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Shades of Shakespeare

A scene from Chandala

A scene from Chandala   | Photo Credit: CHRISTOPHE-PEAN-PHOTOGRAPHIE

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‘Chandala’s caste war and love torn between factions find echoes in Romeo and Juliet

“Are we going to watch a movie?” “Is this going to be a movie within a play?” “Three hours long! Oh, will there be an interval?” Questions pop up as the crowd swells in the movie hall turned theatre space, Indianostrum in Puducherry. We are here to watch Chandala, directed by award-winning theatre artiste, Koumarane Valavane. The form of the play, as the setting with a film screen marks, is highly influenced by pop culture. The love saga between Jack and Janani is infused with fan frenzy in Tamil Nadu, fantasies of the average Tamil youth about Malayalam films and notions of love created by Kollywood.

For instance, the feud between two factions — Jack’s and Janani’s brother’s — finds a parallel in the altercation between Romeo and Tybalt, re-conceptualised in the setting of a movie theatre. The enmity is cleverly brought out through two rival fan clubs. Valavane plays up the tension in the context by a competitive dance sequence between the two. Is there a more apt and relatable way to Indianise the rivalry using the metaphor of popular cinema?

The director has taken a detour from the Elizabathean sense of morality, by showing women to be open about their desires. The domestic help at Janani’s house, counterpart for Shakespeare’s benevolent matron character, is a striking contrast to the upper class and caste family members, who wax on social norms. The ayah who captured the rambunctious spirit at its best, eggs Janani on to watch a soft porn movie, where Jack and graceful Janani meet in the dark and exchange love tokens.

Into this cultural potpourri, the director also throws in a good dose of folk art motifs — Kaliyattam, Parai beats and dappankuthu. When a charming Jack and his friend dance to the rhythms of the parai during a funeral, one cannot but get up and jive with them. However, the same motif is used to invoke pathos after the friend’s death and Jack dances wistfully, with an ache that seems to take over not just his face but his whole body.

Kaliyattam (dance of God), a popular ritual form of worship practised in North Kerala, is employed in the climactic sequence when maama, a sewage cleaner and uncle of Jack, the figure who supports their love, performs the dance in the end to signify the crucial moment in the lives of the two lovers. Cupid with the playful expression is another catalyst for their love story. Maama and the love of god are meta-devices in the play to throw in a detached observer’s perspective.

Here again, using the form and cultural symbols, Valavane persuades us to think in the lines caste, hierarchy and power politics. Theyyam or Kaliattam is performed by the lower caste community of Kerala. So, is Paraiattam. As maama, a frightening figure immersed in black paint, wildly dances to the beats, the young couple meets with a fatal end.

Open-ended climax

The play does not overtly show us what exactly happens to them, but leaves it open-ended for our imagination to fill in the details. However, Valavane at one point decides to embark on the bolder route by showing us visuals of caste violence from real life on screen. Here, the play’s format falls between fiction and documentary, the line blurring at this juncture.

Romeo and Juliette reimagined in the context of caste wars in Tamil Nadu is not a jarring fusion. Partly because Shakespeare’s age old tale of love that dabbles in power and politics lends itself beautifully to the contemporary Indian social situation. Valavane seems to have cracked this code of interpreting the Bard in the current milieu. The love for Shakespeare, which he has profusely expressed through a portrait that hangs on the wall above the stage, is clearly evident in the work. Chandala is also a reminder that love is still the most sensitive, volatile and dreaded term in our country; and our power apparatus continues to crush it using the weapons of caste, class and gender hierarchy.

(Chandala, directed by Koumarane Valavane, was commissioned by Festival des Francophonie en Limousin and co-produced by Theatre du Soleil. It was staged in Puducherry recently.)

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Printable version | Jan 30, 2020 12:21:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/shades-of-shakespeare/article26014232.ece

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