Big screen Movies

Is it cinema? Is it drama? Is it good?

A still from Nikhil Mahajan’s cineplay of Badal Sarkar’s ‘Baaki Itihaas’.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Special Arrangement

Sometimes a viewing experience becomes all the more rewarding because of the initial trepidation with which you go in. My assumption was that filmmaker Ritesh Menon’s cineplay of Vijay Tendulkar’s Khamosh Adalat Jaari Hai (Marathi original Shantata Court Chalu Ahe) would be just another video recording of a stage performance, shorn of all the immediacy, intimacy and impact of a live theatre experience. It turned out to be far from it. A unique blend of cinema and theatre, a bit of both, yet not wholly either, Menon’s interpretation of the timeless play, first performed in Marathi in 1968, draws you into its world and makes you feel as close to the action as the audience in the first row of a theatre. And at the same time, with the aid of the camera, it makes you notice the tiniest flicker on an actor’s face that you would have missed were you sitting in the last row.

About a mock trial turning into a vicious accusatory game, with a single woman, Miss Benare, at the receiving end of society’s chauvinism and cruelty, it turns you into a stakeholder in her plight, makes you feel one with her, more so because of the power of a splendid ensemble — Saurabh Shukla, Swanand Kirkire, Yusuf Hussain, among others — and specially the bravura turn from Nandita Das as Benare — at once coquettish and spirited, vulnerable, brazen and rebellious. “Sulabha Deshpande played the same role in the late 60s and 70s and it still rings true, how easy it is to stereotype women and to blame them for everything,” says Das.

Zakir Hussain is as compelling, in bringing alive the inner world of a tortured, tormented soul with a rare rawness and ferocityin filmmaker Nikhil Mahajan’s cineplay of Badal Sarkar’s Baaki Itihaas. And the four men, drinking, chatting and revealing their close secrets at the funeral of a young woman in writer-director Bikas Mishra’s version of Sarkar’s Pagla Ghoda, come to stand for a larger, eternal reality — how men often wrong the women they love.

Role play

Cineplays were born out of a very clear-cut desire: to push the artistic envelope and experiment with a new form of storytelling. “The idea was to merge the language of cinema and theatre and see what hybrid emerges,” says Subodh Maskara, co-founder and chairman of the eponymous enterprise Cineplay. The first to roll out of the stable was Menon’s Between The Lines, originally written and directed by Das, who calls herself the cheerleader, and Maskara, the mastermind of the endeavour. There was initial scepticism: would the magic and energy of live actors and audience, feeding off each other in the enclosed space of a theatre, get replicated on screen? Or would it feel too static and limiting on camera?

A still from Nandita Das’ cineplay ‘Between the Lines’.

A still from Nandita Das’ cineplay ‘Between the Lines’.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Special Arrangement

There was no precedent to fall back on. World over, plays adapted for cinema or live performances have been shot for archival purposes with the typical three-camera set-up. And then there have been the huge 20 camera set-ups for the ambitious National Theatre Live in the U.K.

Menon found it intimidating initially to transform a live stage play to “cinema/ play”. But he also found something opening up within him as a filmmaker: “The challenges became the liberating factor.” It helped him break through some of his own mindsets, took him to the core of filmmaking, the story. Had he understood it right? Was he conveying it well? For him, it became all about learning the basics — that, in filmmaking, the story is everything and all else is just baggage. And yet, unlike theatre, where the script is the Bible, in a cineplay, as in cinema, action can evolve on the sets.

Cineplays have since drawn talent from across the country. The 20 titles in the catalogue offer a mix of the classics and the modern — from Mohan Rakesh’s Adhe Adhure and Mahesh Dattani’s Dance Like A Man to Vikram Kapadia’s Bombay Talkies. On the one hand, there is the veteran cinematographer and director, Santosh Sivan, bringing alive George Buchner’s Woyzeck, and on the other are young filmmakers like Mishra and Mahajan interpreting Sarkar.

These cineplays were launched exclusively online this week for India on Hotstar under its ‘Originals’ banner. Five titles came out on February 13 and a new one will be released every week starting March. It is the newness, the leveraging of the joint power of cinema and theatre, which attracted the popular streaming website. “It is about telling stories in formats not explored before. It is about breaking the norms, doing something not tried anywhere in the world,” says Hotstar CEO Ajit Mohan.

A retake

Newness is what drew in the filmmakers as well. Sarkar’s Pagla Ghoda, for Mishra, was about constant conversation. “90% of it is on one set and there is the steady presence, the apparition of the woman,” he says. How to keep the viewer engaged with these elements for about two hours on screen was the big dare. There were other ground rules: no outdoors, it had to be shot on a set, within a given number of days and the illusion of the fourth wall — the audience — had to be maintained.

A still from Bikas Mishra’s cineplay of Badal Sarkar’s ‘Pagla Ghoda’.

A still from Bikas Mishra’s cineplay of Badal Sarkar’s ‘Pagla Ghoda’.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Special Arrangement

For Mahajan, making Sarkar’s Baaki Itihaas was all about unlearning everything he had internalised as a filmmaker. “As a filmmaker, I think in terms of cuts but had to keep the essence and integrity of theatre intact,” he says. He had to go for long takes, wider shots, give actors their space. He set up a theatre production, mounted it after six days of rehearsals and shot chronologically, unlike a film. However, unlike theatre, where there are no retakes, here was room for that. Having an actor like Zakir Hussain in the lead, someone who understands both stage and camera, was a blessing.

If Mahajan decided to stay true to Sarkar’s written word, Mishra’s aim was to be “truthful to the emotion of the play”. While he has stuck to the Sarkar original, the Sanskritised Hindi dialogue was rewritten. Certain scenes that could look odd on screen were redone. The cast and crew sat together in the rehearsals to work on everything — from production design and space utilisation, to shot breakdowns and music cues to costumes. It was shot in five days after seven days of rehearsals.

On paper, cineplays can help expand the viewership and reach of theatre. “The plays of Tendulkar, (Habib) Tanvir and (Sombhu) Mitra have not been archived. This can make them accessible to a larger audience, beyond the urban elite,” says Das. But for Maskara, it also shows the way ahead for filmmaking: how it should be driven by strong content, good storytelling and a tight budget. “You don’t need a lot of money to make high quality content. We would have shot an entire cineplay for the cost of the heroine’s lehenga,” laughs Maskara. No wonder Mahajan felt liberated in not having to deal with the commercial pressures that come with every film. Mishra found himself freed of the temptation of casting saleable names: “In films, an actor’s poster value matters, here I could cast those who could become the part.”

He shot his second cineplay last month. In this, he has been far more adventurous, rewriting Chandrashekhara Kambara’s Kannada play Scapegoat — about the fall of an idealistic politician — with the contemporary political environment in mind. He has shot it with no lighting changes and just three actors. Clearly, the cineplay is a fluid and evolving form.

It’s the play that determines how you bring it alive on screen — with a little more sprinkling of cinema or retaining more theatre. What matters is that cinema and stage should live happily together.

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 9:01:15 PM |

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