Utpal Dutt was one of the two paradigms of post-Independence Bengali theatre. If the Group Theatre movement since the Fifties contributed two new directions—the political and the poetical—then his is the first name we associate with the former, and Sombhu Mitra’s with the latter. Both were very briefly children of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), but proceeded to carve out completely separate artistic visions which, in turn, inspired their successors.
Within political theatre, Dutt was a law unto himself. A great director’s hallmark is an individual stamp immediately discernible in his productions. Most contemporary directors do not have any such instantly recognizable features; but you could tell an Utpal Dutt production within seconds of watching it. The didactic tone, the inflammatory purpose, the deliberately loud declamation marked off his brand of agitprop distinctively. The conceit that infallible Marxism has all the answers was never presented so brazenly yet so earnestly. His plays were truly popular (and populist) in a way that no other Bengali group has managed, vindicating his nomenclature of People’s Little Theatre for his outfit.
Even his flaws stood out for their originality. The loose structure of his works is not Brechtian, but he made a virtue of it. His choice of Western classical music was cliched but typical. Very often he lapsed into poor taste with obscenities thrown in for shock effect, but he could carry off the sudden sālās and worse expletives with a panache that nobody can match, and he may even be given the dubious credit of establishing four-letter words in Bengali theatrical dialogue! Most characteristic was his humour—an irrepressible, irresistible, inimitable style of irony, satire, farce, burlesque, profanity and just plain hamming it up—which existed for its own sake, which he and we thoroughly enjoyed, which proved that he instinctively understood that political theatre must entertain first of all (unlike all his compatriots who think serious theatre is demeaned by laughter).
Dutt’s achievements fall neatly into three phases dating to 1949, 1959 and 1969 respectively, but his apprenticeship is interesting too. Who could hope for a more lowly acting debut than as the Second Gravedigger in Hamlet, which the 14-year-old Utpal performed in St Xavier’s? As a collegian there, he joined other theatrically-smitten undergraduates, many of Jewish and Anglo-Indian descent, to form the Amateur Shakespeareans in 1947. For the next few years they offered a staple diet of Shakespeare and Shaw in English, garnished with the occasional socialistic play like Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty.
Dutt took his first significant step by renaming the troupe as Little Theatre Group in 1949 and, recognizing the question of “relevance” after his IPTA stint, decided to perform in Bengali. Lest we forget, however, LTG’s first productions were in English and Dutt (like his surname-sake Michael Madhusudan in Indo-Anglian literature) certainly contributed to the thin tradition of English-language theatre before rejecting it. At a time when Sombhu Mitra’s Bohurupee was its main rival, LTG enthralled Bengali audiences in city and village with exposure to a wide range of world masterpieces from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Othello to lbsen’s Ghosts and Doll’s House and Gorky’s Lower Depths, as well as Bengali classics like Girish Ghosh’s Sirāj-ud-daulā, Michael’s Buro Shāliker Ghāre Ron, and Tagore’s Tapati and Achalāyatan (whose now-forgotten subversive elements must have attracted Dutt).
By the end of the decade, new groups had sprung up: Theatre Centre, Rupakar, Gandharva, Sundaram, Shouvanik, Theatre Unit. In this expanding milieu, Dutt pioneered further by doing something unthinkable: he went professional. In the firm belief that theatre should be a full-time occupation (he once said “Amateur theatre is a curse”), he took over Minerva Theatre on 6 Beadon Street (the historic site of the Great National Theatre) in 1959. He also started writing his own plays. Angār, on oppressed coalminers, and Kallol, on the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny in Bombay, made Dutt a household name (although Angār strongly resembles Subodh Ghosh’s short story Fossil, and Kallol Eisenstein’s film Potemkin) for their spectacular effects—Tapas Sen‘s lights and Ravi Shankar’s music in Angār; the set of a warship in Kallol.
Ideologically, too, Dutt turned more radical. Kallol accused the Congress leaders of betraying the freedom struggle; even the Communist Party found it too extremist. Ajeya Vietnam viciously attacked US imperialism in Indochina. In Tir he embraced the Naxalite cause, which he himself rejected afterwards. Mānusher Adhikāre used the famous Scottsborough Trial of 1931 to draw attention to the plight of American blacks. Nobody in Bengal had composed so much incendiary drama before.
