Bapi Bose’s “Seventeenth July” was powerful yet over the top

A grand jatra it was. A revolving art installation of a serpent hovering over a riot ravaged village greeted the audience at Shri Ram Centre, this week. Inside, a large python puppet, with its menacing forked tongue irradiated in ultraviolet light, slithered through the audience. A montage of videos of the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 played on stage, below a burnt cycle and utensils hanging from above. Director Bapi Bose makes no secret of the aim of his play “Seventeenth July”— to indict the establishment of blatant communalism.

Set in Gujarat’s Panchmahal district, the play centres on a trial of Muslim boys accused by a mob, led by members of the ruling elite, of raping two Hindu women. The play written by West Bengal’s higher education minister Bratya Basu, is inspired by Utpal Dutt’s play “Manusher Adhikare” and John Wexley’s “They Shall Not Die”.

The theme of a flawed trial works well on stage and screen. “Seventeenth July” would work better as a Bengali Jatra — a traditional outdoor play.

‘Being expressive’ is an understatement to describe the acting. The speeches of the actors, especially the ones in police roles, bordered yelling. A notable exception to this was Inspector Dinesh Thakkar (Sukhangshu Chatterjee). Sukhangshu, with a fading amoeba like tattoo peeping above his grim khaki collar, played the dispassionate cop with a thousand-mile gaze, unmoved by a riotous mob or a biased prosecutor. His diction and delivery balanced the excessively energetic performances of assistant sub-inspector Ashok Kodnani (Sandeep Kumar) and others.

This however doesn’t take away from the strength of the performance or its agency to make people rise against communalism. In fact, a member of the audience briefly interrupted the performance on December 3, as he was in disagreement with the depiction of communal passion.

But, in a proscenium one has an avenue to make a stronger impact by controlled outbursts of the actors’ energy. Otherwise one risks creating a barrage of dialogue and unconsciously succumbing to clichés.

Walking out in the interval, one could be forgiven for looking for a puffed rice vendor outside Kolkata’s Nandan theatre. The play was in Hindi, but with strong Bengali accent and bearing. The defence counsel — and the hero of the play — Rakesh Chatterjee (Digamber Prasad) and public prosecutor Pankaj Pareekh (Swapan Biswas) have many a courtroom duel with jibes on the communal undercurrents in Bengal.

Swapan was a lovable villain, with his springing steps and passionate interrogation of witnesses. His understated comic brilliance coupled with the cool and communal façade distracted audiences from other flaws such as muddled lines and street-play style exaggerations.

The character of the prostitute and fraudulent victim Nathi Ben, played well by Gauri Dewal, was debatable. The character was quite unreal and reflected a pseudo- patriarchal mindset. Even the other female characters were weak. What Gauri lacked in her script, she attempted to overcome with her strong performance.

But all in all, this two-hour play was unabashedly entertaining. Its colours and energy allowed a viewer to forget everything else. When the curtains fell, the atmosphere felt like the Allama Iqbal monument in Kolkata with the crowd applauding a skit under red flags hanging from amber street lights.