You have to hand it to Open Theatre for trying to break out of the staid parameters that constrict “intellectual” Bengali theatre, so morbidly afraid of radical experimentation of any kind. Even if Anjan Dutt’s Chord Line (Academy of Fine Arts, October 19) owes a direct debt to Volker Ludwig’s Line One in its Grips Theatre Berlin production—apart from enlisting the aid of a Grips composer, George Krantz, to score the rock music in Calcutta through the generosity of Max Mueller Bhavan—its innovative urge is undeniable.

Dutt’s note on his play identifies the lowlife whom he depicts in the EMU locals feeding Sealdah—“coolies, junkies, pimps, whores, peddlers, transvestites, child pick-pockets, homosexuals, rag-pickers, political hoodlums, corrupt police and daily commuters”—a railway twilight zone which itself becomes a symbol of Calcutta. He finds somewhat self-congratulatory parallels with films like Babenco’s Pixote and Nair’s Salaam Bombay, replacing cinema verite with theatre verite in a no-punches-pulled “true picture” whose verisimilitude often strikes one as scarily authentic (though Dutt exaggerates when he claims it is more violent than New York subways).

Close editing could make this sprawling three-hour epic a much sharper critique of rural migration to cities and urban decay. Several scenes are very effective in their ironic tone: commuters arguing over a potentially explosive suitcase, or thrashing a youth for attempting suicide during rush hour; an encounter between college lovers, followed by one between erstwhile paramours now married to others. Dutt also writes tough Bengali jive to match the environment. But a romantic at heart, he unnecessarily contrives a happy pairing-off and celebrates Calcutta’s “spirit of survival”—an ivory-tower cliche.

In relinquishing histrionic duties, he rightly devotes prime attention to detailed directing, and the effort pays off through a uniform level of acting credibility. The performers do an average of five roles each, attaining a high degree of differentiation among parts. The only person with a steady portrait, Sukanya Bose, whose pivotal character arriving in Sealdah is significantly named Durga, unfortunately pales in comparison with these vibrant, three score cameos milling around her. Of the males, Sanjay Pathak and Santu Chaudhuri deserve special mention as the streetwise gamins earning their bread enacting Hindi-film dialogues on the platforms. The second actress, Rakhi Basu, reveals remarkable range playing five Lakshmis, from a prostitute to an old woman.

But is Chord Line, labelled an “opera” and “musical extravaganza”, either one? Extravagant it is, in duration and dramatis personae, and daringly Westernized in adopting the idiom of rock, perhaps for the first time in an original Bengali play. However, Dutt surprisingly holds back from making it a full-fledged rock opera or musical requiring at least 10-12 songs. This may be because his own ear for music warns him that Krantz’s score is not exceptional. Still, the taped soundtrack is competently played by Chlorophyll Dreams and Amit Datta, the singing confidently synchronized on stage by members of the cast. Dutt should not abandon this technical experiment, a beginning that holds considerable promise.

(From The Telegraph, 2 November 1993)