However, the Minerva experiment did not last, and LTG disbanded. In 1969, Dutt regrouped under a new name, People’s Little Theatre. The PLT plays of the 1970s are his finest, epitomized by Tiner Taloyār, a metatheatrical, historical but relatively safe play-within-a-play. Surya Shikār, reminiscent of Brecht’s Galileo, presented the conflict between the Buddhist thinker Kalhan and Samudragupta. Barricade returned to frontline revolt, as its ostensible theme of the Nazi rise to power in Berlin through rigged elections thinly disguised Dutt’s real target, Congress misrule in Bengal. This vein climaxed in Duhswapner Nagari, depicting Calcutta as a nightmare city, which was attacked, banned for sedition, and surreptitiously staged under other titles. Dutt proudly said, “A revolutionary theatre is noted by the number of attacks it has faced from the agents of the ruling class.” Not too many directors can boast of being arrested for their cause, and he is one of them.
During the past decade, PLT’s momentum slowed. It confronted the classic conundrum—when the revolution wins, when the Communist Party (Marxist) becomes the establishment, what does the revolutionary do? To continue to advocate revolution, as Dutt did, seems redundant because it is always the opposition who must revolt. His successes consequently occurred when he moved away from simple flag-waving to complex explorations of human alienation and the effects of industrialization in Ājker Shāhjahān (recalling Tiner Taloyār) and debunking of religious fundamentalism in Janatār Āphim.
In any list of Dutt’s achievements one must mention his other activities. Since the Sixties he wrote street-corner plays for the CPM, best known among them being Din Badaler Pālā, which played an important role in the 1967 elections. From the Seventies, he authored many scripts for professional Jatra companies, with titles like Jalianwālā Bāg, Dilli Chalo, Jay Bānglā, Mao Tse Tung. Many Jatra actors credit him with bringing political seriousness, a sense of organization and discipline in rehearsal to this otherwise commercialized business.
Some may not believe it, but he scripted about 60 full-length plays, an impressive tally by any standards. He also edited a periodical called Epic Theatre, wrote an important treatise, Towards a Revolutionary Theatre, and many essays on everyone from Shakespeare to Girish Ghosh, Stanislavsky to Brecht. As he stated, “Authentic modernism lies in understanding the past well enough to carry the tradition forward.” How many directors now have this scholarly ability?
It is not as if he had no differences with the party line. In fact, the IPTA (those “ignorant windbags” in his words) had ejected him as a Trotskyite. At his most perceptive, he even identified the failings of high Communist art: “The Communist Hero appears as a superhuman Captain Marvel without a blemish in his character … one comes to the conclusion: this man is not even subject to sexual desires, or a cough or cold. He does not even fart. He is, therefore, a walking tribute to the bourgeois society which has produced such perfections.”
It is this self-parodic recognition of these contradictions that makes Dutt great. Here was a man who preached revolution in theatre but reaped the benefits of capitalism by acting Hindi-film fools and knaves. Who invariably lambasted the British as colonial tyrants in his plays but himself revered Shakespeare and considered Geoffrey Kendal his guru. Who wished to rouse the viewers’ social consciousness but confessed he “cannot resist theatricality” and did “everything with an eye to audience reaction.” Who believed in Communism yet, questioned on his practice as an autocratic director, joked to Rustom Bharucha, “we believe in the dictatorship of the theatre.” In other words, here was a human being.
It was perhaps in the fitness of things that Dutt last acted in PLT’s Eklā Chalo Re, because even though he belonged to the Communist community, in a sense he always walked alone. He was a true individual: as Samik Bandyopadhyay put it, “The risks he has taken have been enormous, and he has … dared to do things that few else have dared.” Dutt would appreciate the irony of his final performance too, for the play was about Gandhiji—a man he loved to hate. I’m sure Dutt, the supreme entertainer, is wondering who had the last laugh.
(From The Telegraph, 22 August 1993)