Theatre-loving employees of the Cochin Shipyard come together to stage a play

Six months ago, in a corner of the Cochin Shipyard Canteen, a group of 10 friends sat wondering how to occupy their evenings after work. At the half hour that they met for lunch each day, their discussions birthed an idea: to stage a play. For months since, come rain or shine, the Shipyard’s auditorium has seen workers dutifully troop in after five in the evening, sing, dance and act out scenes adapted from the Malayalam translation of Habib Tanvir’s play Chandrahas Chor, titled Kallan Kunjalan. Come May 13, and 60 actors supported by a wide production crew — all employees of the public sector enterprise — will see their dedicated work bear fruit.

“Although we began as just a group of friends who loved theatre, the final team comprises a wide range of people from top officers to newly recruited trainees,” says Zumesh Chittooran, the play’s director. Besides ideation, the shipyard canteen, soon turned into a casting centre. Zumesh and his friends would carefully observe employees to see whose characteristics best suited the play’s roles, and then approach them to join. “Many senior members, who’re now with us, were once part of the Shipyard’s strong tradition of theatre in the recreation club. We’ve only revived the custom now. Many of these seniors will retire in a year or two,” says Zumesh.

Much of the cast, though, are first time actors, and Zumesh says one reason he chose Habib Tanvir’s play was for the simplicity of its plot. Chandrahas Chor itself draws from a Rajasthani folk tale and tells the story of a thief who steals for public good. However, he meets a guru under whom he promises to never lie. The guru also makes him swear to several other promises, all of which the thief believes he will never have reason to flout. Circumstances prove otherwise but the ‘truthful thief’ prevails. “The play takes viewers from our present-day world to a time when kings and queens ruled, but the themes it addresses are contemporary. Crime and punishment, law and order still raise important issues in our lives,” says Zumesh. Most importantly, the play questions how faithfully we keep our word. “Will we stick to the truth even when power is in our hands, when it doesn’t benefit us to be truthful? Are even the god-men we revere above this?” he asks. While these messages are never explicitly stated in the play, Zumesh says, it provokes audiences to thought.

The Malayalam translation of Chandrahas Chor is by Shirley Somasundaram, and Zumesh says he’s further adapted it to suit their needs. For instance, dances and songs, have been woven into the play to accommodate the Shipyard’s vibrant culture of both. “There were many from these clubs who wanted to join us but not act, so in the play’s market space, or at the queen’s entrance in the durbar, dancers come in.” Zumesh adds that over 500 of the Shipyard’s employees, who are not cast or crew, have contributed financially to the play’s production. “Those with families, who couldn’t stay back for rehearsals, have helped us with props, costumes or money. That they do this despite a full day’s hard labour means a lot,” he says.

Sibin Karumalloor, who plays the lead character (Kallan), and Resmi Raj, who plays the queen’s key role, are both debut actors. Zumesh, who’d spent years with Lokadharmi Theatre Company and joined the Shipyard just last year, says inducting many such novices to the stage has been a great experience. Sibin adds, “When we began, I wondered if I could do this role. But as we kept rehearsing and talking about the play, I realised I could identify with and express these emotions well.” Most of all, the cast values the camaraderie and teamwork that this play has brought forth among them. “With this beginning, we hope to stage more plays at the Shipyard in the future,” concludes Zumesh.