices at the alter of marriage.
The casting is superlative, the script flawless and acting merits a standing ovation. Music could have been better. But that doesn't strip any of the film's excellence.

Film review: 1917 (2020)

A movie I was reluctant to watch. Wounds, gore, bloodshed don't quite agree with me. I have a delicate stomach and a frail disposition. But it is desperate times calling for desperate measures to keep one from worse imaginings. The plot really can be summed up in just one line. Remember that poem "How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix"? Someone has to send a message of life saving implications somewhere, before daybreak, without which there will be defeat and death. That someone rides a horse, and the poem recounts the story of bravado in galloping meter. We are not told what the message was though.
1917 has exactly the same plot. Only we know the message. A message to call off a planned attack on the Germans by the British forces, which is a trap laid to annihilate 1600 soldiers - must be delivered before dawn by two British corporals. The troop at risk also includes the brother of one of the messengers.
How the film is shot demonstrates the kind of genius the cinematographer Deakins and the director Mendes have leveraged for the movie. I watched agape the seamless single shots spanning minutes on end, reinforcing the illusion that my eyes were watching the events unfold right in real time. And that there were no scene breaks. The narration is such that you become one blending within the frames. Miles of trenches were created, cameras were mounted on multiple cranes, with highly sophisticated handheld cameras being carried on shoulders by the crew, with Deakins following them. They rehearsed for days to get the perfect shots. For certain shots they had limited ammunition to show bombs blasts. They couldn't afford retakes. To create the perfect flare lighting for night shots, they even erected moving cranes carrying actual flares.
There is minimal dialogue. Much of the emotions are expressed through non verbal expressions. The ruthlessness of wars, the pathos of the times, the resignation of soldiers, and the commitment of some - all come alive. I was reminded of Owen, Sassoon, Brooke and Dylan Thomas and realised how lifelike were their poetic presentations. Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch appear in cameos. The two foot soldiers are the real heroes, showcasing all that is good in the human world, yet helpless against the greedy aggression of mammoth political powers.
One poem that I wanted to read again after watching this is what I wanted to share with you.
"After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.
Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
can pass.
Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.
Someone has to drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone has to glaze a window,
rehang a door.
Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.
We’ll need the bridges back,
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.
Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls the way it was.
Someone else listens
and nods with unsevered head.
But already there are those nearby
starting to mill about
who will find it dull.
From out of the bushes
sometimes someone still unearths
rusted-out arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.
Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds."
- The End and the Beginning
By Wislawa Szymborska

Translated by Joanna Trzeciak

Bengali Film review: Barun Babur Bondhu (2020)

In "Barun Babur Bondhu” (Barun Babu’s Friend) - who is the friend after all? The Godot-like President? The old footballer pal Suku? Or Captain Nemo?
Director Anik Dutta had wowed the intelligent Bengali film goer with “Bhooter Bhabisyat”. While the audience rolled in belly aching laughter to the wickedly witty dialogues, it was a scathing satire of the first order, in the genre of Ray's Hirak Rajar Deshe. Known to have taken on a Government ban on one of his satirical films, Dutta is a free thinker and true to how art should hold up a mirror to prevalent sociopolitical foibles.
“Barun Babur Bondhu” has an upright octogenarian as the pivotal protagonist, who was involved in the Naxal movement during the 70s Emergency. The plot circles aspects of his extended family and friends and how everyone is tired of his uncompromising ideology of self-reliance. Especially when he can use his influences in the upper political echelons and pull a few strings here and there for his children's benefit.
The film is inspired by Ramapada Chowdhury’s “Chaad”. Of course, for those who have read it, Somnath babu reappears in the form of Barun babu in the film. One great thing about Chowdhury’s stories is that they come with almost ready-made screenplays in their detailed stage direction/description. There are recognizable facets of Chowdhury himself in the character of Somnath/Barun too. Chowdhury had settled in Calcutta in the 1940s, to study English in Presidency College. He was more of a recluse like Barun, infrequent in social spaces like the canteen, where among others, Satyajit Ray and Siddhartha Sankar Roy (who became the Chief Minister of West Bengal) would engage in endless addas over cups of infusions. India’s Partition, the riots, the famine and the refugee crisis deeply affected Chowdhury, and it reflected in most of his work. Chowdhury concentrated on the urban middle class and their inner contradictions in his fiction, often imbuing his novels with photographic qualities that led to screen adaptations. “Banpalashir Padabali”, “Kharij”, “Ekdin Achanak”, “Ek Doctor Ki Maut” were all inspired by his stories.
In “Barun babu r Bandhu”, Barun sounds oddly like Chowdhury himself. Like Chowdhury, Barun too casts a dispassionate but probing eye on human weaknesses and foibles of society. One of Barun's old friends, Sukumar in the film (or Rameshwar from the original story) is played by Paran Bandyopadhyay. The veteran Paran perhaps inimitably exhibits in his histrionics everything that Barun is not. But while the fiction had hinged on the concept of one’s roof or one’s own house, the film keeps its focus on the missing “friend”, giving the film an entirely new theme. And if I may say this, the film title really would have better suited for the short story as well.
Dutta has created magic in the characters, more so in that of the grandson, Nemo, who was hardly a visible version as Biltu in the original story. And every time Nemo came on screen with questions like: “Dadu dhymna mane ki?” the theater hall erupted with laughter. Not as comic relief, but these episodes added another dimension to human relationships where the spectrum ranged between 8 and 80 in terms of age. And like Barun held a mirror to a younger generation shrinking in its selfish outlook, Nemo holds a mirror to the adult world, an older generation, which to him is marked with conspicuous contradictions.
The film has an ensemble that needs no review. Ritwik is the ever natural, with the rest of the cast doing perfect justice to their roles. The best thing I loved about the characterization is that the retired Barun doesn't stir sympathy but commands solid respect. Barun is curiously solitary, with zero patience for useless gabble. His bedridden wife keeps him scant company, while he spends his time reading, solving crosswords and writing letters to the editor. Not for once is he portrayed as the helplessly senile doddering senior citizen waiting for someone else to help him.
Soumitra Chatterjee has essayed a wide range of fatherly/grandfatherly characters of late. But in this new film, his character outshines all others. He walks the stage with a kingly spine of stainless steel, but an absolute foil to King Lear, another father, who had raised his daughters to be his old age insurance. Barun is a citizen of a nation, rapidly changing its face, where innocence can be found only in the questions of a child, where hidden agendas surface in the guise of sudden affections in others. Barun redefines concepts like patriotism with razor sharp mind seeing through the veneer of all who surround him. But he holds no grudge. He is your father, your Dadu, your Jethu, your Mesho, your Pisho – every man you have idolized in your youth.
You should certainly watch the movie if you want to remember how these men used to be. Or maybe some still are.

