A sudden and inexplicable, yet most welcome, surge of interest in Utpal Dutt’s plays ignited Bengali theatre before Covid struck. Lockdown paused these productions, which have now returned, frequently house-full, proving Dutt’s enduring relevance and even popularity. Two of them offer instructively contrasting approaches to interpretation.
Ichheymoto’s Ghum Nei went on to win several META laurels at the national level, as already reported here. Saurav Palodhi took the bold step of reviving a virtually unknown and very early (1959, staged by Shilpiman) one-act script, expanding it without an intermission to about twice its length. The latter process hardly ever works because adapters normally cannot equal the skills of a master dramatist. But nowhere in Ghum Nei can we tell which portions are add-ons, unless we compare with the printed text. This constitutes true fidelity in spirit.
Dutt devised a one-hour plot aimed at enthusing lorry drivers to unionize against their owners. Palodhi develops it by fleshing out the characters into individuals, creating a slice of life, chopping a few scenes, inserting songs, and leaving the finale open-ended because today’s heroes don’t always succeed in their mission. He also puts an entire lexicon of four-letter words in the truckers’ mouths, which has hurt the ears of many viewers like heavy metal or rap does. I have no such hang-ups with verisimilitude of street lingo, but an academic question intrigues me: what Bengali expletive argot circulated in the 1970s (when Palodhi sets his adaptation) as opposed to what we hear them say on stage now?
Acceptably, Palodhi changes the name of one of the drivers from Bhawani to Akhlaq, for the purpose of religious inclusivity. The large all-male cast (Palodhi deletes the sole woman) act and speak like a collective well-lubricated engine of one of their lorries, disabling me from singling any out for special mention. The neo-naturalistic set of a highway dhaba recalls similar designs in Kolkata Rangila’s Auto (inclusive of headlights) and Rangasram’s Santāp (a hijras’ abode), therefore not conceptually new, but visually immaculate nonetheless.
Theatre Formation Paribartak’s Titumir features an opposite approach. The director, Joyraj Bhattacharjee, accords too much respect to Dutt’s 1978 play, keeping it almost intact. As a result, the production clocks in at nearly three hours, but also begins to wear out at the edges, exposing the weaknesses in the original. Dutt threw several unnecessary characters into the second half, including a woman mainly to give Sova Sen a meaty role, and their melodramatic stories digress and slow down the progress of what otherwise could have made a powerful drama.
After all, Dutt had chosen for his agenda of “political education” a neglected history of rebellion that contemporary audiences should know about—the Titumir-led peasant uprising in Barasat against both the British and the zamindars that stymied the oppressors for some time before overwhelming firepower (like the Russians against the Ukrainians) eventually triumphed. Perhaps more immediate for us today, Dutt shows Muslims and Hindus uniting against tyranny—the fundamental humanism in our social fabric that divisive politics wants to destroy. Let us hope that a day does not come reprising the tax on beards levied by Dutt’s Hindu zamindar.
As in Ghum Nei, the mise-en-scene in Titumir strikes the eye with its attention to detail, surrounded by bamboo scaffoldings to represent the leader’s celebrated bamboo fortification in Narkelberia. Associated as I was with Tim Supple’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in India, where Bhattacharjee got a big break, I couldn’t help remembering the bamboo structure there that the fairies climbed, just like supernumeraries do here. But the biggest takeaway is Anirban Bhattacharya’s magnetic and distinctive performance in the lead, expressing Titumir’s charisma and singing perfectly as well. Loknath De matches him as the manipulative East India Company antagonist ironically steeped in Indian culture.