BINODINI OPERA | AJKER SHAJAHAN

Binodini Opera

Group: Angik

Script and direction: Abanti Chakraborty

 

 

Ājker Shājāhā

Group: Mukhomukhi

Dramatist: Utpal Dutt

Director: Suman Mukhopadhyay

Review:

Among festival favourites over the past year, I have not yet reviewed Angik’s Binodini Opera and Mukhomukhi’s Ājker Shājāhān. Both respect their sources, but we need to look at them with different comparatists’ lenses. For Binodini Opera, this means in the context of recent plays about Binodini. Those who have seen the productions dating from her sesquicentenary (we do not have to hark back to the previous century) will realize that Angik does not attempt anything really new: from Smarannik’s straightforward biography to Naksha’s Binodini exploring her split psyche to Nandipat’s Ārshi reflecting the exploitation of three celebrated actresses including her, these have already covered the gamut.

Thus, Binodini Opera gives us just another conventional biodrama, strangely without director Abanti Chakraborty’s signature style of experimentation that we have come to expect from her. The extended musical-choreographical prelude, admittedly captivating, goes on for far too long to justify its existence. Derivative props like suspended ropes and cages are not unusual anymore on the Bengali stage. And the rampant mispronunciation of words like “encore”, “prima donna” and the “chaste stars” speech from Othello embarrasses her abilities.

What saves the day are the live songs and the startling surprise of a saxophone accompanying one of them (courtesy Subhadeep Guha’s band), plus Sudipta Chakraborty’s dancing (her acting plays second fiddle, which disserves Binodini’s versatility). Her three beaus receive distinct cameos from Padmanabha Dasgupta, Sujan Mukhopadhyay and Biswajit Das, but Abhijit Guha’s rather ordinary Girish Chandra Ghosh gives the impression that Abanti wants to deliberately bring the legend down from his venerated pedestal.

Even the concluding exhortation for a theatre named after Binodini is not novel. In Binodini Kathā (2010), Surajit Bandyopadhyay had asked for the renaming of Star Theatre in her honour. And in fact, Usha Ganguli named Rangakarmee’s studio theatre as Binodini–Keya Manch, while Rabindra Bharati University started a Nati Binodini Mancha too. Although these may not define the kind of playhouse Abanti desires, she should certainly update her appeal.

 

Mukhomukhi’s revival of Utpal Dutt’s Ājker Shājāhān (1985), directed by Suman Mukhopadhyay, keeps the original loaded dialectic conflict between old-school theatre and brash new cinema, personified respectively in the retired professional hero Kunjabihari and a young filmmaker Subrata who casts the former in his comeback on screen. Dutt’s passion for Shakespeare combined Lear and Lear’s Fool in the protagonist, since the discarded “today’s Shah Jahan” must perform in the disguise of a clown.

Mukhopadhyay follows the text faithfully, contemporizing it for our times by inserting allusions to Werner Herzog and Salman Khan. He rightly tones down the “high melodrama” that I had criticized regarding the end of Dutt’s production, and converts it to a more believable tragic finale. But he does not rectify a basic discrepancy: Subrata, obsessed with realistic acting, incredulously for us overlooks the glaringly artificial scenic backdrop in his filmic set, as well as his inane leading man who can’t get anything right. Such oversights beg for a dramaturge who could have pointed out the contradictions for correction.

Both major characters conceived as perfectionists in their own right, Shankar Chakraborty shines as the overstretched but heroic Kunja, and Riddhi Sen (Subrata) almost overshadows him as a determined yet cruel taskmaster, inhuman in his treatment of Kunja. Some reactions to the production have hailed Mukhopadhyay’s use of film projection as innovative. For the record, they have probably not seen or heard of Sudrak’s Rāngāmāti 25 years ago, which I consider historic in its seamless incorporation of video in the mise-en-scene, succeeded by Rangapat’s equally powerful technological artistry in Krishna-paksha (2017, readers can find my review here).