Well-etched characters and spirited performances brought out the darkness and hopelessness of Sakaram Binder

The slaps were real. They echoed across the stage with chilling force. Sakaram Binder is a frightening script. And director Michael Muthu took all that darkness, that cruelty, that hopelessness, and fashioned it into a haunting production.

In classic Vijay Tendulkar style, this play is an unflinching look at the reality of being poor, weak and middle class in a hypocritical society. First performed in 1972, it exposed the seamy underbelly of life, with such rawness that it was banned in 1974. Now, even four decades later, it still makes you flinch.

Sakaram Binder (Sarvesh Sridhar) believes he is a good man. And in a strange way, he is a better man than most in this bleak world Tendulkar conjures up. (A world, you must remember, is rooted in reality.) After all Sakaram’s got the courage to ignore rules and taunts of society, and lives by his own — admittedly twisted — moral code. “I drink. I womanise… We are not saints. We are men… The body has its appetites. Who made it? God. You think he doesn’t know?”

So Sakaram ‘rescues’ women who have been abandoned by their husbands and takes them to his house to look after him, to cook, clean and ‘be a wife in every way.’ In return, he promises they don’t need to be afraid of anyone, and when one tires of the other, they can part ways. “I’ll give her sari, 50 rupees and a ticket to wherever she wants to go… Everything is good and proper, where Sakharam Binder is concerned,” he says. “He’s no husband to forget common decency.”

The play begins with the seventh woman he rescues, a frightened, frail and timid girl called Laxmi (Darshana Rajendan) already beaten into hopeless submission by the vagaries of life, and a cruel husband. The pair are mesmerising in the first act, supported ably by Sakaram’s charming best friend Dawood, Dinesh Devidas, the only wholly likeable character in the play.

For despite all his honesty, Sakaram is a brute. A tin pot tyrant, waiting for any excuse to take down his whip and slap Laxmi across the room. She presses his feet, makes his tea and shares his bed. The more he rages and roars, the quieter she becomes, scurrying about like a tiny, nervous mouse. It takes a year for her to finally snap. “You torture me during the day. You torture me at night.” At which point he sends her off to her nephews, and replaces her with Champa (Shakila Arun), who strolls onto the stage: sexy, sassy and tough, in a flaming red sari and a petulant pout. Her husband Shinde, a gently sad-eyed drunk in ragged clothes (Vinod Anand) follows soon after.

The production’s only stumbling block were the black outs. They came unexpectedly, and inexplicably. While fading lights are inevitable for scene changes, it’s incomprehensible why this play needed so many. Especially once the action got faster, and the tension heightened. As a dramatic device, these work when used with restraint. Otherwise it feels like watching a Hindi serial on prime time TV, with irritating breaks for vapid advertisements every seven minutes or so. While the intention was apparently to heighten the drama, all it ended up doing was distancing the audience from the action on stage.

Fortunately the cast managed to keep up the energy despite their need to freeze and unfreeze with annoying regularity. The actors approached their characters with spirit, resourcefully translating the complexities. After all, the strength of this story is its characters, all bundles of contradictions. Showing them as one-dimensional stereotypes would have been the easiest way to tell this story: Bad Sakaram, vulnerable women, a weak husband, a good friend. It’s to the director and cast’s credit that they looked deeper — finding characters replete with pockmarks and weaknesses. Characters that you are forced to identify with, and empathise with. No matter how much you hate them.

In the end, you realise that they are all victims of their fate. All the anger, the obsession, the twisted love… it’s just about everyone fighting to survive.