MAHMUD ALAM (1963-2021)

Covid took away another pillar of Kolkata’s Hindi theatre before his time. Viewers since the late 1980s have fond memories of Mahmud Alam’s jovial onstage and offstage personae, mostly with Padatik, and in the recent past with Janus, the Centre for Visual and Performing Arts that he built with his wife Sanchayita Bhattacharjee.

Born in a culturally-steeped family that loved Urdu poetry, Mahmud entered theatre in St Xavier’s College and joined the formidable Shyamanand Jalan’s Padatik in 1986. I remember his measured acting as a supporting character in Raja Lear (1988), directed by Fritz Bennewitz. He gave many sparkling and diverse performances subsequently; I highlight here the ones that impressed me the most.

In Anarchist, seated

He peaked quickly under director Vinay Sharma. In the political farce Ek Anarchist ki Ittefaqia Maut (1991, from Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist), he played the first police inspector as a fine impersonation of Eric Campbell, Charlie Chaplin’s hirsute heavyweight early partner, perfect for the part. He also displayed his taste in jazz for the soundtrack. In Mr Biedermann aur Ag Laganewale (1995, from Max Frisch’s absurdist The Fire Raisers), he and Kunal Padhy, who has also left us, made sinister arsonists. By this time, they and Vinay had become the Mr Dependables of Padatik’s acting team, immortalized in the classic photo below, from Biedermann. In Makarand Sathe’s Charso Karor Bhulakkar (1999), Mahmud turned the adversary into a caricature of inhuman predatory businessmen.

In Biedermann: left to right, Kunal, Vinay and Mahmud

Possibly his first attempt at direction came at Max Mueller Bhavan in 2002, with the one-act Ek Balatkar, Sanchayita’s translation of One Rape by Dario Fo and Franca Rame. Then Mahmud took a break from theatre, concentrating on his family business and writing—though not drama. Returning to Padatik, he distilled the quiet doctor in Ibsen’s The Master Builder (2013) admirably, and directed A Woman Alone (2014), illustrating the satirical feminism of Fo and Rame. By now the best local interpreter of the famous Italian couple, he exaggerated their burlesque through his own wife’s clown makeup and quick robotic movements. He paid careful attention to the design, too, its olive and grey hues perceptively incorporating even the floor.

His and Sanchayita’s dream of a venue of their own materialized when they opened Janus in Park Circus in 2018. The newest performance centre in our city short of such venues, it consists of a 50-seater intimate theatre – literally named Black Box – fitted at their personal cost with all the apparatus and facilities required in performing arts, including lights, sound, wings and dressing rooms, evidently showing the painstaking touch of the founders, themselves actors. Mahmud looked justifiably proud when he showed me around backstage, which despite the small size, made enough room for everything. East Side Stories, an unusual set of three Bengali short stories about both Bengals post-partition, dramatized in English translation, featuring Sanchayita and directed by Mahmud, inaugurated Janus.

Kolkata remains grateful to Mahmud for this permanent contribution to mitigate her perennial paucity of performance sites. It provides an ideal home for work on a small scale, whether theatre, dance, music, poetry reading or experimentalia. Sanchayita must look after their joint legacy that Mahmud so lovingly housed and tended with his characteristic warmth. With his characteristic modesty, he would have dismissed any renaming of the Black Box, but I for one shall regard it as the Mahmud Alam Theatre from now.