Independence Week provides an appropriate occasion to discuss the rather uncommon phenomenon of two Bengali plays on the Father of the Nation running concurrently – with a third to come in the near future. Calcuttans will realize that it is all the more uncommon because of a certain ambivalence that Bengalis have traditionally felt about the Mahatma; as proof, we can point to the plethora of Gandhi drama in other parts of India, especially Mumbai, many of which have travelled here and enthralled our theatregoers.
Gandhiji’s life was so full of drama that it even inspired foreign classics like the famous film, Glass’s opera Satyagraha and Mnouchkine’s production L’Indiade. An aspiring playwright in fact has a practical problem: what to keep and what to omit. He must also fix his aim: to introduce Gandhiji to an audience that does not know, or to concentrate on a particular phase or aspect. The two young authors decided on the former route. Consequently, it becomes easy to complain that they leave out a lot. Of course they do; we cannot compress a world-changing career into two hours, or even Attenborough’s 190 minutes.
Within these constraints, the long-lived group Mangolik creates an impact befitting its golden jubilee with Jeet-Satragni’s Bāpu, primarily due to Samir Biswas’s definitive acting in the lead (he also portrays the Mahatma in the official Parliament capsule clip). Biswas walks the fine line between Gandhiji’s national and personal selves with Gandhiji’s own confident strides, giving us a reasonably comprehensive characterization, and culminates in a heart-wrenching moment of private agony as Kasturba dies in his lap.
In contrast to Biswas’s centripetal direction, Sanjogsutra’s Bāpu Mahātmā Mohandās takes a novel perspective of not representing Gandhiji in flesh and blood, but only select people with whom he interacted, so that we see him through them. Both plays show Kasturba, Harilal Gandhi and Mahadev Desai among other figures, but where Mangolik includes Miraben, Sanjogsutra chooses Sarala Devi (Tagore); where Mangolik includes Jinnah, Nehru and Godse, Sanjogsutra chooses Netaji, Ambedkar and Rajagopalachari. So much rich history to recount! Sumitra Bandyopadhyay, who wrote Bāpu Mahātmā Mohandās, likes researching real personalities, but disappoints by directing it in a rather scattered, haphazard manner with repetitive visuals and movements.
To do justice to this superhuman who had human frailties, and make a difference on stage, we should either attempt an epic narrative (for instance, a trilogy) or explore a narrow compass exclusively yet exhaustively, such as the South African years, the freedom struggle, his friendships with eminent individuals, or his family relations.
(From The Times of India, 17 August 2018)