‘Sex, Morality & Censorship’ mocks at suppression of creative expression

Sunil Shanbag, a theatre worker from Mumbai, has caught the attention of the theatre world by his creation of a new theatre idiom, which has expanded the dimension of the theatre both in terms of content and form.

Dissecting various layers of socio-economic contradictions, his productions are bold, entertaining and provocative. In terms of form he draws from the rich folk tradition of Maharashtra and techniques of modern theatrical art, including multimedia, which enable him to convey the most complicated and burning contemporary issues in a direct, intricate and vivid manner. This was in evidence in his production of “Sex, Morality & Censorship” featured at Bharat Rang Mahotsav.

The script jointly developed by Shanta Gokhale and Irawati Karnik and presented by Arpana, a theatre company founded by Sunil Shanbag, Akash Khurana, Shishir Sharma and Utkarsh Majumdar. It has shown how a theatre company producing meaningful theatre could not only survive but also thrive on the basis of box office collections.

Entertaining elements

The blending of entertaining elements with serious thematic makes the productions appealing not only for the aesthete, but common theatregoers as well. A polemic against the dogmatic, blinkered and high-handed approach of Censor Board as well as the sectarian and self-stayed culture police, the play makes a forceful plea for freedom of creative expression.

Structurally, “Sex, Morality & Censorship” is a play-within-the play with alternation of dramatic action from one space to another, indicating different time planes. Down stage characters like Lavani dancer, a scholar, a commentator and the director who dared to stage “Sakharam Binder” in the face of strong protests by Hindu fundamentalists and Censor Board are at play. They question the desirability of censorship in a style that enables them to establishing direct rapport with the audience.

The centre stage is used to enact scenes from four plays with special focus on Vijay Tendulkar's “Sakharam Binder”, which was censured one time, and upstage footage from films and video are projected to demonstrate the narrow mindedness of Censor Board, which initially stopped the screening of these films.

The enactment of the scenes from “Sakharam Binder” is simply brilliant which overpowers the audience. Sakharam, a Brahmin-turned-urban lumpen element, brings home abandoned women from the streets, exploiting them sexually, flaunting his libido with haughtiness.

Through the violent interactions of three characters Sakharam, Laxmi and Champa human sexual violence and terror is revealed with telling effect.

Workers' agitation

The production satirises authorities for not allowing the staging of “Sakharam Binder” on grounds of depiction of sexuality, in the name of morality against the backdrop of a larger perspective for the creation of a liberal society. We watch on the screen the footage of students' movement in the '70s against the autocratic character of state; there is footage to show workers agitation for their just demands. Sakharam Binder was written in 1972 and its first director has to wage a relentless struggle to secure his freedom for creative expression.

By linking his struggle with the struggle of students and workers the production gives a wider dimension to the freedom of creative expression.

While entertaining the spectators, the production arouses them from smugness to protest against the authoritarian character of censorship and self-styled moral police and to unite to establish a truly democratic polity.

The excellent performances by the cast, the perceptive vision of the director and the provocative content made the evening an enriching experience.