Mukhomukhi’s festival thoughtfully marking 75 years of group theatre unprecedentedly premiered eight new Bengali productions over one week and had an explosive start with Prachyo’s Manikarnikāy Manikā, adapted from Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Respectful Prostitute by Anshuman Bhowmick. Writing the year after the US victory in World War II, Sartre exposed American racism, making an innocent black man the fall guy for a murder committed by the nephew of a powerful white senator. In a perfect transposition of the situation into our nation and time, Bhowmick turns the senator into a BJP minister in Uttar Pradesh and the scapegoat a Muslim. Soon after Yogi Adityanath became Chief Minister, a news report about a woman molested on a train gave Bhowmick the idea.
In Sartre, the prostitute travelled by train from New York to the deep South. Manika is a Kashmiri Pandit on her way to Varanasi, accosted by inebriated Hindus but saved by two Muslim co-passengers, one of whom dies in the melee and the other escapes. Sartre’s play begins in the hotel room she has taken. Biplab Bandyopadhyay, Prachyo’s director, prefaces it with an aggressively loud Hindu procession and Ganga ārati (which, topically, also questions why Kolkata should unthinkingly replicate such rituals on the Hugli ghats), and a graphic sexual encounter between Manika and the minister’s son. Bandyopadhyay’s shock-and-awe tactics continue, conjoining sex and violence, religion and politics abhorrently, guaranteed to offend Bengali middle-class morality in ways that theatre should, without doing any injustice to the original. In Sartre, too, the bed—mentioned as the site of “sin”—occupies the central place, the bathroom next to it, and references to the Bible and the Devil abound. Prachyo’s only departure occurs at the end when gunfire implies killing, whereas in Sartre (hopeful for once) the shots miss their target.
Suparna Das gives a gutsy performance at the opposite extreme from her fragility in Bhorer Bārāndā, demonstrating her versatility no-holds-barred. Joyraj Bhattacharjee acts the repulsive antagonist to send shivers down our spine, while Biswajit Chakraborty plays the cool minister who calmly manipulates Manika not to tell the truth. Bandyopadhyay projects news clips and Hiran Mitra’s artwork innovatively as drawings created in real time, but repeats images towards the end. He could fruitfully edit ten minutes or so from the second scene, where the momentum drops. Two other techniques recur: Bhattacharjee’s experience gained from Tim Supple’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, used in training Das to partner him on slings suspended mid-air, may look novel to those who haven’t seen Bandyopadhyay’s Nāsikā Purān; and the device from Prachyo’s previous production, Dāy Āmadero!, of miming doors and windows opening and shutting to recorded sounds.
Dāy Āmadero! carries the same agenda, to protest communal demonization and the conspiracy of silence and complicity that fosters the growth of fascist forces. Here, the playwright Sumantra Chattopadhyay does not Indianize, but dramatizes Abby Mann’s epic three-hour screenplay, Judgment at Nuremberg, which Mann himself expanded from his telescript on the American military tribunal of former Nazi judges. The classic film’s intense closeups in the courtroom of such stars as Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Maximilian Schell remain the stuff of cinematic legend, but in the wider-angle lens of the theatre the impact diminishes. This shortfall does not accrue entirely from Bandyopadhyay’s direction, because even the Broadway staging in 2001, rewritten by Mann, met a similar lukewarm fate.
Another reason, however, lies in Bandyopadhyay’s dual focus, compared to his single-minded aim in Manikarnikāy Manikā. He attacks American capitalist imperialism as well, which diffuses the purpose. True, Mann himself criticized the decision to deploy the atom bombs and the paranoia about Communism, but these were secondary to his analysis of how the Nazis brainwashed Germans and engineered the Holocaust. Bandyopadhyay should zero in on these priorities, analogous to the rise of our own right wing. Deliberate slips in maintaining the historical illusion, when one character speaks of “achchhe din” and another mishears “SS” and queries “RSS?” light sparks of recognition, though the allusion to Netaji digresses.
Debshankar Haldar presents a reticent Dr Janning, the main accused, until he opens up finally about his misplaced nationalism and condoning of anti-Semitism. But Supriyo Dutta as his defence counsel adopts an idiosyncrasy of skipping around the court, surely unsuited to legal decorum. Biswajit Chakraborty’s quiet demeanour as the chief judge matches his mental uncertainty. The costume design by Karna Chakrabartti and Srijita Datta, with only subtle changes in colour, symbolizes very little difference among the defendants, lawyers and judges. For realistic accuracy, Bandyopadhyay should get German words and names pronounced correctly.