An Elegy written on a Spring Day in Quarantine

The old fridge is empty now, I observe
But the syrups and drops I must preserve.
The kitchen closet overflows with ration,
A wartime emergency warrants caution.
Hands feel dry, their knuckles and fingers itch.
All the oceans of Neptune’s a cheating ditch.
Out, damned spot! Fear won’t wipe its bloody stain
Beating the clout of the imagined pain.
Keep washing your hands, 20 seconds at least,
Lest the devil on your palm hold a fiery feast.
A sanitized world stares back from a window,
Hush! Softly speak, for I must be incognito.
Neighbors turn into ghostly absence,
Noisy elevator their only cadence
Of their guilty presence. Whispering footfalls.
Other times I see roaming antiseptic overalls.
It’s been a fortnight that a name and a number
Have surfaced with a deathly halo in my chamber
A nomenclature that makes not much tragic sense
But it’s vivid, livid, a crawling covid breaking defense
In an absurd world where symptom alone speaks
To masked medics looking like astronaut freaks.
My bed is my battlefield, blood leaks as sweet sticky sweat
But I must not go out, for I myself pose a violent threat.
The power! O the power in my breath, my saliva -
To annihilate the universe in a whiff like Shiva!
I will tell you this Covid guy is only 19 years old,
Yet look how he’s gotten the whole world on hold.
Where lungs are crying out aloud for help,
Where drugs induce a stupor-enabled yelp
Of listless living until ventilators run out of life,
Of a handful of isolated humans, who will survive
This attack as a measure to heal and regrow
And maybe all that was good will again flow.
It’s a pandemic, solemn news anchors on TV say
I hear my own gurgling laughter to my utter dismay.
Hunger is an epidemic that kills millions as well
Choosing its preys from the poor man’s cell.
Covid, such a good boy, doesn’t favor the poor alone,
He comes for the rich, makes them wail and groan.
But look, the fighting has stopped outside,
And no one asks what religion is your tribe.
When violence spreads like wildfire, you call it a riot,
Why not call it a ‘pandemic’ you pious moron, you fascist bigot?
You were born of this man-made epidemic of conformity,
Othering every ‘different’ face to classified deformity.
There’s time still to take that enzyme prescribed
The potion that quells greed, the syrup prepared
To kill your claim to superiority;
To immunize against feelings of legitimate authority.
Make haste, gulp it down in one long big swig,
And quietly go to sleep, before the cemetery is dig.
Disclaimer: I have not tested positive for Corona but I have written this poem from the perspective of a patient.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Deities of a different order

If you have ever sat your ample butt on the front seat of an auto rickshaw in Kolkata, you would know how it feels like swinging half a cheek in the air. I was thinking of how dramatically I was hanging by a thread from life as I rode listening to Kumar Sanu singing through his nostrils “Priyotoma mone rekho”. 

The auto driver was singing along. Tiny black sound boxes were making good music too. I was impressed with the interior décor of the tiny automobile. Stickers with hearts pierced with arrows on the front glass. The ledge along the windshield had plastic floral creepers. Bright red hibiscus peeked from the artificial shrub. Red gossamer cloths laced with golden tinsel were tied to the rear view mirror handles. The roof had imprints of Mithun da and Amitabh Bachhan lined up for attention. As the auto crossed Bagha Jatin, the driver stopped and did a brisk pennam (an act of touching your hands to your forehead as a mark of respect). I looked around for temples but found none. I couldn’t contain my curiosity.

Dada kake pronaam korlen?”
(Who did you offer your regards to?)
I am sure the genuine interest must have touched my face and hence his core, for he replied:
Oi je Bidyasagar, tarpore Bibekananda, statue dekhlen na? Ami thakur pronam kori na, eder kori. Kora uchit kina apni bolun? Aaj abar Guru Purnima kina.”

(Oh, that Vidyasagar, then Vivekananda, didn’t you notice the statues? I don’t bow before gods, I bow before these men. You tell me, should I not? Today is Guru Purnima too.)

So if you are in the city and ever pass the stretch of Raja S C Mullick Road, you must notice the sculptures along the boulevard or whatever remains of it. They are nothing life-size or impressive, but homely busts of two men from an era we have almost forgotten. I have passed them often without so much of an attention to them. Never cared to look to see if the likeness was commendable or if the humble tribute made any sense to pedestrians nearby. With my auto-driver friend greeting the busts with such reverence, I was rather shamed by my own indifference.

But the good thing is, I followed suit and did a baby salute to these stoned men of yore.
You never stop learning, do you?
Courtesy: Internet