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Festival that was more like a fair

The annual festival of National School of Drama left one pondering over calibre. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN writes...

Salesman Ramlal... smooth flow.

AT THE end of Bharat Rang Mahotsav (March16-April 8), the annual festival of the National School of Drama (NSD), New Delhi, one of the students asked why it is that the director - and not the actor - reigns supreme in the world of theatre. The 130 plays staged at the festival, representing languages, styles and cultures from every part of India, apart from five productions from abroad, proved that creativity and inventiveness, tone and mood, focus and implication, all depended on the vision of the man at the helm.

A visual spectacle like ``Border'' (Manipuri) became doyen Kanhaiyalal's protest against the artificial fences forcibly constructed to divide man from man. He showed tribal culture being riddled by assaults of alien religion and lifestyle. At the end you felt that the initial animal sacrifice was less primitive than the toll extracted by ``civilisation.'' The lead role of the aged mother was no challenge for Sabitridevi, one of India's great contemporary stage actors. There was verve in the angikabhinaya of groups and individuals; and humour, innocent among the tribals, satirical with the educated son, worrisome in the Bangladesh refugee. The play's stress on ethics was the stronger for its accent on aesthetics. However, the murky contradictions could have been cleared by a good synopsis in the programme notes.

Mohan Maharishi's thoughtful adaptation of Vinodkumar Shukla's novel retained the situational comedy and sense of wonder in ``Diwar Mein Ek Khidki Rehti Thi'' (NSD Repertory). You see the newlywed schoolmaster's bungling love for his shy bride, the reaction of the smalltown neighbours to her arrival in his tacky home, the kindness of the stern principal, the mischief-prone classes, the kind grandma, the sadhu who takes the teacher to school on his elephant... Vivid scenes depict the father who hides his love behind needless gruffness, the husband's silent adoration of the wife as she does the washing in the river. The coy bride's flashes of boldness take his (and our) breath away. The unexpected use of Kangra paintings on a misty backdrop transformed the mundane into the archetypal. Low notes? The recorded music was out of place, the song sequence Bollywoodish, the sutradhar unconvincing.

``Don't waste your time in Mumbai masala.'' Disregarding this advice proved lucky. Feroze Khan's ``Salesman Ramlal'' (Hindi), adapted from Arthur Miller's ``Death of a Salesman,'' had the smooth flow of clearly conceptualised sequences. The professionalism of actors Satish Kaushik, Vidula Mungekar and Kishore Kadam infused spontaneity. Precise choreography left them free to put in their individual spark. Regrettably, the satire in the original was diluted to feebler melodrama. But as a viewer remarked, ``That is the image of India today, of a generation that is either lost in self delusion, or hankers after equally dangerous material goals.'' The old values (represented by the mother) are inadequate for the new world.

What impressed you at Bharat Rang Mahotsav was the audience. Many shows, particularly those in languages other than Hindi or English, drew poor houses, but big or small, the viewers stayed to applaud the performers with gusto -- as at Habib Tanvir's ``Veni Samhar'' Bhattanarayan's play about the anointing of Draupadi's hair with the blood of Duryodhana. The direction was routine, acting desultory, singing rundown, the mixing of folk and traditional styles and dialects was patchy, the lighting unimaginative. But the house stayed full till the end for this late show, exploding into thunderous ovation as a tribute to the committed thespian.

Barry John's ``It's All About Money, Honey'' (Hindi/English) provoked some sharp rethinking about audience appeal. This time the hall overflowed with youth in jeans and T-shirts. John managed to grab the young mind by choosing a subject close to their hearts: the lure of Bollywood which destroys both those who do and don't make to stardom. Satirical hits at Delhi youth mesmerised by Mumbai glamour were vociferously received, as were the parodies of local groups imitating Mumbai methods, and Mumbai shooting sequences of stock themes. The play reconstructs the life of a megastar who disappears at the peak of his career, through his biographer's interviews with a range of characters who had exploited or been exploited by the man.

The energy of the cast could not save the show from sagging, repetition and some ponderousness. Nothing fresh about the ploys. The movements were jerky and unevenly paced. Dialogue delivery was amateurish. But the play hit upon a core of genuine experience that gave it credibility. Directorial disasters? There were plenty - not just with ``thematic evolutions'' of shows through rehearsals, but even with well-structured plays like Vijay Tendulkar's ``Kutte'' directed by Jayadev Hattangady (miscasting proved fatal) and Girish Karnad's ``Hayavadan'' (mauled out of shape through shrill staginess).

Two efforts stood out. ``Sonata,'' Amal Allana's English production of Mahesh Elkunchwar's new work, did justice to the multi-shaded moods of the original (refreshingly different from the usual Marathi drama). An evening of carousal for three single women friends -- in the flat shared by Shubhada and Dolon where Aruna drops in after being beaten up by her current boyfriend. She returns to him when he shouts for her from below; after all it is better to ``smell of her man'' than to search for sensuousness in perfume bottles as Dolon does, or take refuge in Shubhada's rigid uprightness. After that, it is truth game for the flatmates with ugly confrontations -- between each other, and themselves. No, the play is not all nightmare. It has that tenderness unfailingly present in Elkunchwar's work, all the more poignant for its contrasts of dependence and betrayal in the life of the nouveau urban career woman.

Allana's treatment was to let good acting unveil the layers for sensitive, even self-discovery, not to cut and lance for the hasty voyeur. There was transparency here, even in the glass shelves; a grasp of what the visual can do to enrich a narrative that moves on inner rather than outer levels of action. In spite of a last minute replacement of lead player Adil Husain (due to chickenpox!) by the director himself (Roystan Abel), ``Love: a Distant Dialogue'' gripped you by its choice of characters (Indian magician and Russian acrobat), location (a fair in Dubhai), and theme (the narration of an imaginary love story by the man spells real life romance for the essentially innocent babes-in-a-wood.

Though the play cries out for ruthless editing, its multilingual dialogue seduced you with wit and saucy humour, and a rarely encountered honesty.

With nothing but a suitcase, a water bottle and elementary magic tricks, as also superb acrobatic displays by Anastasia Flewin, Abel was able to fly you to arid Dubhai, a no-man's land where alienation is not a distant theory, but felt experience for actor and viewer.

Friendship between the waifs grows easily, but you are constantly aware of its fragility and transcience. The setting is a grim reminder of religious/racial differences, as also of destitution material and spiritual. A justifiable feel good hope marks the end.

Like many other productions at the festival. ``Love: A Distant Dialogue'' failed to maintain a sense of timing and soundness in voice projection. (The director sacrificed clarity and tautness for what he considered natural speech). But Flewin was superb, unforgettable acting skills. Her performance was unforgettable.

Festival Director and NSD chief Devendra Raj Ankur's aim of showcasing works ``modern and relevant" was hardly fulfilled in a festival that seemed like a fair where anything goes.

However, a few plays like Maya Krishna Rao's ``Deep Fried Jam,'' a ruthless examination of the mayhem and massacres in a planet that have made our planet almost uninhabitable, and ``Desh Raag'' (M. K. Raina) which exposed the savagery in reigning regimes that we accept as ``normal'', proved that the theatre remains our most powerful medium for soul searching debate.

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