Bengali groups from outside Kolkata find it very difficult to book halls in the city. Yet, as my reviews make it a point to prove, much good work originates there, the two productions in this column warning about the present state of India. Consider Kalyani Mukhosh’s 2034, which has come to town only a handful of times since opening in 2021. It seems to begin quite harmlessly as an entertainer before suddenly changing tack into a potent statement about surveillance that made me sit up.
Actually I should have expected this, given that director Ayan Banerjee adapted his text from Badal Sircar, famous for his astute politics. Ironically, Sircar himself took the idea from an unacknowledged British comedy and renamed it Mani-Kānchan after his principals, a husband-and-wife duo of ordinary magicians whose act involves a bit of mind-reading. To Banerjee’s credit, even this innocuous game has us hooked as he gets his team to interact with onlookers in the auditorium as their audience. The “thought projection” success enthuses a VIP to go backstage and offer the couple a contract to read public minds for political purposes.
Sircar ended Mani-Kānchan with the abrupt arrest of the magicians under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act—we recall that he staged it, significantly, in 1977. With a nod to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in his title, Banerjee takes the drama further and to another level by predicting what could happen to artists in any regime where the Thought Police dictate what we should and should not believe. Well worth pondering, and hoping that we don’t get there.
Siddhartha Ghosh and Anindita Bhadra (in photo) act the lead roles convincingly and humorously, with Banerjee himself the most realistic as the Hindi-speaking hall manager. However, the audiovisual department disappoints. Stating the obvious, Banerjee uses footage from Nazi Germany and Chaplin’s The Great Dictator quite unnecessarily. The music clips on the soundtrack are not only cliched but also repeated far too often.
Chanditala Prompter, based in Hooghly district, entrusts Kolkata dramatist-director Rakesh Ghosh with its (and his) new play, Irābān Gāthā. Ghosh picks one of the least-known characters from the Mahābhārata, Iravan, the son born to Arjuna and Ulupi, who joins the Pandavas in battle and dies heroically. But in the oldest Tamil retelling of the epic, the 9th-century Pārata Venpā, Aravan (Iravan) is ritually sacrificed to Kali before the war to ensure victory. And in Tamil folk traditions, Aravan agrees to the sacrifice only if he can enjoy conjugal relations the night before his death. Since the question of a woman accepting such a future did not arise, Krishna metamorphoses into the enchanting Mohini and marries Aravan. This consummation made Aravan into a deity for the Tamil hijra community who reenact it at an annual festival.
Ghosh dramatizes this version, giving equal attention to Iravan, Ulupi and Krishna, relegating Arjuna to a passenger. He interprets Krishna as a combination of partisan ideology and digital propaganda to foment ethnic hatred, and Iravan as misled sacrificial youth. The means justifies the end is the realpolitik motto. Iravan (Kaustav Majumder), who seems to realize that Mohini is Krishna the man, becomes transfigured into a tragic hero, Kalpana Baruah endows Ulupi with great pride in her Naga tribal otherness, and Ranjan Bose distinguishes the ambivalent Krishna as both male and female, switching genders fluidly. Unfortunately, the amateurishness of the group distracts, various extras standing visibly in the wings, others moving behind the scenes too noisily.