Politics continues to engage the committed Bengali theatre, in original drama that reassures us that the flag of secularism and freedom of speech shall remain fluttering in this apparently no-longer-significant corner of the country. In at least three new plays, an artist/writer/intellectual forms the fulcrum upon which the conflict and quest pivot.

Rangapat’s Krishna-paksha, written by the as-yet unknown Debotosh Das, starts with echoes of his debut, O Chānd, as the distant fires of communal riots in the countryside stir the conscience of a socialistic poet in the city already agitated by political processions exploiting divisiveness. Meanwhile his young son has no time for the obvious opportunism that he sees around him. Wanting to get to the heart of the problem, the father leaves his urban security and heads to the curfew-stricken village, where he disappears (again recalling O Chānd). His son goes to find him and stumbles instead on the conspiracies fuelling the violence. But the CRPF takes him into custody.

This very immediate story and its ending, which newspaper pages confront us with every day, receive dark treatment under Tapanjyoti Das’s direction. He enacts the protagonist as almost mentally disturbed by the machinations of so-called civilized society. Aruna Mukhopadhyay (his loyally Communist wife), Sanmitra Bhaumik (their son) and Rashmi Jha (the son’s friend), along with the various villagers, provide excellent support. Technologically, too, Krishna-paksha merits viewing because of the way Sandipan Ray’s cinematography melds fluidly with the same actors appearing on Saumik-Piyali’s carefully designed set, in contrast to the usually discrete demarcation of video clips in Bengali theatre.

The simmering polarization by religion of communities in Kolkata forms the focus of Bibhājan, by the non-aligned, cash-strapped troupe Chokh. Few Bengali dramatists conduct as much exhaustive research on their subject as Abhijit Kargupta, who has not only studied the history of Partition for this play through available books, but also drawn on interviews of people affected by the trauma as well as the humanitarianism. Although the Bengal side has had little published on it compared to Punjab’s, Kargupta has gone to the extent of locating authentic scholarship from Bangladesh for his purpose.

He sets Bibhājan in a Hindu family that has lived in Muslim-majority Entally for eighty years, and their decision to move out to a “safer” locality. The father resists because of his deep roots there and his close relations with the neighbours, including his dear friend, an author, Muslim by faith. But his is a lone voice, drowned by the virulent opposition of his wife and sectarian son. Whether their new surroundings prove more congenial is another matter.

The small cast of just five act well: the experienced Tapas Sarkar and Nibedita Kargupta as the couple, Nilotpal Bandyopadhyay as their angry son, and the effortlessly natural Dishari Kargupta as their college-going daughter, hope of the future. Nilanjan Saha portrays the liberal writer as placed under severe pressures both by his community and his friend’s departure as the defeat of the secular ideal, a test case. Unfortunately, for a director like Abhijit who disdains commercialism, Bibhājan falls into the trap of high melodrama; his message should reach our minds more than our emotions.

The suburban group Ha-ja-ba-ra-la presents the prolific dramatist-director Chandan Sen’s latest work, Bipajjanak. Here the hero is an independent columnist whose articles have offended the government into labelling him anti-national and advising him in no uncertain terms to leave India if he values his life. As the title indicates, this indeed constitutes an increasingly dangerous threat to free expression in a democracy. However, Sen eventually sidesteps this important issue, digressing into unnecessary subplots like the writer’s past love life, his daughter from that union unaware of her parentage and living in Ethiopia, and her adoption of a Somali orphan.

Debsankar Halder’s portrayal in the lead does not disappoint, but it does repeat several of his gestures and vocal intonations from other parts. As I have suggested before, his phenomenal fame and popularity has resulted in his acceptance of too many roles, which have begun to overlap. He must consciously opt for only those distinctly different characters that can offer a watertight diversity. As his MP wife who totally disapproves of his activities, Srijata Bhattacharya depicts an unfavourable personality sympathetically. Debopriya Basu, the little girl discovered by Sen in his previous production, has nothing to do in this play except exclaim, scream and — in a completely gratuitous sequence — reenact her running away from pursuers for the benefit of her benefactress’s curiosity, rather, tragedy voyeurism. Sen seems to have created the refugee girl just to put her on stage.

(From The Telegraph, 29 April 2017)