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The timeless magic of Basheer

Rajiv Krishnan's "Moon Shine and Skytoffee," based on Malayalam writer Vaikom Muhammed Basheer's stories, comes as an adventurous initiative from Magic Lantern, says ELIZABETH ROY.

"Moon Shine and Skytoffee" ... perfect teamwork. — Pic. by S. Thanthoni.

FOR CLOSE to two decades the much respected Malayalam writer, Vaikom Muhammed Basheer (in translation) has been fodder for Rajiv Krishnan's reading hour and his political and social preoccupations. Basheer lived and wrote during India's freedom movement. He was actively involved with it while closely watching and analysing the Mopla Rebellion and the course of the Justice Party.

For Kerala, it was a great period of progressive idealism — the 1940s and the early Fifties.

Basheer served time in prison. He went through a bout of insanity. What sustained him through all that were the simplicity of his life, his intellectual honesty, his sheer love for humanity and his faith in them.

To come back to "Moon Shine and Skytoffee" (a Moonoverstillwater production presented by Magic Lantern), director Rajiv Krishnan says that last year, while in Paris, he saw a Peter Brooks production, "The Costume" based on a short story by the African Writer Can Themba. The beauty, simplicity and minimalism of the production drew him back to the Basheer Collection.

Rajiv took two stories, `The Love Letter' (written for fellow convicts while in prison) and `The Card Sharper's Daughter.' Both are far-fetched love stories set in the calm and quiet of a village somewhere near Calicut or thereabout. With great elegance they look at issues of religion, dowry, cross cultural relationships, women and poverty. They look at reality from different angles and mind frames and refuse to pass judgment.

Kesavan Nair (Srikrishna Dayal/Balakrishnan) is humble and shy and earns 40 rupees and feels free to communicate his love for Saramma (Aparna Gopinath) through letters. Saramma, a smart and plucky Christian girl, biding her time to fly her oppressive coop believed that the person was the message, not the letter, and teases him into figuring that out. In the second story, `Ottakkannan Pokker' (Hans Kaushik) barely ekes out a living as a card sharper. His daughter Zainaba (Taruna/Gayatri) runs a little `chaya kada' in the market place. Love happens between her and Mandan Muthappa (Jagan/Babu). They are all Muslim but father objects initially because he hoped for a better son-in-law.


Basheer uses fantasy to show reality. He first puts you through the emotion, and then gets you to step out and look at it with him even as his characters speak his views. Through humour and laughter we begin to understand the serious issues.

Rajiv did a great job merging the two stories and translating them into dialogue. He travelled to Calicut with his set and lighting designer, M. Natesh and costumes and props designer Surya Geemaste. They spent time at Basheer's house.

Rajiv realised the tea shop would be the hub around which the stories would mesh. He kept to the narrative style, kept the performance intimate, spoke directly to the audience and took liberties with remixing who said what. He says, "Narration itself is pointless unless you can get the audience into your confidence, eliciting their sympathy, connecting Basheer's progressive ideas with them."

"Moonshine... " was an excellent production, perfectly cast and had it happened in his lifetime, Basheer would have been pleased. It moved at a leisurely pace wonderfully recapturing the rural Kerala of the 1940s. (Some of the younger audience felt uncomfortable with the slow pace).

In Rajiv's inimitable style it was a very physical theatre — only, this time he made it more restrained and subtle and a daunting challenge to the cast. Some scenes had hardly any dialogue and yet seemed to speak volumes with just smiles or looks fading in or out. Some scenes used props; other scenes mimed them. It was a brilliant stroke.

Some of the characters were double cast. At least for three of the actors it was the first time before an audience. On stage, when the play opened, there was no actor any less than the other. There was total chemistry and perfect teamwork. The characters they presented were of exaggerated realism, but very much on the right side of being plausible.

Stunning sets

The minimalistic, stunning sets with its realistic sway could not have been put up in a proscenium theatre. The little tea shop, centrestage with its thatch and box radio blaring an apt selection of Malayalam songs and the Calicut green wall of Ottakkannan's house wheeled around to form the interior of Keshavan Nair's house. It was beautiful and an inspired design from M. Natesh. Costumes from Surya Gumaste were tasteful and subdued and dominantly white.

The tickets invited the audience to the wedding of the two couples, atop the Alliance Francaise auditorium. As the audience cheered, dhoti clad crew served every one of them pazham pori and sulaimani, courtesy Shafee Ahmed.

In the age of pop culture and market forces it was an adventurous initiative from Magic Lantern. "When you have the inspiration, the excitement and the passion, things fall into place in ways you don't expect them to happen," says Rajiv, "In our small way, this is our tribute to the timeless magic of Basheer."

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