Finely structured but for a few flaws in execution, Mangalam held a mirror to a pressing social issue — exploitation of women

Can there be a more topical and relevant play today given what is happening around us? Poile Sengupta’s finely structured play Mangalam looks at the types of exploitation women are subjected to — whether in a conservative-rural or modern-urban household. Rape, domestic violence, betrayal, molestation — the play covers them all in a manner that makes for absorbing theatre.

Mangalam, which won the award for the most socially relevant theme in The Hindu-Madras Players Playscripts Competition in 1993, was staged by the group in 1994 with a different cast, director and crew. But for those who hadn’t watched it then, and for a new generation of viewers, Mangalam presented recently by The Madras Players and Crea-Shakthi at the Museum Theatre offered a fresh opportunity to view the work.

The play deals with two contrasting milieus. The first-half fits into the other and we are left with a play within a play where fiction and reality coalesce; one scenario mirrors another as sexual predators lurk everywhere and the home turns into a hunting ground. It could be a brother-in-law who rapes a girl leaving her life shattered, a teenage boy who strings girls along only to lead them to Heartbreak House, a father and husband who is in the throes of an extra-marital affair or a trusted friend who preys on the young daughter of the house. All men — all wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Creative collaboration

The oldest English theatre group and the youngest had got together to present the play. The young director Abhinav Suresh needed all his ingenuity to steer the play along and balance its various features; more subtlety would have helped.

The first half proved to be a challenge as some of the young actors appeared to be wrestling with an unfamiliar milieu of a traditional middle class Brahmin household. It would have been a cakewalk for a mainstream Tamil theatre group, but some of the young women here seemed out of depth.

Though the young daughter-in-law (Vinithra Madhavan Menon) and the curious neighbour (Dharma Raman) got their expressions right, they threw themselves with too much zest into their roles and gave exaggerated performances. The set did not aid the atmosphere either. It was too contrived and neat with even the freshly painted hurricane lamps hanging in perfect symmetry. This went for the female costumes as well.

Only P.C. Ramakrishna was vintage — as comfortable in his shabby home wear as he was in his role as a cantankerous old man eaten up with the decades of resentment of having been cheated. Sumitra M. Gautama rose gamely to the challenge of playing his sister-in-law with her appropriate expressions and her handling of a difficult role. But she was hardly at ease in her crisp widow’s weeds, which ought to have been washed to limpness to be right for the character, and the fact that she had come to a funeral.

Although the dramatic element was maintained in the first-half, it was almost with a sense of relief that the young actors seemed to slide into the familiar upper middle-class setting of the second. Sumitra held her own, especially with her spaced-out expression, when she discovered her husband’s infidelity. And as her young daughter, Nayantara Nayar made an impact with her underplayed performance. Murali Satagopan revelled in his role as her young brother leading his female conquests by the nose and deceiving them in a wily game of “catch all drop all”. But he went quite overboard. Vaidhya M. Sundar and Venkatraman Balakrishnan lent credible support.

Veena music (Baradwaj Raman) was used well and the lighting worked well too as did the sound (Charles). The device of having the sets changed without a curtain contributed to loss of tension. The voice-over sounded didactic.

The chief features of Mangalam were the high level of energy in the production and the fact that the oldest and the youngest came together in a creative collaboration to present a theme of the hour.

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Interview with the playwright

Poile Sengupta has been a school teacher and a college lecturer. She carved out a niche for herself as a leading writer for children. Her first play Mangalam was followed by many others, including Inner Laws, Keats Was A Tuber, Thus Spake Shoorpanakha, So Said Shakuni and Samara’s Song. The evening After Mangalam was staged in the city, she settled down for a chat. Excerpts:

Is Mangalam the most-staged play of yours that is most staged?

As far as I know, yes. MangalamTo my mind, I have travelled very far from this. It is not as evolved as my later ones in terms of language and theme. ‘It is so unfortunate it is still so relevant,’ someone said. The Tarun Tejpal incident happens and the play seems so relevant. Each play of mine is so different from the other. I am happy with Mangalam, but I’ve moved on…

Why is it so popular?

Maybe part of its appeal lies in the surprise that the eight actors of the first-half come back in a different avatar in the second. It is an actors’ play as much as the director’s, for, any actor would relish doing two roles. The two acts are balanced and there are echoes and resonances.

You refer to it as a concept…

Mangalam is such a beautiful word and contains so much — ‘auspicious’, ‘aesthetic’, ‘a continuum…’ There is a poem at the end of the play and it makes for a positive ending; here the director wanted to leave it open-ended and dramatic.

Do you mind the change?

A playwright gives up the play for adoption... ‘Oruthi maganai piranthu, oruthi maganai valarnthu…’

Are there not too many sexual predators piled on in the script?

There is an argument to be presented in a play, and unlike fiction where there is time to be reflective, there is not much time or space here. And not all the men are cast as predators in Mangalam — Dorai is a wronged man, Vaithi is afraid of his wife, Vicky is a positive character… It is not as if all the women are saints either… I am very happy the play has been directed by a man and many young men have acted in it — they are courageous enough to do it.

And how do you feel about school children viewing the play? Many felt it was not suitable for them.

The school said ‘we would like our children to see it’. The children were those above Class VIII. They are reading about these issues in newspapers and seeing it on news channels. There are no vulgar scenes here. The teacher briefed them so that they could see this in the right perspective as a serious issue.

I have taught children, I know how it is. I don’t think it is fair to keep all this under wraps, and girls even in Class VIII are quite mature.

How do you reconcile the two modes of writing — for children and adults?

I have to change myself. As a children’s writer, I have to retain the sense of wonder about the world and guard against cynicism.

And how do you feel about your husband directing most of your plays?

He knows more of theatre than I do. But it is a difficult business especially if one is also acting in them — as I do (she laughs).