Violence has become so ubiquitous in our day-to-day lives that, shamefully, it ceases to appal us as it should. I think of innocents killed during elections in this state; I think of young people beaten up by middle-class moral police in this city. And I see that after a few days of horror and righteous indignation, life goes on while the initiators of intimidation get away untouched, thereby encouraged to raise their fists again whenever they feel like it. The first response now appears to be to come to blows. What happened to Bengal’s proverbially bhadra society? To appropriate Michael Madhusudan Dutt’s title, is this called civilization?
A few conscience-keepers of Bengali theatre – hardly ever the celebrities who command full houses – protest in the only way they can, through their art. Director Shyamal Chakraborty told me that he chose Tirthankar Chanda’s Hantārak for Rangalok’s new production because he had had enough of doing safe theatre. Hantārak features a convicted professor who, fed up by the failure of law and order, politics and media, took matters into his own hands and dispensed vigilante justice to those he judged as guilty. A TV crew arrives to interview him for a live telecast from his cell. I can reveal no more.
A conceptual danger arises: when the audience erupts in spontaneous and loud applause, I worry that, disillusioned by the ineffectual state machinery, they support the killer’s methods. Chanda’s ostensibly neutral position may ironically incite our existing culture of violence. I also have issues of plausibility with the impossibly lax safeguards around such a maximum-security prisoner, and dismiss the totally unnecessary and interminable video prelude suggesting a planet in flames from intercontinental missile attack. But the play’s provocative theme and Sanjib Sarkar’s performance as the warped but erudite assassin still make Hantārak a must-watch.
Kolkata Rangila approaches a similar subject through the prism of Nabarun Bhattacharya’s late novella, Auto, in which an honest auto-driver accidentally stops a robber from escaping, and bystanders catch the criminal and lynch him brutally. The driver cannot erase this scene from his memory; it leads psychologically to his impotence, which leads to his wife’s desertion and cohabitation with, of all people, their opportunistic friend who had headed the murderous assault and maiming. Bhattacharya’s plot seems too obviously contrived out of a schematic diagram, but again, the combination of mob lynching and vengeful retribution at the end gives us much to ponder.
Kaushik Kar has dramatized and directed the play, and acts the lead convincingly. His design, in particular, deserves mention for its film noir and cinéma-vérité scenography, its showpiece the replica of an auto centrestage, in which he sits, revs the engine and switches headlights on as required – an almost animate presence. To stage left lies his one-room home, the domain of his wife, naturalistically enacted by Tannistha Biswas. The supporting cast, too, boosts the production. But neither Hantārak nor Auto provides a nonviolent solution to a very practical problem: how does one deal on a daily basis with the actions of the goons who have taken over our society?
(From The Telegraph, 26 May 2018)